Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Comic legend and political activist Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory at the Wilbur 10/10
When Dick Gregory says, “Let me tell you something,” be ready to listen. Gregory is there somewhere in snapshots of American history over the past fifty plus years. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Medgar Evers, Hugh Hefner – all people Gregory knew or knows personally. With some of them, he made history, which fills the pages of his memoirs, Callous On My Soul and Nigger.

Gregory was the first black comedian to, as he says, stand flat-footed and address white audiences. It was a delicate balance, having to entertain or even pacify crowds in a racial tinderbox, and Gregory was able to do it without pandering or making himself look foolish.

Gregory is coming to the Wilbur Theatre 10/10 for an early 4PM show. If you love comedy, satire, and history, you should be there for it.

I spoke with Gregory years ago for the Boston Globe, but never got to see him perform. He spends most of his time on the lecture circuit, and Sunday’s show is a rare opportunity to see him perform stand-up.

Our conversation this time was long and wide-ranging, from the advice Gregory would give Obama to modern technology to comic timing. Some of the most interesting stuff comes near the end, where Gregory explains his drive as a comedian and as an activist, where those things come together and where the separate.

At 77, Gregory will wear you out. He’s got more to say than you can possibly have questions to ask, and I’ve always found it to be a good policy to listen to people like that.

I’m excited that you’re coming to the Wilbur because this will be the first time I have gotten to see you in person.

It is so much fun out here now in this day and age. I’ve been doing a lot of shows with Mort Sahl, but he’s been kind of slowing up his pace now. And so I’m just out here all by myself now having fun. But usually when I’m with Mort, see, I’ll be 80 in two years, and Mort’s five years older than me. So I told the folks, I said, “I’ll be 80 and Mort is five years older than me, so if ya’ll laugh real long and clap real hard, you might see somebody die onstage tonight.

I was happy to be able to see Mort a few times up here at Jimmy Tingle’s theatre up here when that was open, and I think the last time I spoke with him I may have ruffled his feathers a bit. We were talking about Kinky Friedman using the phrase “They don’t make Jews like Jesus any more.”

Oh please. Once you put it out there, it’s in the ether. Do you know what I tell people when they say that? How do you feel about using somebody else’s moon? Somebody else’s sun?

Well, that was the last time we spoke, so I don’t know if he’s terribly happy with me.

Listen, it don’t make no difference how comics feel about you. It’s the way you feel about them. The biggest laughs that people had in they life didn’t come from a professional comedian, they come from friends and relatives. It’s not, you come in the club and I’ll teach you how to laugh, you’ve been laughing since before you could talk, when you was a baby.

The difference between being a comic and telling a joke is timing. Just like you write, okay. There’s a lot of people who can write but they couldn’t get a job at the Globe or the New York Times or Time Magazine because writing is a style and a system. You hear a story, and you know, I can put this in four words or I can put this in four pages. And that’s what comedy is. You develop that over the time. The one place there’s no school for is being a comic. There’s a school for everything. They even got schools that teach you how to be criminals. They’ve got schools that prostitutes go to to better their skills. But there’s no school… yeah, I’d like to teach at that school, too.

Just the ads for that I think would be pretty good. There are people who claim that they can teach you comedy and there are classes, and those come under fire a bit.

Trust me, they can teach you how to write. Most folks don’t know, writers, comedy writers, make ten times more money than comics. If Bill Cosby made a billion dollars for his TV show, Ed Weinberger, who used to be a writer for me, as a matter of fact, I claim I taught him how to write, Ed Weinberger had made ten billion. Ed Weinberger’s one of the richest cats in Hollywood. It’s the writers that make the money.

A lot of black folks didn’t understand that. Before Hugh Hefner brought me into the Playboy Club, a negro was never permitted to work a white night club. You could sing and dance, but you wasn’t permitted to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks. And so up until then, we were hustlers. And I don’t mean negative. We was only working black nightclubs. So we would take the situation that black folks had been going through since slavery and twist it around and make it funny. So then when we [start] working in white nightclubs, you couldn’t be hustling any more. It become an artform.

