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What’s so funny about the 1491s?

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The members of the 1491s comedy troupe filmed their first video in a youth center in Minneapolis. The video is called “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions,” and features Migizi Pensoneau, Dallas Goldtooth, Ryan Red Corn and Bobby Wilson as Native American men auditioning for a bit roll in the next installment of the Twilight series. The four men are shirtless save for Pensoneau who wears a gray faux-fur jacket and a headdress made of feathers. Red Corn wears beads around his neck and what looks like a turtle shell over his crotch, while Wilson and Goldtooth have allowed their long black hair to fall down their backs, nearly to their waists. They all stare stoically at the camera.

Sterlin Harjo, who directed the video, also appears on screen as John Haynes, a casting director from Los Angeles. “First off, we’d like you to do your sort of Indian stuff. Cultural stuff, anything,” Haynes says to the auditioning men. “Dancing, you guys dance?”

The men begin dancing in a circle. Red Corn stretches his arms toward the ceiling and howls like a wolf. Goldtooth struts and gobbles like a turkey. Pensoneau does a sort of understated shoe-gazer shuffle. Wilson does the worm.

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For six minutes, the video continues with the men indulging every one of Haynes’ requests to do “Indian stuff.” At one point, during a sequence of individual interviews, Goldtooth looks into the camera and says in a dusty, mock-tribal accent, “Before we start, may I ask you turn that off, because in our way, that thing you have there—that machine!” he says, pointing into the camera lens. “It may take my soul.” The cameraman responds that if he turns the camera off, Goldtooth won’t get the part in the movie. Goldtooth nods understandingly and says, “Film away.”

Since “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions” was uploaded to YouTube on Dec. 1, 2009, it has been viewed nearly 200,000 times, and in the following years the group has produced dozens of other skits. The 1491s have adopted a logo, hired a manager and attracted more than 13,000 “Likes” on Facebook and some 5,000 followers on Twitter. They have also begun honing a live act that is part sketch-comedy, part media presentation, and have performed at universities across the United States. Last month, they performed a 45-minute show at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Despite the notoriety, the 1491s are still producing work by the same means and to the same end as that first Twilight series spoof. Though it’s nearly impossible to justly convey in words, “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions” is funny. It’s funny because Goldtooth is relentlessly deadpan, because Red Corn’s dance moves are earnestly weird and because at one point Pensoneau looks into the camera and explains why the most convincing way to act like you are turning into a wolf is to act like you are giving birth to a child. He then proves his theory.

The 1491s are champions of slapstick in the Leslie Nielsen tradition, and they do parody in the vein of Monty Python and Christopher Guest. But what really accounts for the 1491s’ success is something less reducible and more uncomfortable. They are masters of insinuation, and they will make you laugh hardest when the joke is on you.

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