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 one of his favorites was comedian Soupy Sales, host of the children's TV show, "Lunch with Soupy Sales." Many of the program's sketches ended with Sales receiving a pie in the face.
When Hill's family returned to the Wisconsin Oneida reservation in 1962, Hill would often sneak out of his bedroom at night and peek through the door to see his mother watching "The Jack Paar Show." One night, Hill saw a comedian named Dick Gregory on the show.
"Dick Gregory was integral to the civil rights movement," Nesteroff said. "He talked about the civil rights movement in a standup act. He was really the first comedian to do that. And eventually he would fuse comedy and activism."
"That was very inspiring to Charlie Hill," Nesteroff said. "He really kind of 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 comedy career. "He never had seen a Native American doing comedy on TV," Nesteroff explained. "It was almost as if maybe indigenous people weren't allowed. There was no example to follow. So it took a long time until he really figured that out."
After majoring in speech and comedy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he joined the American Indian Theatre Ensemble Company. He portrayed the Nez Perce trickster figure Coyote in a production called "Coyote Tracks." The ensemble went on a six-week tour of 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 hanging out at new comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improvisation in Greenwich Village.
The Comedy Store opened up in Los Angeles in 1972. Two years later, Hill moved to Hollywood to pursue his standup comedy dreams. In the spring of 1975, a guy showed up driving a rusty red truck. It was David Letterman. Hill and Letterman quickly became friends. Hill also became friends with the other people at the Comedy Store, including Jimmie "J.J." Walker, the star of the popular CBS television series, "Good Times," and Michael Keaton, who was doing standup before he went on to his successful movie career. When Letterman became famous, he brought Hill on his late-night talk show several times.
"People who were not famous yet, like Elayne Boosler and Larry David and Jay Leno, he saw them all before he started doing standup and before any of them were celebrities," Nesteroff said.
Mitzi Shore ran the Comedy Store for decades. Nesteroff describes her as "this larger-than-life figure. Some saw her as a mentor, others saw her as an adversary. But because she was originally from Green Bay, when she first met Charlie Hill and learned that he was from Oneida, she just was delighted. It was like a little piece of home."
So Hill and Shore hit it off immediately. The first time Hill went into Mitzi's office at the Comedy Store, "he was stunned because her whole office was decorated with Green Bay Packers memorabilia. So they started talking about Wisconsin right away, and she granted him as much stage time as he needed and let him do whatever he wanted."
Shore was very aware that Hill was unique because there were so few Native Americans doing standup comedy back then.
Richard Pryor occasionally tried out new material at the Comedy Store and one night, Pryor happened to catch Hill's set.
"He loved his (Hill's) act because Charlie Hill would sort of talk about race relations between native peoples and white people and sort of ridicule white people in a very similar way to what Richard Pryor did from a Black perspective."
So as soon as Hill left the stage, Pryor approached him and told him how much he loved his act.
"The quote that Charlie always said that Richard had said to him almost as soon as they met was, 'Man, you talk to those white people like they're dogs.'"
And Pryor invited Hill to perform his standup material on his new NBC sketch comedy series, "The Richard Pryor Show."
Fifty million people saw Hill's set on "The Richard Pryor Show."
"It was very, very important in furthering his career and a proud moment for not just indigenous peoples around the United States, but First Nations peoples in Canada who also saw that, said it was really a galvanizing moment that a lot of people did not forget. And the name Charlie Hill became famous in indigenous communities almost immediately," Nesteroff explained.
Hill appeared on many other television shows and performed standup around the world until his death in 2013 due to lymphoma. He was 62.
Nesteroff says Hill served an inspiration for practically ever indigenous comedian who followed in his footsteps as well as for many non-Natives who don't realize it.
"And more than that, he was just important to all indigenous communities in North America as this incredible representative who never sold himself out, who never engaged in stereotypes, is true to himself, was proud of himself, always opened explaining that he was Oneida and was an inspiration to thousands of indigenous peoples," Nesteroff said.
In his book, Nesteroff makes a convincing case that Native Americans have influenced and advanced the art of comedy despite the entertainment industry's continued denial of their representation. And that's because Hill showed them that it was possible.