How Charlie Hill from Wisconsin influenced Native American comedy

Charlie Hill was a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. He was also the first Native American comedian to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Hill is a central figure in comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff’s book, “We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy”. – a title that comes from one of Hill’s most famous jokes.

Hill was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1951. Nesteroff told WPR’s “BETA” that growing up Hill was obsessed with television and that one of his favorites was comedian Soupy Sales, who hosted the show. children’s television “Lunch with Soupy Sales”. Many of the show’s skits ended in sales that received a pie in the face.

When Hill’s family returned to the Wisconsin Oneida Reservation in 1962, Hill would often come out of her bedroom at night and peek out the door to see her mother watching “The Jack Paar Show”. One night Hill saw a comedian named Dick Gregory on the show.

“Dick Gregory was an integral part of the civil rights movement,” Nesteroff said. “He spoke about the civil rights movement in a stand-up act. He was really the first comedian to do that. And eventually he merged comedy and activism.”

“It was very inspiring for Charlie Hill,” Nesteroff said. “He really wanted to do what Dick Gregory was doing, but from a Native American perspective.”

But Hill was unable to see a path that could lead him to a career in acting. “He had never seen a Native American do a comedy on television,” Nesteroff explained. “It was almost as if the natives maybe weren’t allowed. There was no example to follow. So it took a long time before he really understood that.”

After majoring in speech and comedy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he joined the American Indian Theater Ensemble Company. He portrayed the trickster figure Nez Perce Coyote in a production called “Coyote Tracks”. The ensemble toured for six weeks in Germany, but infighting and an inability to receive regular payments led to the end of the troupe. When Hill returned to the United States, he began attending new comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and Improvisation in Greenwich Village.

The Comedy Store opened in Los Angeles in 1972. Two years later, Hill moved to Hollywood to pursue his dreams of stand-up comedy. In the spring of 1975, a guy showed up behind the wheel of a rusty red truck. It was David Letterman. Hill and Letterman quickly became friends. Hill also befriended others at the Comedy Store, including Jimmie “JJ” Walker, the star of the popular CBS television series “Good Times,” and Michael Keaton, who was on stand-up before moving on to his TV show. hit movie. career. When Letterman rose to fame, he brought Hill on several occasions on his late-night talk show.

“People who weren’t famous yet, like Elayne Boosler, Larry David and Jay Leno, he saw them all before he started doing stand-up and before any of them were celebrities,” Nesteroff said.

Mitzi Shore ran the Comedy Store for decades. Nesteroff describes her as “that larger than life figure.” Some saw her as a mentor, others as an adversary. But because she was from Green Bay, when she first met Charlie Hill and learned he was from Oneida, she was just overjoyed. It was like a little corner of a house. “

Hill and Shore hit it off immediately. The first time Hill walked into Mitzi’s office at the Comedy Store, “he was stunned because his entire office was decorated with Green Bay Packers memorabilia. let him do what he wants. “

Shore was keenly aware that Hill was unique because there were so few Native Americans doing stand-up comedy at the time.

Richard Pryor occasionally tried new tracks at the Comedy Store and one night Pryor grabbed Hill’s set.

“He liked his act (of Hill) because Charlie Hill was sort of talking about race relations between indigenous peoples and whites and sort of ridiculing whites in a way very similar to what Richard Pryor did about the point of view of blacks. “

As soon as Hill left the stage, Pryor approached him and told him how much he loved his act.

“The quote Charlie always said Richard told him almost as soon as they met was, ‘Dude, you talk to those white people like they’re dogs. “”

And Pryor invited Hill to perform his stand-up material on his new NBC comedy series, “The Richard Pryor Show.”

Fifty million people watched Hill’s filming on “The Richard Pryor Show”.

“It was very, very important for advancing his career and a proud moment not only for the Indigenous peoples of the United States, but also for the First Nations peoples in Canada who have also seen this,” said it. was truly an energizing moment that a lot of people didn’t understand. And Charlie Hill’s name rose to fame in native communities almost immediately, “Nesteroff explained.

Hill appeared on many other television shows and performed stand-up around the world until his 2013 death from lymphoma. He was 62 years old.

Nesteroff says Hill has been an inspiration to virtually every Indigenous comedian who has followed in his footsteps as well as many non-Indigenous people who don’t realize it.

“And more than that, he was just important to all indigenous communities in North America as an incredible representative who never sold, who never engaged in stereotypes, is true to himself , was proud of himself, always open in explaining that he was Oneida and was an inspiration to thousands of indigenous people, ”said Nesteroff.

In his book, Nesteroff convincingly demonstrates that Native Americans influenced and advanced the art of comedy despite the entertainment industry’s continued denial of their portrayal. And that’s because Hill showed them it was possible.

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