Now out of that, Hugh Hefner, one man – out of that came Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg, and writers. And writers, we can be writers. We never had that before. Comedy writers. And so consequently, when you stop and think about how many Richard Pryors a hundred years ago was here. How many Bill Cosbys a hundred years ago were here. So consequently, that’s one day the whole world is going to have to say “thanks.”

I was at the rally last week here in Washington, D.C. and an Indian comic got up. He just happened to spot me in the audience and he said, “There’s my brother Gregory. Brother Greg, if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t have been no me, there wouldn’t have been Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Ed Murphy,” and he said, “There wouldn’t have been all the white comics.” You see, before that door got kicked in, if you listen to all the old time white comics, they was telling mom and pop jokes, and the woman always got the butt end of the joke. And after that whole mind set changed.

Somebody told me one day, one of the great TV shows in the history of TV was All In the Family. And a guy told me, one of the writers said, had it not been for you, there couldn’t have been an All In the Family. Because once the networks and everybody in the world watched you stand flat-footed when everybody thought in the 60s that black folks and white folks didn’t have nothing to laugh about, he said, forget it, here it is. And so once you could do it, there wasn’t no problem with the other writers writing that kind of stuff.

And I take it back to Hugh Hefner. One man. At that time, when Hefner brought me in, about 98 percent of all nightclubs was owned by the mafia. And everybody thought the mafia was bad. Here’s a little lonely guy named Hugh Hefner that had no mob ties that did something and changed the whole world. Even women comics. Women comics had to be silly. And now women comics can stand flat-footed, they can get their own TV show. They can do a whole lot of things that they wasn’t able to do, so every time I get a chance, I say thank you Hugh Hefner.

And so it’s that thing, nobody can teach you comedy. That’s like somebody can teach you how to pee.

Do you feel people recognize you for your contribution as often as maybe they should or is due?

Oh, no no. But there’s a reason for that. See, what happened to people like me is the same thing that happened to newspapers. When television came in, it didn’t bother you. But when the Internet came in, and the fastness of the news – people got too many things occupying they minds. Look, I was born in 1932. So on Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving, old black family members, you see them only on holidays. They come and they tell the same joke every year, and we all fall on the floor, right? We didn’t have nothing to do. You come by my house this year and come back next year, if a plane crash in Afghanistan why we talking, before this interview is over, the bodies is in your living room.

The way the brain is being wore out, you know the biggest thing 25 years from now? You open up a nightclub called Be Quiet. People come in and get ‘em a drink and just sit and be quiet. Put they feet in a whirlpool, just leave it there and say, Ah, it feels so good.

But no, what happens is, there’s so much stuff out here now that you could want to remember something, and then something comes up the next day. The next day. The next day. At one time, I thought that nothing could ever take the place of comedy. I thought it was god’s gift to humankind. ‘Til Kennedy was shot in Dallas. And I realized the only thing that saved us was that all the networks, they didn’t have no commercials, all they did was play music for three days. And that’s when I really learned to respect the power of music.

When you’re a little child, your mother sings a lullaby. She don’t tell you no joke. A child of three or four don’t get no damn jokes. But it’s that thing. And now you could walk up onstage and do a whole act on how stupid it was for Kennedy to go to Dallas. Once you add time, and then all comedy is, is a disappointment with a friendly relations.

Do you have any children?


Okay. If you’ve been around children, you know that you can pick a child up in a crib and you can throw them in the air, and they get this horrible look on their face, and when you catch ‘em, they just laugh and say, “Do me, do me again!” But if you come in as a stranger and do it, they won’t do nothing but cry, because they see the disappointment without the friendly relations. If someone tickles you, man, you’ll fall over. If a stranger puts their hand on you and tickles you, man, that’s a criminal offense. Why? Because the disappointment was there, but the friendly relations wasn’t.

