There’s a joke that comedian Charlie Hill, the first Native American to do comedy on a television network, said on “The Tonight Show” in the 1970s: “I’m Oneida,” Hill said of his tribal affiliation. “My people are from Wisconsin. We were from New York. We had a little real estate problem.
This punchline is now the title of Kliph Nesteroff’s book “We Had a Little Real Estate Problem,” published Feb. 16 by Simon & Schuster, exploring Native American history and comedy. Nesteroff uses Hill’s career as a sort of framework, but his book covers the likes of Will Rogers up to the current group of sketches, the 1491.
Nesteroff is a former comedian and Los Angeles resident, whose previous book “The Comedians” was a broad history of American comedy. His new work features plenty of stand-ups and writers and contains plenty of jokes, but it also explores centuries of stereotypes and mistreatment of Native Americans by whites in popular culture and everyday life.
Still, the author is mildly optimistic, pointing to the renaming of the Washington football team and the Cleveland baseball team and the appointment of Deb Haaland to be the first Indigenous woman to lead the Department of Interior.
“It has nothing to do with comedy either, but there is a snowball effect, a movement that is happening and I hope this book is part of it,” he says.
And change is coming to comedy as well with the first two created and Native American-themed sitcoms, “Reservation Dogs” (on FX) and “Rutherford Falls” (on Peacock), due later this year.
“This is a really big deal,” Nesteroff says, “and I hope the shows help dismantle stereotypes about Native Americans as a humorless character.”
Q. Where did this idea come from?
My editor, publisher, and agent suggested other projects, like a comedy book and Netflix. But that was just around the time when racism, fascism, and child separation policies at the border were growing and snowballing, so I was trying to think of a project with more or less deep meaning. . The issue of child separation was very similar to what happened in the past with residential schools. People said, “It’s not who we are; it’s not America ”, but we’ve been here before even though a lot of people don’t know it. So I thought this project was appropriate, especially since here in Hollywood you hear the diversity mantra all the time without seeing the depiction of Native Americans on TV or in movies.
Q. You note in the book that you were suspicious as a white man telling the stories of indigenous peoples. How did you try to overcome this?
I feel a little hypocritical to say that indigenous people should be responsible for their own stories and that is my name on the spine of the book. I wanted to temper this contradiction by giving up the platform I have in this way while I was telling the historical stories with my voice, for contemporary actors I set it up as an oral history to let them tell their stories. It’s not for me to interpret someone else’s experience if they can explain it for themselves.
There were a few people who turned me down. I don’t know why for sure, but I would understand, given the sordid history of the white writers and anthropologists who have come and write 100 years of terrible books.
Q. Given those sensitivities, how concerned have you been about tackling issues like comedic Don Burnstick accused of stealing jokes or the act of Williams and Ree using old striking material? certain modern audiences and comedians as dated and offensive?
I was not there to attract people. I tried to be fair. I let them tell their stories. I said to Don Burnstick, “You have a reputation” and he said, “Yeah, they all hate me, don’t they? So he sort of knew about it. I can’t imagine he’ll be so happy with the book, but I hope he can see the balance in it. I don’t edit; I let the opposing parties speak.
Q. Why was it important to delve deeper into how America and Canada abused their indigenous peoples – not just in popular culture, but with dehumanizing laws and practices, from the Trail of Tears?
You can’t explain why indigenous peoples have been so marginalized in the culture without talking about how they have been so dehumanized for centuries. The book has a lot of heavy and heavy details that have nothing to do with a joke. We don’t want to dwell too much on the tragedy, but it’s a balance and you have to understand the story to understand where the comedy comes from. I don’t mean to alienate the reader and this book is kind of a punch but it’s a true and honest story. I don’t think it would be the same book if I wasn’t working on it when President Trump was in power, with a lot of the same themes emerging. I’m not hitting people over the head with it, but I want people to make this analogy. It’s part of the motivation to include this stuff.
Q. You write a lot about Will Rogers, but he doesn’t seem to have presented himself as an icon for Native Americans.
He was one of the biggest stars of his time, native or otherwise, so you would think he would have a lasting influence, but when he died it was very rarely mentioned in the press that he was a Native American. There has been a recalibration of who he was and the Cherokee Cowboy is sort of going against the grain because people have been brainwashed about stereotypes of what a Native American was. After his death, his character was rewritten by history.
Q. Did you know from the start the central role Charlie Hill would play in the book?
I knew he was one of the only Native American comedians to do network TV, so I was definitely going to write about him, but it wasn’t until talking to these young Native American comedians that I learned how influential he was. In non-native circles he’s still an obscure character, but in every native community he was that inspiring hero who put a lot of people on the path to trying comedy – when they saw one person in the television that represented their experience, it was a galvanizing moment. This ended up becoming one of the major themes of the book – it’s a testament to the importance and power of media representation.