A White Humorist Reflects On The Impact And Importance Of Dick Gregory
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 nowadays who would cite Dick Gregory as a major influence, but I am one of them. I was only vaguely familiar with his fabric 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 site you can imagine. The university did bear a sizeable on-campus black population, though it was primarily a commuter school and overwhelmingly white.
So, Dick Gregory had arrive to talk to a white audience approximately 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 reduce 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 reveal by fitting the first black comedian to sit on the sofa and talk with Jack Parr. Merely taking a seat on a sofa may not sound so fundamental, 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 reveal how tired your feet is. Or Sammy (Davis) could stop in between and reveal a joke. But you could not walk out and talk to white America.” Notably, when Gregory was first invited to seem on the reveal 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-outmoded, I heard the opening monologue, “Tonsils,” from his then contemporary 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. quasi, this black man from Philadelphia was telling the sage 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 every single fearless, and zilch more so than Gregory, who confronted racism head-on without apology and with considerable 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 catch on baseball: “It’s a considerable 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 intellect paying it, whether I knew it was going to a friendly country.”
On the dissimilarity between the North and South: “For a black man, there’s no dissimilarity. In the South, they don’t intellect how close I come by, as long as I don’t come by too mammoth. In the North, they don’t intellect how mammoth I come by, as long as I don’t come by too close.”
In 1968, when segregationist George Wallace ran for president, Gregory decided to escape 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 keep your underwear in the washing machine, catch the agitator out, and every single you’re going to conclude up with are some dirty, wet drawers.”
The most fundamental comedians, of course, are the agitator-comedians, those who speak truth to power and challenge their audiences along the way.
By that standard, zilch were ever better than Dick Gregory.
Joe Raiola is Senior Editor of MAD Magazine and Producer of the Annual John Lennon Tribute in NYC. He has performed his solo reveal, “The delight of Censorship” in over 40 states.