And so to go back and say you can teach comedy, you can’t. It’s a rhythm. You can go to school to be a brain surgeon, but I sure would hate to be your first customer.

I’ve actually often thought about that, for the more dangerous professions, how that first time on the job went.

They’ve got a robot that can do brain surgery. And it’s impossible for it to make a mistake. So people said, that’s crazy, I said, wait a minute. They got rockets that go up in the air on a rendezvous twenty years from now at twelve, noon, and they punch one button and it rendezvous on time. So don’t tell me about machines.

But the reason I wouldn’t mind a robot doing brain surgery, see, my doctor might wake up tomorrow to do my brain surgery and find his brother in bed with his wife. Or an alligator ate the dog. What kind of brain surgeon do you think I’m gonna get? That robot, it ain’t been out all night chasing women or chasing men. That robot ain’t been out all night drinking and come in tired. So give me a robot any day.

To go back to your question. Here’s how fast it moves. If you and I were sitting around a hundred and twenty years ago discussing, one day horses would be obsolete, they’d put both of us in a mental hospital. For thousands of years, all we’d ever known was horsepower. And then today, the only thing a horse is used for is a museum. That’s how fast this is changing. You look at women. The quickness that women are moving. And most of that goes back to the civil rights movement.

The great thing about the civil rights movement is, when civil rights legislation came through, because of the civil rights movement, it didn’t say “for negroes only.” Nobody knows how important that is. That means everybody was covered. And before the King movement and we all went to jail, a white woman couldn’t be a pilot for a commercial airline. A white woman couldn’t be a mechanic at the airport. A white woman couldn’t be a supervisor. The only thing a white woman could do at the airport was be a stewardess. And that woman had to look like something out the center page of Playboy magazine.

A black women couldn’t be a stewardess, a black man couldn’t be a pilot. And because of the civil rights movement that didn’t say “for negroes only,” any time you get on a commercial airline and see an old, ugly, fat, tired-looking white stewardess, we got her that job. Not her white brother. Not her white daddy. Not the United States Marines. We got her that job.

You see woman cops. You could walk down the street and see a fire truck with a woman driving it. My god, man! When you think about… When I was a little boy, a school teacher, if she was married, she couldn’t be a school teacher, because of the pregnancy thing. Men could be married, but a woman schoolteacher couldn’t be married. A woman couldn’t be a cop when I was a little boy.

Now you’ve got women head police departments. A woman couldn’t be in the FBI. You’ve got women head of sections of the FBI. You’ve got women head of homicide, head of arson squads and all of that. That’s what that little bitty civil rights movement did in America. And America hasn’t slowed up to say thanks yet, and my mother told me, thanks shows good manners. So America ain’t never had good manners.

Of course now the idea is, questioning exactly how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. And I know earlier this year you did an interview where they asked you about the whole idea of Obama fixing the race issue, and you said he wasn’t qualified to do that.

Well, wait a minute. There’s a different qualification for being president and fixing the racial issue.


Let me tell you, the first African-American president, right? Who would’ve believed that the first time we get a black president in America, he wouldn’t have no slave genes? What do you think the odds of that is? Think about that. His momma wasn’t a slave, his daddy wasn’t a slave. The other thing is this – he is the most powerful man in the world, but he can’t go to New York or Boston tonight by himself and get a cab. If Queen Elizabeth were in New York tonight and a cab passed, she’d kill ‘em all.

So I have people ask me, Dick, when you was going to jail in the early days of the civil rights movement, did you ever think there’d be an African-American president? I said, we weren’t out there to guarantee an African-American… We was out there to say the least among us, with no education, have certain basic rights under the constitution. That’s what we was out there for. What comes out of that? You know the wisest of all of us in the civil rights movement wasn’t the black leadership. You know who was smart? The smartest people? Those little redneck Klu Klux Klansmen. They were saying, “If you let ‘em vote, they’ll be in the White House.” They were right.

