Laughing Matters — Charlie Hill on The Richard Pryor Show

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Charlie Hill rejected Richard Pryor’s offer. In 1977, Pryor was given a sketch show by NBC, which was less a bold choice by the network executives than an likely indicator that the decision-makers weren’t all that familiar with the comedian’s work. Pryor and his head writer, Paul Mooney, brought in as many of their cohorts from The Comedy Store as they could. Considering the famed Los Angeles outpost was at the time giving no money to the standup comics who drove their business, the paying gig — and useful national exposure — was a boon. Pryor and Mooney approached Hill, a Comedy Store regular who was also an Indigenous American who grew up on the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin, and asked him to appear in one of the sketches. Hill turned them down flat, protesting that the sketch in question relied on unacceptable, demeaning stereotypes.

Rather than take umbrage at Hill’s assessment of the material, Pryor made a counteroffer. He told Hill that the five minutes set aside for the sketch now belonged entirely to him, and he could do whatever he want with the chunk of network prime time. Hill said he wanted to do his standup, so that’s exactly what happened. His material was grounded deeply in his culture, taking direct aim at the erasure of the people who lived on the massive territory that was usurped by European explorers and the disgruntled outcasts who followed them.

“They taught me a lot of things I couldn’t relate to,” Hill said in front of those television cameras. “They weren’t my forefathers. Pilgrims came to this land four hundred years ago as illegal aliens.”

Hill’s appearance on The Richard Pryor Show was his national television debut, and he was soon in demand. As recounted in Kliph Nesteroff’s book We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy (the book’s title is taken from one of Hill’s lines), other talk and variety shows starting booking him. Through it all, Hill never shied away from crafting his jokes around hard truths, especially when a privileged white host thought he — and they were pretty much all he back then — could josh amiably about Hill’s heritage. On one occasion, Mike Douglas smarmily speculated that Hill spent a lot of time playing cowboys and Indians when he was a kid. Hill responded with a scalding comic riff that is still sharply daring more than forty years later.

“It has never been cowboys and Indians,” Hill said. “That’s a myth. It has always been government and Indians….No, we never played cowboys and Indians. But we did play Nazis and Jews. The rules are the same.”

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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