TORONTO — Successful comedy routines are built on knowing the audience, but some Canadian comics say the American pair who oversaw the Humboldt Broncos tribute concert seriously misjudged the tone of the nation.
While the giggles and guffaws they inspired on Friday night in Saskatoon might’ve signalled success at first, Bruce Williams and Terry Ree have learned that audiences across the country were less enthused with what some described as racist and inappropriate.
The pair, who call themselves “The Indian and the White Guy,” served as hosts of the Humboldt Broncos memorial, which was billed as a night of healing in the wake of the tragic bus crash.
Guests booked for the night included a number of Canadian country musicians, hockey players and local politicians.
But Williams and Ree’s jokes grabbed much of the attention after the show, as some concertgoers took issue with the punchlines, and criticized bits from the evening, which included an ill-timed “pow-wow” performance and a moment when Williams sang a song to Ree with the line “shake it for the Indian with the STDs.”
On Saturday, Williams and Ree posted an apology on Facebook to anyone who was offended by their routine. They said they failed to consider the emotional nature of the event, which was billed as a tribute to remember the 16 people who died in the April 6 bus crash.
Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon thinks all of this controversy could have been avoided with some foresight from the organizers.
The Country Thunder Music Festival booked the talent, including Williams and Ree, and the duo has hosted Country Thunder events for years. He’s puzzled why they deemed the American pair most worthy of striking the right tone for a hockey memorial.
“This is a job for Jann Arden not for people who tell (raunchy) jokes,” McMahon said.
“The organizers have to know what they booked and what is possible on stage. That part is pretty straightforward.”
McMahon pointed to an old adage often spoken by comics: simply play to the room. In other words, recognize your audience’s sense of humour and appeal to it.
Williams and Ree wavered on this at times.
The crowd was receptive to jokes where Williams talked about seeing an “Indian President” in America, suggesting his friend would be suited for the job. But when the pair compared Donald Trump’s failures to the perceived success of Justin Trudeau, the audience returned a chorus of boos.
“When you bring in comics that don’t have the political context — and a true sense of the social context we’re living in right now — it’s a tough job,” McMahon said.
“They were basically set up to fail.”
Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe said that while he didn’t hear the comedians’ offending jokes at the event, he became aware of them afterwards.
“It’s unfortunate that these comments would take away from the focus of the concert,” he said.
“I think it is fair to say that the evening was a good evening, an emotional evening and part of the healing process for all involved.”
A number of the Canadian country singers who performed at the concert — and have played events for organizer Country Thunder before — declined to address how they felt about Friday’s hosts. Representatives for Jess Moskaluke, Brett Kissel, the Hunter Brothers, and Gord Bamford all declined requests for comment.
Dakota Ray Hebert, a Saskatoon-based comedian, didn’t attend the Humboldt show, but said she was “livid” over what she read about the event.
“At first I was beside myself, for a magnitude of reasons,” she said.
“Just to be so tone deaf at a tribute concert — they’re mourning the lives of 16 people.”
Hebert said the hosts weren’t simply playing to an auditorium of fans, they were supposed to be showing respect to an audience across Canada.
“In this day and age, you’re not just playing to that room,” she said.
“You’re playing to the whole city, the province and the country.”
Howie Miller, an Indigenous comic who has played casinos alongside Williams and Ree over the years, says he wasn’t surprised by their jokes. But he also struggled to give them the “benefit of the doubt” with their intentions.
He was most disturbed by how seemingly easy it was for jokes about Indigenous stereotypes to win over the local crowd.
“Saskatchewan has an old problem,” said Miller, who is based in Edmonton and has played venues in Saskatchewan over the past two decades.
“For me personally, out of all of Canada, (the province) has a definite old kind of, ‘Never gonna change our ways, we were raised in a different era,’ type of mentality.”
Miller also questioned whether two comics should’ve been chosen for the hosting responsibilities.
“We need to grieve, think positive things and hug one another,” he said.
“Laughing will come.”