Well, maybe if Obama did have slave genes, they wouldn’t be questioning his birth certificate. Maybe that’s what they’re looking for as credentials.

It’s more than that. Let me tell you. Here’s a man that darn near didn’t become president because a church he belonged to in Chicago – you remember that? – and the name of the church was Church of God and Christ. You can’t find no more names than that, right? That almost kept him out the White House, now you’ve got these people saying, wait a minute! He’s a Muslim! What you gonna do with Church of God and Christ? He belongs to the Church of God and Christ. That’s a Christian church.

What we’re looking at today, what you hear people say is, the Tea Party is a bunch of racists. No no no no no no no. Whoever’s racist in the Tea Party, they were racist before the Tea Party. Let me put it this way. If you go back and study the Great Depression, right before the Great Depression, lynching went down to point-zero, without an anti-lynching bill. Point-zero. The Klan was obsolete.

Portrait of the satirist as a young man
When the Depression hit, lynching went further than it had ever been. More people got lynched than any time… The Klan came to Washington with almost half a million people. Why? Fear. When you get scared of something you have no control over, it destroys your manhood or womanhood, so you start blaming it. If you’re walking through the woods and get scared you get a gun. Okay? But if you don’t know who to attack, you got to attack somebody else other than you. That’s what Obama is seeing now.

Look, if Boston is broke, the city, right? And you get a major fire, like you had with the Chicago fire, those fire folks come out, they don’t worry how they’re going to pay for it until after they put the fire out. California is broke. They’re passing out IOUs. When they had them forest fires, you didn’t hear them say, well, we can’t send nobody out because we couldn’t afford to pay ‘em. When it comes time for an emergency, you send people out, you take care of what you have to. When he came in, he inherited a mess. We call it DOA, dead on arrival. So for two years he’s stomping, trying to put fires out. He don’t articulate that, though. He don’t articulate that.

What they need, they didn’t need a negro like him, they needed a negro like me for president. That’s why said if I can be born again, let me be born white. I didn’t know how lucky white folks was until Obama came in. They get a nice behaved negro, Harvard, well-educated. They can call him everything, they can’t call him dumb. He went to the best schools, and he brought an intelligence into the White House with him.

I ran in 1968. The first thing I would have done, if I would have won, the first thing, I would have gone on TV the next day and said, all ya’ll get a good look at me. Because I bes your president. Whether you like it or not. I control the army, the navy, the air force, the Marines, okay? Whether you like it or not. I own the missiles, and I determine the nuclear bombs. So before I do anything about the economy, I’m going to New York, and I’m bringing 5,000 tanks with me, and I’m going to sit on the corner, and I wish one of you cabs would pass me by.

Second thing I’m going to do, I’m going to have an all negro cabinet. I know ya’ll gonna get black preachers on TV, you’re gonna interview them and say, oh, you can’t do this. I’m telling ya’ll now, I’m gonna have an all negro cabinet. Now, what’s gonna make black folks mad, I’m gonna tell them, most of ya’ll don’t qualify, black folks in my cabinet, because I’m not picking no negro that can read or write or have more than a third grade education. You think that wouldn’t get black folks and white folks together? They’d all be marching on me.

Now here’s my philosophy. If you white folks can control the White House for two hundred and some years, and you’ve got all these Ph.Ds in the cabinet and all of these Harvard folks, and you can mess up the country like this, let me try something new. And I want you to know that my cousin, Jabbo Jones, from Kansas City, can’t read or write, can’t talk, he’s going to be my secretary of defense. I can just see them interviewing him on 60 Minutes.

“Mr. Secretary, what are you planning on doing about defense?”

“First I’m going to fix it, then paint it.”

