Indigenous Comedy in N. America

We Had a Little Real Estate Problem is exactly the book to read in the early spring of 2021 – after reading it you will feel entertained, far better informed, and connected to centuries of incredible Indigenous performers, so it scratches every possible reading itch you might have. That’s my current reading style, one of constant indecision. I’m breaking up with books every night because I just can’t decide. Am I in the mood to read something funny? Or, do I want to read something that provides me with a new perspective? Maybe I’m looking for something that will allow me to wallow in nostalgia or pick up a tidbit about popular culture that I can share in our next family Zoom call? Can a single book do all of this for a reader? Oh yes, this book can.

Comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff has written an in-depth history of Indigenous comedy, from the vaudeville years right up to the news that a major streaming network with a writers’ room of ten people includes five writers of Indigenous heritage (check out their interview on CBC’s ‘Unreserved’ from the summer of 2020) for the sitcom Rutherford Falls. In an author note he admits that he is writing from the perspective of someone who is not Indigenous and does not speak on their behalf, instead he uses extensive quotes from the live acts of performers or interviews with the performers themselves to craft this narrative. He also worked with a citizen of the Oneida Nation, Jessica H. L. Elm, to ensure that there was an Indigenous perspective throughout the book before it was published.

We Had a Little Real Estate Problem is structured chronologically, roughly, but Nesteroff inserts shorter chapters – some as short as a page and a half – to highlight contemporary stand-up artists. Some of those short chapters are extremely satisfying to finish and will allow you to tell yourself that you’ve accomplished something before you turn in each night. So important these days.

Although the author is writing a history of a form of entertainment, comedy specifically, there is no way to separate this from sharing the parallel history of the Canadian and U.S. government policies designed to deliberately eliminate the Indigenous way of life, creating intergenerational trauma and systemic racism. He tells the stories of important figures like Will Rogers, who went from doing rope tricks on vaudeville stages in the early 1900s, to working as a newspaper pundit before rising to box-office success in film, and Charlie Hill, a comedian who joined the fledgling American Indian Theatre Ensemble in New York City in the 1970s and went on to become an inspiration for many contemporary Indigenous comics.

Rogers and Hill achieved these successes but were also passed over for opportunities, left out of auditions, endured constant racism on stage and in their workplaces, and had goals they were never able to achieve. You can see Will Rogers’ performances in his films and a popular video is available of his rope tricks, narrated by his son, from one of his first silent films called “The Ropin’ Fool“. The title of this book comes from a five-minute Charlie Hill performance on the Richard Pryor Show. With perfect delivery, a stage presence that seems impossible for someone so young, and a tight set of jokes that show why he was a game-changer, Hill made friends with people like Pryor, David Letterman, and Robin Williams. You might find yourself looking at more than one clip of Charlie Hill.

In fact, reading this book makes you want to keep a screen close by for two reasons. Of course, you will want to look at videos of the comics Nesteroff profiles but while the author highlights the incredible talents that were never recognized, he also creates a vivid portrait of the decades that the entertainment industry provided an inaccurate version of Indigenous life onscreen. Many North American pop culture favourites like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show perpetuated stereotypes despite requests from viewers to change the writing, hire indigenous actors, and create shows with stories that portrayed Indigenous lives accurately, but they did not.

As the protest movement of the 1960s grew so did the desire for change within the Indigenous community with actors, musicians, and comics joining this fight, with varying levels of success. The conversations they had with the government, industry leaders, and each other in trying to change the narrative sixty years ago sound very much like something you would read on a social media post today.

The first chapter of the book is a short one about an Ojibwe social worker and part-time stand-up comic, Jonny Roberts, who drives five hours – each way – to Minneapolis for a show that will last less than ten minutes. His story is similar to many of the other entertainers included in this book who feel this comic outlet is worth these sacrifices, and that they might be one step away from their big break. This same passion to be known for their sense of humour drove the team of Williams and Ree who began performing during the Ford administration (and they still have bookings) and can be found behind contemporary comedians like Ryan McMahon or the 1491s.

With decades of entertainment that has taken place in stadiums, school gymnasiums, on pow wow stages, even the back of a flat-bed truck, this is a book that highlights an aspect of Indigenous life that deserves a closer look. Read one chapter or read them all, We Had a Little Real Estate Problem will make you see the world differently, bring talented artists into your life, and make you laugh. All you have to do to make this happen is turn some pages.

— Penny M.