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BOOK REVIEW:

We had a little real estate problem : the unheralded story of Native Americans in comedy

Kliph Nesteroff, known as a comedy historian, covers aspects of the entertainment industry that are not well known, specifically the contributions made by Native Americans to comedy and humor. All of which debunks the stereotypes of Native Americans, who were, and still are, often depicted as sinister, poker-faced, sometimes grim and sullen, and definitely humorless. A part of this historical overview about Native Americans in entertainment precedes the movie industry, going back to the late 1800s, “ … when Native Americans were forced to tour in wild west shows as an alternative to prison.” Nesteroff adds a cautionary note. To the best of his knowledge, he has no Indigenous or First Nation roots. He is not American, but hails from British Columbia, Canada, and remembers a stand-up special from fifteen years ago, Welcome to Turtle Island, that was frequently replayed on Canadian television. It was the first of its kind because the show had “an all-Indigenous lineup.” So, for all the talk and promise to give voice to Native Americans, the American entertainment industry has a long way to go. Not that Nesteroff is letting Canadians off the hook because they too are accountable for inconsistent portrayals of First Nation/Indigenous Peoples. At the time of this book's publication, "Charlie Hill is the only Native American stand-up to have appeared on The Tonight Show (The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman, The Richard Pryor Show, and The Arsenio Hall Show.) Hill’s influence on future comedians proved to be vital, inspiring and enduring. The evidence is there in interviews with many comedians, who are included in this book. Charlie Hill’s name is frequently mentioned. The book's title is derived from the punchline of a recurring joke that was part of Hill’s stand-up routine, “My parents are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem.” .

 As Nesteroff presents an overview of the experiences of Native American comedians, for the most part, one issue many of them share with other comedians is depression.  This is not unusual, because in the history of comedians, current and past, that seems to be a personal issue.  Their lives are not jolly and happy, frequently comedians suffer from bouts of depression, self-doubt and come from families where there was tragedy, deprivation and discrimination. It is definitely a sign that humor is a strong defense mechanism needed for emotional and mental survival, and provides artistic material as well.One of the great American humorists and satirists was Will Rogers, whose life was fraught with family tragedies.  Adding to emotional and personality issues, layer on the history of Native American/Indigenous Peoples/First Nation Peoples and their history with White/Europeans arriving on the North American continent, and all that took place, and continues today, and there is fertile ground for comedy.

In one chapter, “Davy Crockett Brainwashes the Kids,” the author provides a context for the 1950s’ television portrayals of Native Americans. Along with the stereotypes, there were the critics (Edward R. Murrow, Charles Mercer, Floyd E. Maytubby and many Native American leaders) who urged the entertainment industry to do better. Children, in particular were being entertained and misled about the history of Native Americans.  During this period, Charlie Hill was a youngster who, “ … saw all the sitcom stereotypes growing up and watched as his father yelled at the screen, ‘Those aren’t Indians! Look how dumb they are! Indians are not like this!’”  In addition to hearing his father's remonstrations, the young man developed his own critical eye watching television comedians, whose performances were also guilty of stereotyping other people. If those comedians could get on major television programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, then young Charlie Hill thought, “ … there was a chance for the kid from Oneida.” And there was a place for him and the others who followed, including the 1491s, an intertribal Indigenous sketch comedy troupe, who have performed in Ashland Oregon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and “ have traveled the country and the world sharing their satirical, stereotype-busting humor through live performances, panels, discussions, and appearances on major media outlets including The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Al Jazeera and National Public Radio. They have also used their talents to address social and legislative issues, such as the full inclusion of Indigenous women in the Violence Against Women Act.”

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 

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