Now, when people say, black folks expect too much out of Obama, no no no. Let me tell you something, if you and I was brothers, and you didn’t like me and I didn’t like you, and we ain’t spoke in twenty years, if you win the 400 million dollar lottery, for some reason, I just expect you to come by and give me something. Now that don’t mean you will, you follow me? But those are the expectations you have when you see your own. You might never have had no job, you might have been homeless, once you win that 400 million, I kind of expect…

First, I think he hasn’t handled the economy like the situation he inherited. What he need to do is talk to the American people. They scared. They ain’t thinking about no Iraq, this and that. They scared, they worried. It’s one thing to talk about how the economy is changing. Its another thing when you’re sitting home, and you’re working to put children through college, and you sacrifice and make it through that, and now they got a Ph.D., now they’re back home living in your basement apartment. We don’t see this. You don’t see this on TV. There’s a fear in this country, that, if somebody don’t deal with the fear…

That’s what I loved about Roosevelt. Roosevelt wasn’t nothing but an old thug. Just a hoodlum. But you know what he did? He had a Fireside Chat. You’re not old enough, but I know you’ve heard in history he had Fireside Chats every Thursday. And he didn’t talk about the economy, he didn’t talk about war. You know what he talked about? He didn’t talk about banks. He said you’re going to have two chickens in every pot and a car in every garage. And that made people feel – he didn’t say he was going to put them there. Okay? And then he said, I’m on your side. I’m on your side against the bankers. I’m on your side against big business.

That’s what people want to hear. They don’t want to hear all of them facts. You tell them all these facts and they go into the grocery store, the biggest day that Walmart and Kmart have is the last day of the month. People come out that don’t come out no other time, because they take their little five hundred dollar, their little government food stamps, and they shop all night long. Okay? That’s never happened before, and you know what’s most frightening than losing your job, is scared you gonna lose your job. What’s more frightening than think you’re going to get sick with no medical insurance? It’s believing you’re going to get sick with no medical insurance. And that’s what he’s not articulating.

If I had the president’s ear, you know what I’d tell him? To hold a press conference and say, “Look, starting tonight, in the White House, every Wednesday, we gonna eat beans and a salad. Every Tuesday, we gonna eat greens and a salad. Every Sunday, we’re gonna eat our regular meal, Saturday, we gonna eat sandwiches.” Now, as long as the White House is doing that, then I don’t feel like my dignity is lost when I have to do that. I mean, if a damn cow can go out and eat nothing but grass, then how come I got to go and put a steak on my plate and five other types of vegetables and potatoes. Look, there’s a lot of protein in a steak. Okay? But cows don’t eat steak. They eat grass.

So again, I’m saying, if the president is going to say, I identify with you, here’s what we’re going to do, that fear would leave because fear and god do not occupy the same place. Don’t nobody give a damn about him going to the University of Wisconsin and talking to all them young children. I bet he better not go and find all the youngster in America that couldn’t afford t go to college and talk to them and ask them some questions. And talk to they parents.

What I was hoping he would do was put billions of dollars in community colleges. Why? Because if I can’t afford to go to Harvard or Yale or Morehouse, there’s a community college. When I go away to school, there’s certain things I’ve got to take. I’ve got to take luggage, I got to take an attitude, I got to take certain clothes. When I go to community college, that’s around the corner from my house. I don’t have to buy no new clothes. I don’t have to buy no new sneakers. I can go there and go into a community college waiting until the economy changes, then I can go to Harvard and Yale and Morehouse. But right now, you’ve got young folks now, they can’t go nowhere, so what they gonna do in the three years that they waiting?

It’s the same thing as, if I were president, I would say, don’t fire people. Cut they work schedule down. In other words, instead of working eight hours, work four. Why? Because when the economy changes, you don’t have to bring new people in and retrain them. There’s so many things you can do during this period of time. Let the president let the people see him get on the damn subway and go to his apartment. Let the president go and sleep in a homeless shelter for a weekend. And now he can come and speak with some authority on what I went through, and this is the sacrifice I made. And that’s what Roosevelt was doing – I relate to you. He wasn’t doing nothing but bullshitting but it made me think.

