Culture  /  Book Review

Writing Native American Stand-Ups Into the History of Comedy

An author who specializes in unearthing forgotten figures argues for the importance of Charlie Hill, the first Indigenous comic to appear on “The Tonight Show.”

His new book, which darts back and forth in time, is a sprawling look at Indigenous comedians, an overlooked branch of comedy. The book’s title (“We Had a Little Real Estate Problem”) is the punchline to a joke by the unsung hero of this narrative, the Oneida Nation comic Charlie Hill. (The setup: “My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York.”) A contemporary of David Letterman and Jay Leno in the Los Angeles comedy scene of the 1970s, Hill was a handsome performer with superbly crafted jokes who became one of the few famous Indigenous stand-ups. Nesteroff writes that Hill was the first and only such comic on “The Tonight Show.”

On his network television debut, on “The Richard Pryor Show,” Hill delivered a tight, five-minute set that skewered Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans and described pilgrims as “illegal aliens,” likening them to house guests who won’t leave. Hill performed for three more decades and was a stalwart at the Comedy Store (although he barely received any airtime in the recent five-part documentary on the club), inspiring many Indigenous comics. “What Eddie Murphy was in the ’80s for young Black comics, that’s what Charlie Hill did for new young Indigenous comedians in the last 15 years,” Nesteroff said.

And yet, while there are many more Native American comics today, including the members of the sketch troupe 1491 that Nesteroff chronicles in his book, mainstream opportunities remain scarce. “When we hear diversity in Hollywood, Native Americans are seldom included under that umbrella,” Nesteroff said. “That needs to change.”

His book provides context for an argument about the importance of representation, detailing an exhaustive history of the racism suffered by Indigenous people in popular culture, tracking stereotypes of the stoic, humorless Native American from pulp fiction and animation (which was particularly egregious) to “I Love Lucy” and “Dances With Wolves.”