Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In Memoriam: Dick Gregory 1932-2017

"Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?"

"Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said: 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.' About that time these three cousins came in, you know the ones I mean, Klu, Kluck and Klan, and they say: 'Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin'. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.' So I put down that knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken, and I kissed it."

Gregory was born in St. Louis (as was another black comedian ten years earlier: Redd Foxx) A very good athlete, he earned a track scholarship  to Southern Illinois University--Carbondale, where he set school records as a half-miler and miler. Unfortunately, there was another institution out there very much interested in athletic young men: the U.S. Army. I was under the impression there was such a thing as college deferments during the draft era, but for whatever reason, Gregory didn't get one, and he spent the next two years serving Uncle Sam. This was many years before the military's 1970s post-draft advertising slogan Be All You Can Be, but Gregory soon found he had another skill, one that couldn't have gotten him a scholarship as track and field had, but would bode well for him nonetheless. A commanding officer who noticed Gregory was a bit of a cut-up, encouraged him to enter an Army talent show. Gregory did and won (I don't know what, but it obviously wasn't a deferment), and then entered several more, and won those, too. When his hitch was finally up, Gregory briefly returned to SIU, but didn't stay long. He was now determined to be a comedian, and moved to a city in a neighboring state.

Chicago. Note the sign to the left, and though it's obscured partially by a streetlight, you should still be able to make out the name of a popular comedy team of the day (which reminds me, I have another obituary to do once I'm through with this one.) Gregory wouldn't be playing in the same venues as those two guys. Not yet anyway. As he himself put it: "Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs but weren't allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does." So he played to black audiences in black clubs, but a white or two could occasionally be found in the audience, such as this fellow:

Hugh Hefner may look a bit grim in the above picture, but he was said to have laughed out loud at Gregory's Civil Rights-infused act (see jokes at top of post) and got the young comic a job working here:

Hefner's own Playboy Club. Gregory was now performing his comedy to mostly white audiences, but he didn't tone it down any. And didn't need, too. Black comics were becoming increasingly more popular with the white folks. Nipsey Russell, Godfrey Cambridge, Bill Cosby, and the aforementioned Foxx all began to be heard and laughed at during  this era. Still, nightclubs were hardly the apex of show business. For that you needed that new medium, television, and, increasingly, if you wanted to get on television for the very first time, you needed this guy:

Before Jimmy, Jay, Conan, Jay, and Johnny, there was Jack. Gregory actually turned down invitations to appear on the late night talk show at first, which puzzled Paar. It seems black comics in the past had performed their monologues but were not asked afterwards to sit down and chat with Paar, which wasn't the case with the white comics. Paar promised they would chat, Gregory appeared on the show, and soon became a household name.

 I actually can't find a photo of Gregory on Paar's show, so you'll just have to settle for Merv.

Gregory killing a white audience, in the only way he knew how.

As the 1960s wore on, Dick Gregory morphed into a political activist, and remained one right up until the end. He never out-and-out quit comedy, but nightclub owners became reluctant to book him. It's one thing to joke about civil rights, it's another to get arrested for it. Gregory, for his part, no longer wanted much to do with nightclubs anyway. Those places served booze, which he had come to see in political terms ("If they took all the drugs, nicotine, alcohol and caffeine off the market for six days, they'd have to bring out the tanks to control you.") So he basically earned his living on the college circuit, while continuing his outside activities. In addition to fighting for social justice, Gregory became a conspiracy theorist. The Kennedy assassination, the King assassination, 9/11, and even the 1969 moon landing were all at the mercy of his skepticism.

Gregory often fasted as a means of protest, weighing only 100 pounds at one point. And he never quite put the weight all back on again.  He may not have always looked as he does in the above picture, but he sure was a pretty skinny dude these past few decades.

Though it wasn't the reason why he chose to starve himself, Gregory decided a extremely limited diet had been good for his health, and wished to share his nutritional findings with others.

You may disagree with Gregory's views, express disapproval at his choice of associates, snicker at some of his more outlandish doings, but at least respect the fact that he basically sacrificed a career as a comedy superstar, with all the earning potential that entails, to fight for the things he truly believed in. Sure, a lot of celebrities these days have their own pet political and social causes, but they make damn sure first their agents are out lining up jobs for them before they start marching. Dick Gregory? I don't think he even had an agent! (He did back in the 1960s, but I can't find anyone who might have represented him lately.) 

Through it all, Dick Gregory maintained his sense of humor, always ready to crack a joke, be it a protest rally or an appearance before Congress. I used to watch C-SPAN quite a bit back when I had cable, and Gregory appeared on it from time to time, usually before a college audience (the network covers lectures, seminars, and whatnot when Congress is not in session.) Once he was on some serious-minded panel discussing the serious-minded topic of urban poverty. The discussion turned to crime, and Gregory had this to say:

"I saw in the news that this burglar broke into a drugstore and stole all the Viagra. The police put out an all-points-bulletin, telling everyone to be on the lookout for a hardened criminal."

You can take the activist out of the Playboy Club, but you can't take the Playboy Club out of the activist.


  1. Hi, Kirk!

    This is an excellent summary of Dick Gregory's life and career. The same day the death of Jerry Lewis made huge headlines I noticed the much smaller piece announcing Gregory's death. I was surprised that day when I told a boomer age friend that Dick Gregory had died and she said "Who?" I was very familiar with Dick Gregory. I followed him through his years as an edgy comic as he delivered punchlines laced with social consciousness that told the truth about America's race problem. I remember seeing him on shows like Jack Paar's Tonight Show, Playboy After Dark, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder's Tomorrow. I remember when Gregory grew a beard and made the transition to a life of political activism. In that respect he reminded me of Marvin Gaye. I remember Gregory's fasting. Few celebrities would do what he did and forfeit comforts and rewards to take up a cause. For that I will always admire him. Dick Gregory was part of the solution.

    Thank you for posting this great tribute, Kirk!

    1. He was an amazing man, Shady. I don't know if Gregory would take this as a compliment or not, but he was a true American original. Glad that you enjoyed this.

  2. Great bio! I enjoyed reading it! Dick Gregory was an impressive guy.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this, too, Debra. And the thing is, both Gregory's comedy career and his activist career were equally impressive, as well as the transition from one to another.

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