Let me tell you something, we all know about the story of the Jews wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. You know that story? Now let’s change one word. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. If they wandered through the wilderness, you change one word from “in” to “through.” When you walk through a storm, you can walk on the other side. When you walk in a storm, you’ll be in there as long as there’s a storm. One word change.

People say, they tried to repossess my car, what should I do? Don’t park in front of the house. Don’t see the tragedy. Oh, Sears and Roebuck just sent me final notice. Let me read this – thank god we won’t be hearing from them no more.

So when you stop and think about any time General Motors, the number one corporation in the world, goes bankrupt, huh? That’s kind of telling you something. And the president should hear, he should hear that and feel that. If I was the president, I would cut my salary in half. The other thing would do? I would hold a press conference tonight and say, I don’t want to be but a one term president. So everything I do, I don’t have to be worried about, can I get reelected. Here’s the things I’m going to do, I’m going to do this, this. And I guarantee you, if he’s bold enough to change this economy around, the Tea Party, black folks, white folks, will call him Black Magic.

So I’m looking at fear. If they bring me to your hospital and I’ve got a fractured skull, a broken foot, a punctured lung, before you do anything to work on me, you’ve got to give me a shot for pain. That’s what Obama has failed to do. He hasn’t killed America’s pain.

Is that something you’re hoping to do through comedy?

Oh, no no. Look, look. When I go up onto that stage, I don’t go up there to heal nobody. I go up there to be funny. If I healed everybody’s problems and I didn’t get one laugh, I’d walk out of there defeated and I’d probably give them folks their check back. When I’m out there demonstrating for women’s rights and human rights and everybody laughs, I’m defeated.

We will find a cure for cancer. We will find a cure for all that ails us and it won’t be through no comics, it won’t be through no entertainers, it won’t be through no athletes. Some little people who we ain’t never heard of, the girl you probably wouldn’t even go to the high school prom with. A little nerd, right? That’s where this is going to be found.

When I walk up on that stage, I take my god-given talent. First, I enjoy doing it. I’m like one of those cooks who weigh five hundred pounds, they enjoy eating their food. If I couldn’t sell it, I’d eat it all. When I walk up on that stage, it’s like a house party. I just enjoy…

Let me tell you how I got like this. When I was starting out in negro night clubs, one day said to the guy – the largest black night club in the world was Robert’s Show Club in Chicago. I was making ten dollars a night, three nights a week. And I said to this old handyman, he’s hanging around and making like he’s playing the xylophone. He’s just there. And I said if you meet me here tomorrow morning with the keys, I’ll give you fifteen dollars. And I was just making ten dollars a night, so he showed up, I gave him fifteen dollars.

That was in 1958. He was happy. I said, all you have to do is come in – see, they don’t come in to clean up the night club until the afternoon. So I said I want you to rearrange the chairs for me and fix this up like we’re getting ready to have a show. He did that, we worked and we put it together.

And then I’d get up on the stage, and I said would you turn the mic on. And he turned the mic on. And for two hours, I worked to an empty house. And when I left there, I had a new respect for human beings. I don’t care what kind of heckler come in, it can laugh if it wants to. A chair can’t laugh. Fill up my chairs. Fill up my chairs with some people. From that day on, I’ve never been nervous. I’m nervous if I walk on and I don’t see nobody and I’ve got to work to an empty house. Give me some people.

I spend about a thousand dollars every twelve days buying newspapers. People say, get it off [the Internet], I say, no, no, no. I want to look at it. I want to see. And when I walk up on that stage, there’s almost nothing that I can’t talk about or you can’t ask me about that we can’t talk about. Now, with the research out here, you just go into it. And I’ve been funny all my life. Somebody said, you’ve been fasting for forty years, what does your doctor think about it? My doctor’s been dead thirty years.

On the other hand, you’re making serious points, and I would assume you want those to land with people.

