Dick Gregory understood the political power of comedy
Dick Gregory died last weekend at age 84 after leading a bunch of lives.
He was at various times a stand-up comedian, social critic, political activist, political candidate, nutrition regimen entrepreneur, diet consultant and, increasingly in his later years, obsessive purveyor of bizarre conspiracy theories.
But my favorite memories of Gregory come from 1961 when I was a Midwestern kid watching his fame rise on TV like a Jackie Robinson of black standup comedians.
Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color bar. Gregory broke the nightclub color bar, and did it with controversial political subjects long before Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes or W. Kamau Bell.
Until Hugh Hefner hired Gregory to fill in at the Chicago Playboy Club, blacks tended to be hired in white-owned clubs as singers or dancers, not to stand flat-footed and talk. Otherwise, Gregory explained to me in an interview in the 1980s, "the System would know how brilliant you are."
Understanding "the System" helped him to beat it.
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He learned, above all, to be entertaining before trying to make a serious point. He explains how he studied audiences in his best-selling 1964 autobiography, which he titled "nigger" with a lower-case "N." (In a note to his mother on its dedication page, he explained: "If ever you hear the word 'nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book.")
In the "big white night clubs," he decided, "I've got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second," he continued. "I've got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man."
He also prepared himself for hecklers. He enlisted his wife to call him by the N-word over dinner, so he could prepare funny comebacks ("You hear what that guy called me? Roy Rogers' horse. He called me 'Trigger' ") without losing his cool.
Fortunately, he prepared himself well because, as luck would have it, his big break came on a January night in 1961 at the Playboy Club before an audience of "frozen food executives from the South." He might have backed out, he recalled, had he not been broke.