By Trevor Greyeyes
Gerry “The Big Bear” Barrett is a comic who’s made a lot of people laugh and smile while talking about harsh topics like residential school, racial discrimination and his experiences with the sixties scoop.
He is in his early 40’s hailing from Saugeen First Nation in southern Ontario and is proud of his Ojibwe heritage.
Nothing has slowed down his career that sees him work in radio, on stage, TV and movies.
“I want to share my story with people,” said Barrett. “I basically kick off my comedy set with this is where I’m at and this is what happened.”
That includes the sixties scoop (where aboriginal children were adopted out to white families), adoption, facing discrimination and growing up as a minority.”
Barrett remembers being adopted by a non-aboriginal family as a young boy. These days he works hard to keep himself in shape since he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
It is sometimes said that from pathos comes comedy. If that were the case with Barrett, there’d be a comedy mountain out there with his name on it.
Indeed, most aboriginal people would have several mountains named after family members.
However, Barrett was recently asked to perform at a residential school survivors conference in Winnipeg.
“They needed some humour at the end of it,” said Barrett. “As they say, laughter heals, and you could really see it there.”
These days, Barrett wakes up at four in the morning to get ready for his gig as the morning man from six ‘til 10 for the Native Communications Incorporated (NCI) radio network in Manitoba. The network covers a large geographic area and his voice can be heard from the Hudson Bay to the US border.
“I don’t consider it a job,” said Barrett. “It’s a good time.”
Even though he’s been on NCI for over six years, Barrett said he doesn’t consider himself the full time host. He’s just another “keeper of the flame” in a long line of morning hosts on NCI.
Prior to that Barrett has an extensive career in radio. Barrett is an Honours graduate from the Niagra College of Applied Arts and Technology, radio/ television/ film program. He’s worked for many different radio stations in Winnipeg doing a variety of jobs.
Barrett said that as a child he dreamed of working in radio and followed an education plan that led him to his current career.
Barrett said “If you have a dream, follow it. And education is a very important to your goals. I’ve never stopped learning.”
And he’s never stopped dreaming either. He took up the challenge of doing stand-up comedy more than 15 years ago.
He names Big Daddy Tazz as an early inspiration and as one his mentors. Barrett said he’s proud of the fact some people call him a touring comedian.
He said he played anywhere at anytime paying his dues before drunk people but relishes the opportunity to play before people receptive for a comedy show at the corporate gigs he does these days.
For much of his formative years as a comedian, Barrett talked about getting to know what material works best for you, playing for mainstream audiences and performing for aboriginal audiences.
“I respect my audience,” said Barrett. “Aboriginal people are educated and well read at a conference.
“I have an Elijah Harper song in my act and at that last conference there he was sitting front and centre.”
Barrett said there is blue material he uses for the clubs and bars, mainstream material for non-aboriginal audiences but that he prefers his “clean, clever and well-written material” that he saves for his aboriginal audiences. His aboriginal corporate shows run for about an hour but sometimes for fun he’ll do an improv at the end of the show by hosting a talk show.
“It’s great,” said Barrett. “I just pull somebody from the audience and treat them like they’re on a talk show.”
He also offered some advice for any young person interested in pursuing a career in stand-up comedy.
Barrett pointed out that in large urban centers there are open mike nights at comedy clubs and bars that have comics. In the rural areas, he suggested asking to use the microphone at pow wows, treaty days or gatherings.
“The MC’s at pow wows are always telling jokes in-between dances and when there’s a lull. These people don’t realize they’re doing stand-up,” said Barrett.
He said get up on stage and always remembers what made people laugh right away and work on other stuff that didn’t once or twice before dropping it.
Another thing he said is to not to be afraid when it doesn’t work out. Barrett said, “Stand-up comedy is the ability to bomb gracefully.”
His sideline career as a stand-up comedian has also led to other opportunities.
For instance, Barret made television history by performing on North America’s first all aboriginal stand-up comedy special produced for CBC Television called “Welcome to Turtle Island.”
In addition, you can also catch him on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) starring in The Big Bear Comedy Show.
And this summer, The Big Bear as he likes to be called is going to be one busy bear.
He’s performing with the Bionic Bannock Boys when they appear in Winnipeg. Barrett called them an up and coming improv troupe that is getting the buzz as they say out there in the entertainment industry.
Then Barrett flies to the land of California, specifically Los Angeles, for a meeting with Hollywood producers to pitch a movie idea he’s been working on. Ironically, the whole event is called PitchFest. Barrett describes it as a sort of speed dating thing except your trying to hook up scripts with producers.
After that, he’s back in Winnipeg to perform at the internationally known Winnipeg Fringe Festival with five other local comics. The show is called “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.”
It will be held at the Press Club in late July that he says is air conditioned thankfully. He gets to reconnect with his mentor, Tazz, at the show.
Being that he’s the only aboriginal in the group of five, he said his material might be based on his aboriginal experiences.
In the fall, you’ll be able to see him host APTN’s Rez Blues.
“I’ve been asked to go to APTN and lighten the show up,” said Barrett. “I’m not afraid to put myself out there.”
Barrett then talks about breaking down stereotypes of aboriginal people from the drunk native on skid row across the country to the stoic noble savage.
“It’s our time to tell our stories,” said Barrett.
He grows quieter and talked about being adopted out from his community. He said, “There were two sisters I had reunited with and they told me about a brother I never met.”
On a tour that took him to Toronto, he finally got a chance to meet his brother. He said Billy Joe Green, a Juno nominated blues player from Winnipeg, took the picture when he first met his brother.
“We’re similar,” notes Barrett. “He likes country music and I work at a country music station. He sings professionally and I’m an entertainer.”
Barrett then talks about growing up. From an early age, he’s always been a writer.
“Even as a teenager on Friday evenings, I’d write short stories,” said Barrett. “Me and my buddy, like a couple of nerds, we’d be working out these short stories.”
You can check out Barrett’s comedy stylings on YouTube.
Barrett looks comfortable on stage. “When I was younger I was kidnapped by aliens.” Pause. “No wait. I was adopted by white people.”
Laughter. The healing sound of laughter.