Those who get to see tomorrow's screening of Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of the 11th Annual Roxbury Film Festival will get a healthy dose of Dick Gregory, the pioneerind comic who shook off the minstrel comic image and spoke to black and white audiences alike as a smart, socially engaged comedian.
Back in 2002, I interviewed Gregory for The Boston Globe (you can check the archives on Boston.com for that, under "CLARKE LOVES `JOB,' HONES STAND-UP ACT
Author(s): Nick A. Zaino III, Globe Correspondent Date: March 1, 2002 Page: D8 Section: Arts") and Gadfly Magazine when he was being honoered by the U.S. Comedy ARts Festival in Aspen along with George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, and Bill Maher.
Part of this appeared in Gadfly as a Q&A back then (you can read that version here), and some of it was edited for space. This was a long conversation -- Gregory always has a lot to talk about and decades of history to draw from. I'll have to go back to the original tape and transcribe the whole conversation at some point, but this is what I have on record now. Enjoy.
What does it mean to you to be honored at Aspen?
Well, it means... There’s different types of honors. You can get an honor from, let’s say the Newspaper Guild, or an honor from your college, but to get an honor from your peers – those ones you can’t trick. These are comics. And people who have spent the biggets part of their life in comedy and performing. Then you have the joining with the free speech movement and First Amendment rights. These are folks, you’re not just getting an award because you are a celebrity or they are awed by you. You’re getting it because these are folks that have been able to dissect your career. It’s been on the front, looking and listening, so it means a whole lots to me from the standpoint as a comedian.
It means a whole lots to me from the standpoint of, I’ve always -- I have stood flat-footed when I started in show business, and I would do a routine about the mafia and how much grip they have on Chicago and the political machine. And I had cops who’d come by the club and said, “Man, you better be careful, they’ll blow this whole place up.” If that’s price you have to pay, let’s pay it. That’s easy, to stand in a nightclub, where most of the people that come in, they came to see you. It is mean to go to Mississippi marching, where the people who could kill you didn’t invite you. It was two different trends. It’s one, being on the stage tonight for people who basically love you, who’s paying to see you. And the next day you marching in a line.
And I reflect now over the forty years I’ve been marching, and I realize those white folks in Mississippi was right, because as we talk now, the state of Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state in America. And that was at a time, when we were marching, that 98% of black folks were not permitted to vote. And so, to sit and realize, when I sit back and I realize the level of fear that you spend, you could exercise your freedom of speech, but the other folks could, too. And you get courage from being with people who are not high visibility, who don’t have a job where they can make twenty-five thousand dollars in one night, to be arrested at two o’clock in the morning and see a little child arrested with you. And you say, “What are you hear for?” Because you’re embarassed. You don’t know what to say to them. You just ask them, “What are you here for?” And they say, “Teedom”. Couldn’t even say “freedom”.
To be in Birmingham when the firemen turned the hoses on us. And to get outraged, but before your outrage can get formed in your brain, you see something pass by you really swiftly from the force of that water, and it’s a little four year old, five year old child. Before your anger can come up, you see a white nun that sweeps past you, then a priest or an old black minister or an old black woman, and the line keeps moving. It’s almost like, you trying to get an attitude an you gettin’ in the way. Because you’re fixing to do something to the line that the cops and the hoses couldn’t do. I’m fixing to slow up their progress, cause I’m thinking, “My God, they treated all of us – “Then you realize, there’s something in this line more beautiful than me, and more beautiful than what they’re doing to let me decide which one of these I want to join. And I fall back into the line. And fell back into the motion where the people was.
It was just a wonderful feeling, sitting there at night realizing there’s something that happened that I couldn’t explain. I could not explain just ordinary people. And then one day, you sit back many years later, and you see some Chinese come out in some place called Tianamen Square, and they come out against tanks with no guns. You can just hear the newspeople, not reporting the story, but reporting admiration. And I say wow, wait a minute, we taught them how to do that. Nobody ever dared sit down in front of a tank with no weapons until they saw us do it.
Is that part of what led you away from the nightclubs in 1973?
No, because remember, I didn’t feel this. You know, you have caught up in moment. You’re building catch on fire, you don’t know where to go, you grab this woman that’s cripple – You didn’t go there with those intentions, and on your way out, the thing just played out that way. And consequently, about eighteen months ago, when that fellow lost the election in Bosinia, he told the whole world, ‘I’m not stepping down. I control the army’. And it’s twelve noon when the whole world is waiting for a bloodbath, 250,000 white folks came out to the town square with no guns singing "We Shall Overcome." And the army threw its guns down. And you realize, my God, that all started here in America, with a handful of people who had no power, but had a voice and decided we would use it.
I got out of the nightclubs because my loyalty was to the movement. And I just felt that I was doing you a disservice as a nightclub owner, that would bring me in at top dollar and then advertise for six months, and intense advertising the last three weeks, and then something come up in Mississippi or Alabama or Chicago, and I would go to it. So I just thought that I was being unfair to the nightclub owners. There were some nightclubs thta probably wouldn’t bring me in at all, but I wasn’t worried about them. I was worried about the ones that did.
And then the other thing is I sit and realized one day, do I really want to take this talent that I got, and use it to expose young folks to alcohol. At that time, we didn’t know that cigarettes, secondary smoke, was bad. I didn’t know that. And I made that decision at a time when I was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and I’d been drinking a fifth of scotch a day. So I wasn’t making decisions based on what was right, or healthy or nothing like that. I was making it based on, I just felt bad, in a nightclub where they say it’s like x amount you pay to get in, and then a two or three drink minimum – people just seemed stupid to come in and get a Coke when you could get a rum and Coke and pay the same thing. Get a rum, they’ll give you the Coke.
