Whenever I am forced to take a middle seat on a crowded airline flight, I think of Oneida comedian Charlie Hill.
I smile, remembering the old joke in his stand-up routine when he recalled being sandwiched between two huge Caucasian guys and a battle erupted for the armrests. Defiantly, he claimed the space between them and muttered: “You people stole my land, you’re not getting these armrests, too!”
Hill walked on to the next life on Monday, after losing a fight with lymphoma cancer. His funeral took place today among his Oneida people in Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from Green Bay.
Hill used to say he loved hanging out with Native journalists, and he performed at least half a dozen times at annual conferences of the Native American Journalists Association. He also shared his scriptwriting expertise in a workshop one year, offering tricks of the trade as a comedy writer for the “Roseanne” sitcom.
Hill was a trailblazer. His obituary lists a long line of firsts, including the first Native American stand-up comic. He toured Europe with a theater group, and later moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in show business. His obit says he performed at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles where he met comedians Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, Roseanne Barr and David Letterman. A YouTube video shows his foray into the national spotlight when he appeared on “The Richard Pryor Show” in 1977.
He became the first Native American comedian to appear on both “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and “The Merv Griffin Show.” He also appeared on Letterman’s talk show and the “Arsenio Hall Show.”
What I loved about Hill was his accuracy in lampooning stereotypes of Native people. His comedy helped break down racial and ethnic barriers with laughter. In 2010, Native America on the Web honored Hill for his life’s work of promoting positive images of Native people and bridging cultural differences “through the healing power of humor.”
I wish more entertainment writers in mainstream media had caught Hill’s act and written about him. If you got his humor, it gave you a biting sense of what it feels like to be misunderstood by society. Instead of anger, he used his intellect and God-given talent to strike back – and cracked us up at the same time.
He also poked fun at other tribes, even the one he married into. In his act, he talked about proposing to his Navajo wife, Lenora, and how he asked her father’s permission to wed. “He said to me: ‘Can you take care of a family?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said: ‘Good. There’s 19 of us.’”
Today, my thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family that he left behind.
I will always remember Hill for his joyous humor and for making me laugh to the point of tears. On this day, I take solace in the thought that when he entered the next life, Charlie Hill made the Creator smile.