Dick Gregory can wear you out. Still sprightly at 84 years old, the groundbreaking comedian, activist, author, vegan, and all-purpose firebrand has enough energy to outwork, outlast, and outthink those half his age.
Gregory's comedy career stretches back to the 1950s, when he spent years in near obscurity, struggling to make a living in small, all-black clubs. Gregory credits Hugh Hefner with kick-starting his career, when Hef booked him at the original Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, and on the syndicated Playboy's Penthouse, the hippest late night show of the time. Indeed, Hefner was an important friend and champion for many of that era's comedy greats, including Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Mort Sahl, as well as a huge supporter of jazz. Gregory got a further career boost when then-Tonight Show host Jack Paar invited him over to the couch after his stand-up set, which was almost unheard of for an African-American performer at the time. While his mainstream profile grew throughout the 1960s, his blunt assessment of race and social justice never wavered, and eventually the funnyman began wading further into politics and civil rights, racking up arrests along with applause breaks.
The octogenarian idol still averages 150 stand-up club dates and about another 100 lectures annually, a pace that would exhaust many much younger performers. In truth, trying to keep up with him, or even squeeze a word in edgewise, is like trying to skate uphill. When we manage to ask him why he maintains this frantic pace, his answer, in what passes for simple in Gregory's freeform stream of thought, is "passion."
Metro Times: How do you maintain a balance between being a comic and being an activist? Does the material change between crowds?
Dick Gregory: Well, the first thing is you have to do is love it. When you love cookies, you buy them even when you don't need them. I read about 1,000 dollars' worth of newspapers every 12 days. And so, one thing I tell people is, "Don't never submit me no questions because I'll always have the answers in my head." I always have something to talk about. When I walk onstage to do comedy, that's for me. Some nights it's so good I wish I was in the audience watching myself. The other thing is the respect I have for the audience. This is my job, this is my hustle. You know, it's hard to die in a nightclub? People don't come there to see you die. They want to have fun. People get dressed up, they come there to have fun. Something has to be wrong; you have to be sick or on medicine or something to mess that up.
MT: When people use the term "comedian" sort of as a pejorative, do you think that's a way to undermine you, instead of calling you an activist or philosopher?
Gregory: No, no, no. Let me shut you up now. It's lucky that I made it. Black folks weren't used to no comics. The greatest laughs you ever had in your life didn't come from comedians, they came from friends and relatives. When I started, the old folks would say, "Man, that Richard can really lie." They didn't know from an act. A comedian is just timing. Timing, timing, timing. There's a rhythm. And when you get into it, everybody better watch out.
MT: But you wanted more than laughs?
Gregory: I never thought anything would take the place of comedy until Kennedy was shot in Dallas. All shows were canceled; the networks didn't have nothing on but news for weeks after that. That was the effect it had. Now, you and me could write a Broadway play or a movie script about how stupid it was for him to go down there. Jesus, was he stupid to go there. That's timing. If you hit your hand on a car door, nothing hurts like that, but two weeks later y'all be laughing about how dumb you were to do it. That's all comedy is.
MT: There had always been a black comedy and film circuit, but what was it about the climate of the early '60s that allowed you and peers like Godfrey Cambridge and Bill Cosby to cross over to success with white audiences?
Gregory: Hold on. There was no crossing over. Black folks listened to me when I wasn't funny, when I was making $3 dollars a night at Mr. Roberts' in Chicago. But eventually I got so good they pushed me all the way downtown, where black folks couldn't afford to pay to see me. Hugh Hefner caught me at the black nightclub because every now and then they would bring in big stars like Sarah Vaughan, sometimes Sammy Davis Jr., and all the powerful white folks in Chicago, the mobsters and all of them, would come down to see them.
MT: Because Hefner was always a big jazz fan, right?
Gregory: Yeah, he was, and that night they had Sarah Vaughan, but I ain't never liked jazz. I would have gone with the Klan before I hung out with jazz guys. Two things I ain't never listened to were blues and jazz. You going to sing a song about "My baby done left me" and then you wonder why marriages fail? What the hell is Blue Monday? That's the craziest thing I ever heard. When I hit big I was making more than Frank Sinatra, and all the top jazz people were my opening acts. My problem is, a black woman, Nina Simone, cussed out the entire state of Mississippi, but you ain't never heard a jazzman say nothing negative about this filthy nation. Billie Holliday, before the Great Depression was talking about lynching ...
MT: "Strange Fruit" ...
Gregory: Right, but you never heard one of those thugs talking about that. They never done an interview with anybody, and you can check that. They never said anything in public about how scared the were to play down South. Miles Davis used to play with his back to the audience, but he never forgot to press his suit. Entertainers ain't nothing. Athletes ain't nothing.
MT: So how do you reach people, now with such a fractured media and so many distractions.
Gregory: You don't worry about that. People will come and see you. They know what you're going to do. You just go on and do it. The first time I was called "nigger" was in a little town called Mishawaka, Indiana, which just sounds like something's going to happen. Guy yelled, "Get off the stage, nigger!" And I said, "Wow, did you hear that? He just called, me the Lone Ranger's horse, Trigger. That got a big laugh and then people were comfortable. I put it into my contract: Every time you say that I make another $50,000.
MT: And that's what you called your autobiography.
Gregory: Nigger, yeah. All this crap when they sit around: "The 'N' word." That ain't nothing but another racist trick. It wasn't civil rights. There wasn't one black sitting in that room when that decision was made. Can you imagine the Germans telling the Jews, "We ain't going to call it a concentration camp, we're going to call it "the 'C' word." Can you imagine? That's nothing but stupidity.
Dick Gregory will appear at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle, 310 S. Troy St. Royal Oak; 248-542-9900; tickets are $30, comedycastle.com; 18 and older only.