And yet, while there are many more Native American comics today, including the members of the sketch troupe 1491 that Nesteroff chronicles in his book, mainstream opportunities remain scarce. “When we hear diversity in Hollywood, Native Americans are seldom included under that umbrella,” Nesteroff said. “That needs to change.”
His book provides context for an argument about the importance of representation, detailing an exhaustive history of the racism suffered by Indigenous people in popular culture, tracking stereotypes of the stoic, humorless Native American from pulp fiction and animation (which was particularly egregious) to “I Love Lucy” and “Dances With Wolves.”
Nesteroff begins his book describing growing up in Western Canada, where images of Indigenous artists, he says, are more common than in the United States. For years he worked as a stand-up comic, and confesses he still misses performing. He got sidetracked after his online posts about showbiz history drew attention. An appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2013 led to his first book deal.
Back then, he balked at being called a historian. “That’s what a boring person does,” Nesteroff said, summarizing his previous prejudice rooted in a checkered academic career. (He was expelled from high school for roasting teachers in a speech for school president.) But he has since embraced the term, even saying it’s “his role to educate people,” and he has done so as a talking head on CNN and Vice.
Nesteroff still has the instincts of a comic. “I always go for the best story because I am still at heart an entertainer,” he said. “My biggest fear is being boring.”
That’s evident from our conversation, which he packs with detail-rich stories and occasional impressions. When asked about his Hollywood neighborhood, he said he didn’t want to reveal it “because of internet fascists,” but immediately started explaining its showbiz history, including a building nearby where an actor from one of the cult director Ed Wood’s movies committed suicide. “People say L.A. doesn’t honor its history, but it’s not true when it comes to residential buildings,” he said. “It’s a status symbol to live in Greta Garbo’s old house. The house from ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ was just put on the market.”