Baseball was desegregated in 1947, and on January 13th, 1961, a growing American pastime–standup comedy–would be too. Dick Gregory stepped to the plate at Chicago’s Playboy Club and hit it out of the park. It wasn’t exactly a planned moment. Gregory was still working a day job at a car wash when he was brought in as a last-minute replacement for that night’s scheduled performer. He then broke other barriers, refusing to go on The Tonight Show unless he could sit down and talk to host Jack Paar. This was something other guests routinely did, but only if they were white. Gregory was uncompromising but also simply asking to be treated equally. As comedian and actor Dr. George Wallace, who shared memories of Gregory on NPR tells it,
He’s going, hey, my jokes are just as good as theirs. Why can’t I get attention? Why can’t they treat me like they treat the white – equally. Bring me to sit on the sofa. I’ve got a few words to say. He first hung up on Jack Parr. That was NBC at the time. That’s what you call groundbreaking material right there, hung up on NBC.
And he was funny and his jokes were just as good as those of other comedians, and while he told some conventional jokes–like one about how he’d read so much about smoking and cancer he quit reading–his personal perspective as an African American gave greater depth to some of his jokes, like,
I sat at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated they didn’t have what I wanted.
While Lenny Bruce was doing a bit about how amazing it was that performers get paid so much while teachers get paid so little Gregory offered a more pointed perspective, saying,
I love America. Where else can I ride in the back of the bus, have a choice of the worst schools, the worst restaurants, the worst neighborhoods–and average five thousand dollars a week just talking about it?
He didn’t just talk about it either. He would drop a club appearance to attend a civil rights rally, although he’d always make it up later. As the sixties went on too he dropped the genial tone that originally made him a success and became a sharper, more caustic comedian, and not just a comedian. He ran for mayor of Chicago, getting 22,000 votes, then for president. He was shot in the leg during the Watts riots. He committed himself to working for the civil rights movement and while racism is an issue of moral health his concerns extended globally and he also became an advocate for physical health. In 1984 he founded Health Enterprises, Inc. and specifically addressed the health of African Americans which he felt was impaired by alcohol and drug abuse and also poor nutrition because of poverty. Although he continued working as a comedian his lifelong passion was making the world better through more than just laughter.
Hail and farwell Dick Gregory.