From then I decided, now, I didn’t mean to get out of entertainment, but when I got out in `73, you didn’t have the major venues like you have now for concerts. What happened was, that the entertainment, the acts got so big, the audience was so, and the demand was so, and the pay scale was so high, you couldn’t afford to bring them into little clubs. And so they went into concert halls and to more concerts than anything else. When I got out, there wasn’t that many concerts or venues. People weren’t geared to that at all. It was a Vegas-style cabaret. Not one person or one group coming out for four hours, or thirty groups coming out with half hour intervals. That was the reason I got out.
Did you quit performing altogether?
No. Back then, when you got out of nightclubs, that was about 95 percent of where you would work. My act was more of a cabaret act than it was a concert act. I would do concerts. But my basically whole thing was to relate to the audience. It was the difference in doing a play and a movie. And after I got out of that, you know, whenever I go and speak now, I do about 200 lecture dates a year. It’s a different type of funny. I mean, I’m funny as hell. But nothing takes the place of walking out on that, you know, when I come to do a lecture, I don’t need the timing and the sharpness to do a joke. But when you just standing out on that stage, just raw naked, you and that audience.
I know in your 21st Century State of the Union [A three-disc CD], when you’re talking about a more serious subject, sometimes a routine will come out about what Stevie Wonder’s wearing now, or coffee, or something else. Does that satisfy your comedic impules?
No, that’s more humor. When you and your friend sit around, and you all laughing and talking, that’s humor. Comedy is a professional person that stands up and says, “Da da da da da da....” That’s altogether different. I enjoy it because all my life I’ve been like that. There’s no way I would talk all this time if I wasn’t saying something funny. That’s altogether different than walking on the stage, because when you’re walking on the stage, your breath, your move, everything is perfect. It’s all coordinated. It’s the difference between a boxer and someone fighting. It’s altogether different, and that’s the same way I feel I’m more of a humorist now than a comic. Although the comedic thing is still there but not at the intensity of where it was when I was up. When I was up on that stage I was the best at my game. There’s comics now, that, they do it every day twenty-four hours a day. It would be like an opera singer. You know, eighteen hours a day you studying, you go to bed, and you eat, sleep, and drink that stage. I don’t do that. When I walk up to do a lecture or a speech or a thank you, I’m under no pressure to be funny.
Do you consider yourself, you’re more of a humorist now and you were a comedian then? Or have you considered yourself always a humorist?
I consider myself always a humorist. And I think anybody who tells jokes or makes people laugh is humor. Because you make me laugh don’t make you a comic. A comedian is a person who, that’s how they make their living.
On inmates making 31 cents an hour answering phones for corporations:
So I get this triple serial killer called me the other day trying to humiliate me cause I’m late paying Neiman Marcus. So I said, okay punk, you come get the money.
On competing in a talent show when he was in the army:
That was a blessing in disguise. Because the winner got to go on the Ed Sullivan show. And had I gone on the Ed Sullivan show, as big as Ed Sullivan was at the time – that was the show – I would have failed as a comic because I was not a good comic. I didn’t know timing. And it would have been hard for someone to tell me that I wasn’t the hottest thing in the world. So I realize now that my blessing from God was that I didn’t make it on the Ed Sullivan show. And when I got out the army, I went to Chicago and walked into a nightclub, I told them that I was the funniest thing that just came from the East coast, and they put me up, and I was hilarious.
On Richard Pryor and genius:
What ruined a lot of good comics was Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor is a genius. Redd Foxx probably had the most profanity and risque material of any comic in the history of show business at that time. And when you were sitting around, and they brought out a Red Foxx record, you knew all the Christians was gone. You know anybody that felt anything about spirituality was gone. And then Richard Pryor came along, and we were so into his genius that we didn’t hear the profanity. So we played those records in the family room with the children, because we absolutely did not hear the profanity, we heard his genius. Well, to a five year old child, there is no genius. That five year old child heard the profanity. So when they came through, they wanted to pattern themselves after Richard Pryor. Cause there was one string in their after another, but the one thing they failed to realize, and rightfully so, if you go take all of Ricahrd Pryor’s tapes, all his comedy, all his raw, naked comedy, and take the profanity out, it’s just as funny because he never had to use profanity as a punchline. They didn’t hear that. So then you turn on Def Jam and you don’t see nobody on there that ain’t talking about something gross and filthy – and I have no problem with that, I have no problem with that at all, but not for television. And then they develop, and once you develop that kind of comedy routine, you can’t grow, because you have to top it.
There’s three comical geniuses that this country has produced. One was Mark Twain. And he was so far ahead, the other two I shouldn’t even mention in the same year. The other was Lenny Bruce, and the other was Richard Pryor. So out there. So brilliant, and of them self-destructed, except for Twain.
On race and comedy:
I didn’t realize, when I decided to be a comic, that a black person had never been allowed to stand flat-footed in America and talk to white folks. It never happened before. You could sing, you could dance, you could stop and tell a joke while you were dancing, but you could not just stand flat-footed. That was not permitted. When Hugh Hefner brought me in, that was the first time that had ever happened in the history of America. And when I went on the Jack Paar show, which was the old Tonight Show, I was the first black that was permitted to sit down on the couch and talk. I didn’t realize that when you came and did your act, nothing happened. But when you sit down, you become part of the family. My salary jumped from $250 a week to $5000 a night. That was the importance of that Tonight Show.
On free speech:
I think the level of where free speech is today, it’s incredible. My God. There is no comparison. I mean absolutely none whatsoever, compared to what women were locked into, what black folks were locked into, what Asians were locked into.
Now, that same free speech in comedy, I wouldn’t say that America has that same free speech. They will tolerate you doing humorous things. Jay Leno has leeway with free speech in comedy, but he’d better not open up his mouth and talk about those same issues seriously. He’d be out.