I awoke to the news on Sunday morning that Dick Gregory, an American comedy maverick and one of my comedy heroes, had died at 84.
There are probably not many white humorists working today who would cite Dick Gregory as a major influence, but I am one of them. I was only vaguely familiar with his material when I attended a lecture he gave around 1975 at Adelphi University, where I was an undergraduate. Adelphi is located in Garden City, NY, which at the time was one of the wealthiest and whitest place you can imagine. The university did have a sizeable on-campus black population, though it was primarily a commuter school and overwhelmingly white.
So, Dick Gregory had come to talk to a white audience about their country, which is how he saw America. He spoke of racism, war, social protest and the increasing power of corporations, mixing in sharp satiric commentary that cut deep and revealed disturbing truths. He had already been doing that for a long time.
More than a decade earlier, Gregory had broken the comedy color barrier on The Jack Parr Tonight Show by becoming the first black comic to sit on the couch and talk with Jack Parr. Merely taking a seat on a couch may not sound so important, but remember, it wasn’t until Rosa Parks sat on a bus in 1955 that the right of blacks to sit among whites had even been established.
Many years later, reflecting on his appearance with Parr, Gregory said, “Never before had white America let a black person stand flat-footed and talk to white folks. You could dance and you could stop in between the dance and tell how tired your feet is. Or Sammy (Davis) could stop in between and tell a joke. But you could not walk out and talk to white America.” Notably, when Gregory was first invited to appear on the show by Parr’s producer, he declined. It wasn’t until Parr himself called and assured Gregory that he could sit down that he accepted the invitation.
The first comedian I ever loved was Bill Cosby. When as a 12 year-old, I heard the opening monologue, “Tonsils,” from his then new album, Wonderfulness, it made me want to be a stand-up. Like Cosby, I had suffered the horror and indignation of having my tonsils removed and being lied to by grown-ups before the operation. Somehow, this black man from Philadelphia was telling the story of a white kid from Brooklyn and in doing so, he showed me how humor could reframe and perhaps even heal trauma. Cosby was my first comedy mentor.
But it was from Dick Gregory, along with George Carlin, Richard Pryor and the Smothers Brothers, that I learned the importance of calling out hypocrisy and injustice, and standing in one’s truth as a humorist. They were all fearless, and none more so than Gregory, who confronted racism head-on without apology and with great wit and insight.
He called his autobiography, written during the civil rights movement, "nigger." His reason: "Remember, whenever you hear the word they are advertising my book."
His take on baseball: "It's a great sport for my people. It's the only time a Negro can shake a stick at a white man and not cause a riot."
On income tax: "I wouldn't mind paying it, if I knew it was going to a friendly country."
On the difference between the North and South: “For a black man, there's no difference. In the South, they don't mind how close I get, as long as I don't get too big. In the North, they don't mind how big I get, as long as I don't get too close.”
In 1968, when segregationist George Wallace ran for president, Gregory decided to run against him and received close to 50,000 write-in votes. Wallace, a racist, received nearly 10 million votes and carried five southern states.
Gregory continued to speak-out and in 1989 told CBS’s Ed Bradley, "I chose to be an agitator. The next time you put your underwear in the washing machine, take the agitator out, and all you're going to end up with are some dirty, wet drawers."
The most essential comedians, of course, are the agitator-comedians, those who speak truth to power and challenge their audiences along the way.
By that standard, none were ever better than Dick Gregory.