The last laugh: Comic Charlie Hill moves on to happier hunting grounds

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Charlie Hill and John Trudell

Charlie Hill and John Trudell

Cree/Oneida standup comedian Charlie Hill passed away December 30 at the young age of 62 on his home reservation of White Earth in the state of Wisconsin after a long battle with lymphoma cancer.

Hill’s career in show business began after college theatre studies in the late 1960s with bit parts in several Hollywood movies and TV shows. His first big break came in 1977 when he appeared on [The Richard Pryor Show][ITALICS]. He went on to perform on the [Tonight Show][ITALICS] with Johnny Carson and [Late Night with David Letterman] [ITALICS] as well as Letterman’s new show on CBS. Hill appeared in and wrote for the 1980s hit sitcom, [Roseanne][ITALICS].

His four-decade career took his routine to audiences in Indian Country’s top comedy clubs. Touring throughout the United States and Canada, he made audiences laugh in casinos and conference centres while gleefully ripping off Hollywood stars. He even travelled through Europe in the 1970s.

One of Charlie’s best lines: “A redneck once told me ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from!?’ So, I camped in his living room!” Imagine if it were the white man’s bedroom?

Hill lived in Los Angeles for 40 years, performing at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. There he met and befriended fellow comics like David Letterman, George Carlin, Jay Leno, and a teenaged Jim Carrey. Hill even babysat Pauly Shore, whose mother Mitzi owned the Comedy Store.

Hill dazzled me when I interviewed him for Rezolution Pictures’ documentary [Reel Injun][ITALICS]. He reminded me of Cree Elders I had questioned for Ernest Webb’s APTN series [Dab Iyiyuu][ITALICS]. I asked only one of the questions I had written in my notebook and away he went answering almost every one of them. By the end of the hour-long interview, I had to bury my head in my hands to keep from laughing out loud and ruining a clip.

Hill provided much of the humour in the film. He was probably one of the most important of those who contributed to changing the way others look at Native Americans.

I ran into Hill a few times at festivals while promoting [Reel Injun][ITALICS]. One night we met in the bar of LA’s Chateau Marmont hotel. With us were three young Native comedians, Shishonia Livingston and Jim Ruel among them. Looking at their faces one would have thought they were in the presence of Elvis Presley himself.

Navajo comedienne, writer and model, Livingston remembered how Hill “always gave [her] words of encouragement,” claiming she was “the next generation.” She quoted him saying, “And we’re crazy […] we talk to people in the dark!” She said she was “cracked […] up because he said I could get away with anything.”

Ruel was also there that night. He says that one of his favourite memories was the first time he saw Hill at an AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) conference in the early 1990s, when Hill’s brother, Norbert, was the executive director of the association.

“Charlie threw down a monstrous set that had the whole place rocking,” Ruel recalled. “I still remember looking around the table at the faces of my fellow Stanford friends and seeing them just laugh so hard. I finally got the guts to pursue my dream of being a stand-up comedian a couple of years later and that set was definitely a major inspiration. He’s Native. He’s from Wisconsin. And he was brilliant.”

Later that night we ended up in a 1950s-styled diner Hill favoured. Sitting there munching on burgers, Hill told us this was the spot where he and another comedian friend would get the then-unknown Jim Carrey stoned on weed and we chuckled while glancing around for any eavesdropping policemen.

One of the first times I met Hill he told me his original name was Charlie Mountain but the white man had changed it to Charlie Hill. We laughed. Charlie Hill was a mountain of a man and I, along with many others, will miss him immensely.

Born: July 6, 1951, Oneida, Wisconsin
Died: December 30, 2013, Oneida, Wisconsin

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