Comedians make us laugh, but often a profound story lies underneath a joke’s surface. As a stand-up comedian, Savannah Erasmus draws inspiration from her experiences as an Indigenous woman with mental health struggles. Comedy became a space for her to tell her stories out in the open. While many comedians use stand-up as a mental health coping mechanism, Savannah’s place in comedy could be also part of a movement. The ability to conceive humour can nurse one’s psychological burdens, but Savannah adds to this by using her comedy as platform to unravel her Indigenous identity. Her stages lay bare the difficulties and experiences that come with being an Indigenous woman reclaiming her culture.
Savannah’s voice offers an alternative to a field dominated by white males, so she also works to uplift other marginalized voices in the comedy scene. She and her comedy partner, Tin Lorica, started a monthly comedy show called Millennial Line at the Red Gate Arts Society. Her and Tin host a live show that lines up diverse, up-and-coming performers.
As a second-year Broadcast Journalism student, she looks to expand her repertoire as an Indigenous storyteller. It has been over a year since I met Savannah, and through these months, I came to know her as honest and bold, especially when impassioned by justice for Indigenous communities. When I asked her to be this month’s Student Spotlight, I was eager to talk to her about the issues that mattered to her, and she conversed with the openness and fervor you can expect out of a heartfelt storyteller.
What made you want to pursue stand-up comedy?
I grew up with stand-up, where I’ve always watched specials and followed comedians on TV. It was something I always thought I could do if I really tried because I’ve always wanted to be a performer of some kind. Two years ago, I just went for it because I felt I had nothing else to lose. It was a time in my life when I was going through mental health issues with university and other things. So, I’ve been doing stand-up ever since.
How do you characterize your comedic style?
My comedy is extremely personal, emotional, and raw. I talk about my Indigenous heritage and my life growing up. Everything that I talk about on stage has actually happened. And with me, I’m just awkward, silly, and cute, I guess? I try to talk about racism with a tone of voice that [gives the impression of], ‘Okay, you’re adorable, but you’re also talking about something that is really shocking and uncomfortable.’
How is comedy used as an outlet for your mental health?
My comedy is honest, and it has opened the door to talk about some things that I never talked about openly before. I started comedy when I had to leave university because of my mental health. I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, so I had nothing to lose doing standup. I wanted to do something for me that will make me feel good, as well as make excited because I was in a very dark place. I do talk about my mental health in my standup, and it’s something that’s so natural to me—I don’t feel uncomfortable about it anymore. I’m just being honest about something I’m going through.
What has been the response to some of your shows?
I do my own show in Vancouver called Millennial Line that happens every month. It’s where I do most of my experimentation with my material. One show, I did a song about how I’m trying to have it all as a young millennial and how I’m going through ‘millennial burnout’ because I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect, be professional, and be creative.
One time, I did this whole breakup set. I had just broken up with my partner of five years, and near the end [of the set], I was sort of crying on stage because I couldn’t help it. Then, someone came up to me on the next show and said, ‘I saw your set last month, and it really helped me with my breakup. You gave me hope and you showed me that you can get over it. Still mourn it, but also move on.’ When someone comes up to you after your standup to tell you that you’ve helped them through something, it’s really wild.
As an Indigenous storyteller, how is your comedy different from the rest of the scene?
The reason I describe myself as an Indigenous storyteller is because I’m both facing my identity and making my identity known as an Indigenous person. There was so much shame associated with my Indigenous identity because of the society we endure. Even saying that, in describing myself and my art—to me, it’s radical, but others may not feel that way. History, humour, and comedy is intrinsic to Indigenous culture. Humour has really gotten us through the worst times.
I think Indigenous people are funny. I remember my entire childhood being filled with laughter—all of us sitting around this table, sharing jokes and making jokes. It’s what an Indigenous home is like. It’s unfortunate because oral history and storytelling has been a part of our culture for millennia, but they were taken away because of the residential school legacy. I am reclaiming that title as a storyteller and as a standup comic. What makes me different from other comedians is my identity and my material. My goal is to make someone think about Indigeneity and our people in a different way, but also for them to realize that we’re just human.
How did you start Millennial Line?
I started Millennial Line with my comedy partner, Tin Lorica, who I met shortly after I started doing standup for the first time. We’re two young people of colour and we met at a time when I was feeling uncomfortable. My jokes weren’t landing, and I was talking about things that other people aren’t laughing at because they can’t relate.
I met Tin, and I was blown away by their jokes, their writing, and their material. We started Millennial Line because we both wanted a space for marginalized people, especially for emerging artists. It’s for people you don’t see on stages typically. Our audience and the talent that we showcase is very different from a traditional comedy club. We started [this show] because no one else is going to do that for us. It’s become an honest space for us and other marginalized artists. We’re not trying to be heroes or anything, but the fact that we’re setting a space for people that are not just white men may seem radical. For us, it’s natural.
You recently got new tattoos of a phrase in your language. Can you tell us about the personal meaning behind it?
I’ve gotten new tattoos [on each thigh] that say ‘nêhiýawiskwêw sôhkihtâkosiw’ [stumbles in pronunciation]. I can’t even say it properly in my own language, but that’s the reality. It means ‘Cree woman with a powerful voice or sound.’
I’ve been trying to learn my own language, which is Cree, and I was inspired one day. In the past, I’ve kind of rejected that part of my identity. It’s when you’re trying to assimilate because you don’t want to be bullied anymore for being different. When I was younger, I was rejected from being immersed in my culture and being immersed in my language.
It makes me emotional to even say it out loud because that’s not okay for someone to feel like that. I can’t say the words in my tattoos, so if I put it on my body, I’m reclaiming those words. And to be able to showcase that part of my identity after 23 years is just amazing to me. ‘Cree woman with a powerful voice’ means—obviously, I have a loud voice but that’s just one meaning. The other meaning is that I want to continue defining my own voice and use it to create change, especially for proper representation of Indigenous people, their proper treatment and basic rights for nations across the country. It has a lot of different meanings, a lot of emotion, and a lot of pride.
Why is mental health important to you?
So many Indigenous youth are affected by mental health malpractices and suicide. Our communities have declared emergencies because there are young people that are dying. I have lost people to suicide, so a lot of my work in the past has been fundraising for mental health organizations.
It’s about making sure that people know that it’s okay to talk about mental health, and that they’re not weak. And it’s okay to get help, because I had to get help to deal with my depression and my PTSD. It’s been four years and I’m still not healthy, but one day I’ll get there.
It’s so senseless to me that we’re losing young people because they can’t ask for help. Plus, it’s so stigmatized, and I really hope that in the future, we don’t have Indigenous communities declaring emergencies to save young people.
I think that we ignore this, and not enough people pay attention. You have campaigns like #BellLetsTalk that are opening up conversations and are “donating” money to communities and people in need. The campaign makes millions of dollars a year, but they only donate less than a hundred-thousand dollars to Indigenous communities across the country. There’s a lot more they can do to help. Even for me, as an Indigenous woman talking about mental health.
Ali Pitargue is a self-described adventurer and storyteller. As a journalist with a special interest in social justice, she is eager to unearth fresh perspectives to share with the world. If she’s not writing, she’s either watching Star Trek, reading high fantasy novels, or doing self-study on Baroque and Renaissance art.