Native American comedians get their due
We Had a Little Real Estate Problem
By Kliph Nesteroff
Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $27
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"I know a lot of you white people have never seen an Indian do stand-up comedy before," joked Charlie Hill on "The Richard Pryor Show" in 1977. "Like, for so long, you probably thought that Indians never had a sense of humor. We never thought you were too funny either."
Hill's TV debut, making him the first indigenous comedian in prime time, is one of the milestones that Kliph Nesteroff chronicles in "We Had a Little Real Estate Problem," an illuminating and stereotype-busting history of Native Americans and comedy.
Nesteroff profiles Hill, who died of cancer in 2013, as well as other indigenous comedians whom Hill influenced in much the same way Freddie Prinze and Eddie Murphy inspired Latin and Black comics with their phenomenal success at a young age.
But at its heart, Nesteroff's book shows "the importance and influence that proper representation in the media can have," the author said in a phone interview. "Nine out of 10 indigenous comedians to whom I talked said that Charlie Hill was the guy. Whether they started in the 1980s, the '90s or the 2000s, they said that they never knew there were other Native American comedians, and when they saw Charlie Hill on TV, that was the moment they decided they wanted to get into comedy."
"We Had a Little Real Estate Problem" takes its title from Hill's most famous joke: "My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem." The book is a welcome addendum to Nesteroff's critically acclaimed history of American stand-up comedy, "The Comedians," which was published in 2015. Michael Sims, reviewing it for The Washington Post, called it "an insightful overview of the most independent and subversive entertainment genre of the last century."
Nesteroff, an encyclopedic comedy historian, said "racism and fascism were on the rise when I got the (book) deal in early 2018. I was trying to figure out what I could do to counteract that in some positive and meaningful way, and writing a book that would give non-Native people a proper historical perspective was one way of doing that."
Although Nesteroff, who is White, was approached to write the book, he was cognizant of Hollywood's poor track record of putting indigenous people in positions of ownership to tell their own stories. When it came to writing the book, he made a commitment to his subjects by getting out of the way. "As much as possible, I tried not to inject myself so there are several chapters of contemporary Native American comedians speaking in their own voice and being quoted verbatim," he said.
One of those voices is Terry Ree, a Lakota comedian who, with Bruce Williams, is part of the popular comedy duo also known as Williams and Ree. They entrusted the story of their more than 50-year career to Nesteroff, who chronicles the evolution of their "white guy and the Indian" act. In a joint phone interview, the pair said the indigenous comedian is an essential, albeit unsung story.
"It's about time people realized there are Indians out there working," Ree said wryly. "When Bruce and I started, there were no comedy places (for us). We had to do what we did in lounges, and we had to have a band because they wanted music. And we just wanted to make people laugh. We didn't run into these talented Native people until years later. We looked up to Charlie Hill. That was our goal: to do 'The Tonight Show' like Charlie Hill."
As with "The Comedians," a theme throughout Nesteroff's newest book is influences. It's the Circle of Laughs: Hill inspired the Navajo comedy team of James Junes and Ernie Tsosie, and they inspired Navajo comic Isiah Yazzie. But other indigenous comedians cite more mainstream comedy influences, including Bob Newhart, Monty Python and "Saturday Night Live."
Throughout the book, Nesteroff shares the Native comedians' own stories against a backdrop of the horrific harassment, discrimination and subjugation that Native Americans have endured in this country. This forms a wellspring of much indigenous comedy that comments on unique struggles while confronting stereotypes. Nesteroff writes about the groundbreaking indigenous sketch troupe, the 1491s, who made a breakthrough appearance on "The Daily Show" in a confrontational 2014 segment about the debate over the Washington Redskins mascot.
But Nesteroff did not want to immerse readers into what he calls the "poor Indian" trope. "Not everybody went through that," he said.
What indigenous comedians share with their non-Native brethren is the career struggle, whether it's Ojibwe social worker Jonny Roberts's 10-hour round-trip drive, just for the opportunity to perform at an open mic, to Williams and Ree performing for 13 people at a Holiday Inn early in their career.
A new era of inclusion may lead to wider opportunities for indigenous comedians. Nesteroff writes of Sierra Ornelas, a Navajo screenwriter who has written for the TV shows "Happy Endings," "Superstore" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and is now producing her own NBC sitcom, "Rutherford Falls," with "Parks & Recreation" creator Michael Schur. The writing staff includes indigenous writers and comedians. Last December, FX gave a series order for "Reservation Dogs," co-created by Sterlin Harjo, a member of the 1491s, and Taika Waititi.
"Indigenous people matter, and their concerns are valid," Nesteroff said. "Non-Natives will understand that if they receive a more informed perspective. In a small way, maybe this book will expand awareness."
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