All of the comedians and comedy fans who claim Richard Pryor was the greatest stand-up comedian ever have Dick Gregory to thank for that.
Before Pryor or George Carlin embraced the so-called counterculture, Gregory was out there on the front lines of 1960s activism and breaking the racial barriers for black comedians to achieve mainstream success. Dick Gregory died Saturday night from heart failure after being hospitalized earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Gregory was 84.
As his son, Christian, wrote: “One of his finest gifts was the ability to make you sit up and pay attention.” Dick Gregory held the attention of icons and heroes the likes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali. He also most certainly made me sit up and pay attention last summer, when I had the privilege of sitting with him for more than an hour in the green room at Carolines on Broadway, where he was about to hold court onstage for another hour-plus.
Dick Gregory was born Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, and earned a track scholarship to nearby Southern Illinois University. The U.S. Army drafted him before he could graduate, and Gregory began using his humorous talents in the military.
There was no American dream for the young black man in the late 1940s. “Aspirations was getting you a job where your daddy or his uncle worked stacking boxes and lifting stuff,” Gregory told me. Instead, he went to Campbell Soup and talked his way into a job. When he came to Chicago after his Army service, he went to Ford Motor Co., where he overheard executives talk about a dire need for black engineers and talked his way into that job, too. He gamed ignorant racists. “That’s how I did it.”
He also told me in our conversation above about how he really got started in comedy, the places he worked in Chicago when he received the opportunity to perform at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, becoming the first black comedian to perform for mainly white audiences. He upped the ante even further by declining to appear on Tonight Starring Jack Paar until Paar agreed to let him sit on the couch after his stand-up to talk.
His best-selling 1964 autobiography, “nigger,” has sold more than one million copies. The following year, during the Watts riots of 1965, Gregory went into the Los Angeles neighborhood in an attempt to ease the violence and tensions — and wound up shot in the process. It was far from fatal, though, and Gregory appeared on The Merv Griffin Show afterward to talk about Watts and America’s racial divide:
Gregory would endure several hunger strikes, join marches and even run for President of the United States in 1968 as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, finishing fifth in the popular vote with more than 47,000 votes. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned disorderly conduct charges against him the following year in Gregory v. Chicago (1969).
But President Richard Nixon and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had it out for Gregory, not only putting the comedian/activist on their “enemies list,” but also, as it was later discovered, Hoover attempted to get the mob to “neutralize” Gregory. Needless to say, they didn’t succeed.
Gregory also joined other activist causes, from feminists supporting the ERA to the anti-apartheid effort in South Africa.
And all through the years and decades, Gregory found light in the darkness and satire in the madness, releasing 16 comedy albums.
He continued to tour up until his hospitalization this month, often performing in clubs on a bill with Paul Mooney.
In 2014, he went on Arsenio Hall’s revived late-night show.
In 2015, Gregory participated in the TV special, Lewis Black and Friends: A Night to Let Freedom Laugh.
In March, he wrote on Instagram:
“As I approach my 85th revolution around the sun this year, I wonder why has it been so difficult for humankind to be kind. So difficult to be loving and lovable. For my militant brothers and sisters, please don’t misconstrue loving and lovable to be weak or submissive. Love will always be triumphant over hate. I know I will not be here forever, nor do I desire to be. I have seen progress like most cannot appreciate because they were not there to bear witness. I dedicated my life to the movement. By doing so, I never thought I’d still be here. So many of my friends are not here. They were cut down by a system of hatred and evil. If they were here, they’d see the progress that I see. The reality is far from perfect, but profoundly better than what daily reality was for my generation. Young folks if you are wise you would talk less and spend more time listening to the elders who saw evil up front and personal everyday. #howlong I’ve been asking this question for over 40 years! How long before we realize our Universal God given potential? We have made immeasurable progress that cannot be debated. That said, we still have a long way to go. I have no desire to see this all the way through, the dreams I dreamed about 60 years ago have definitively been realized. To the young folks of all ethnicities I say #staywoke not as a catchphrase but as a lifestyle. Most of the things that are killing us are in our minds and our daily routines. The way we think, the “food” we eat and the water we drink or so often don’t drink. While so many go out and protest the small evils, the big evils are ever present and welcomed into our homes. From the top to bottom of my heart I say #staywoke
Love you to life, Dick Gregory”
Rest In Peace, Mr. Dick Gregory. You shall be missed. It is left to us to carry on your message.
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