Listen, when I go out to give you brain surgery and I wash my hands, right? That burden is on me, not on you. When I walk out there, I go out there to be funny, man. I’m not out there teaching. Look, if you came to the club and I was passing out dinner, you might enjoy it. You might say, what a beautiful thing. No, I came there to make you laugh and not to pass out dinner.

If somebody gave me twenty thousand dollars to give to somebody Sunday, I wouldn’t give it to a poor person. You know why? They’d say, thank god. I’d give it to somebody who’s got a nice job, and they’d say, “Thank you, Dick Gregory, now we can get us a movement going.”

You just figure out the whole human piece. When I walk up on that stage, I’m up there to make you laugh. To be funny. And you see this little corny guy walking down the street… My second language is profanity. They Think Rahm Emanuel can curse? That boy could take lessons from me when I was eight years old. But when I walk up on that stage, ain’t nobody ever heard me cuss. And when the comics come to me and say, why don’t you use profanity? I tell them, I was born October the twelfth, 1932, and there ain’t been a new curse word invented since I was born. I don’t want to be part of something that’s that limited.

Richard Pryor, he turned four generations of comic on to profanity. Why? Because Richard Pryor was a genius. And I tell people, if you took all of Richard Pryor’s tapes and his records and clipped the profanity out, they’d be just as funny, because Richard never used profanity as a punchline. But I blame Richard Pryor. People want to be successful and they say, how’d he do it? And they want to be just like him.

You can’t be a genius. There’s been three genius comics in the history of America. The first is Mark Twain, and I shouldn’t mention the other two in the same year I mention Mark Twain’s name. The others are Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. There’s something, I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know where it went to. But wow. And Richard was a personal friend of mine. I couldn’t stand to be around him. He was so bashful and so shy. It embarrassed me.

Malcolm X was the same way. When that camera came on, Malcolm was something else. When that camera went off, he was so [polite]. He said yes sir, no sir. He said yes sir, no sir to his children. To white folks. To black folks. But when that camera came on, he was something else.

So it’s definitely a part of being an entertainer. I loved it. But I don’t use that. I just walk up on that stage and be with my children. I be funny. And I’m not trying to raise them to do something. They told me they wasn’t going to black college. My kids were raised in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There ain’t no black folks there.

If you’ll forgive me for pressing this one issue, I know the point is laughter, but at the same time, if that were your only motivation, it would have been much easier for you in 1958 to not stand flat-footed and address white audiences the way you did. It would have bee much easier for you to play the more traditional role of the song and dance guy.

But let me tell you this, I was on the front lines. I was running in Mississippi under that gun. So I didn’t need the other. I was seeing things happen. President Kennedy called me one night. I used to drink a fifth of scotch a day, man. I came in, if you’d seen Lillian, you’d think god had bit her out. I came in, she said, “Where you been?” She’d never asked me that. “The president’s been calling you all night.” I said, “Oh, come on.” She said, “He said he’d be up until you came in.” “It’s five in the morning, you think he’s still up?” She said, “You’re not sleeping in this house and not call the president back.”

So she called him back. The president is asking me, Sunday night, please don’t go to Alabama and join king in the morning. Now, ask how many comics the president called in the morning. My glamour around the world comes from my human parts, not my comedian parts.

Let’s go back to ’58, okay? Let’s say you own a night club in Mishawaka, Indiana. White club, okay. And you take a chance and bring me in. Now, those people are your customers, right? You see them every week, they come there. They keep you in business. So if one of them yells out and says, “What’s that nigger doing up there?” Now I’ve got a problem, because, one, the audience can’t laugh at me when they feel what they felt. The owner would have been better off not bringing me in because those are his customers that are angry now with one another, right?

And so, I was ready for that day. I’d say, “Shh… be quiet. I think somebody called me Roy Rogers’ horse. He called me Trigger.” And people just laughed and laughed. And I said, “Come on now, you know he called me nigger. Well let me tell you about me contract. My contract reads any time I hear the word nigger, I get fifty dollars more. So would ya’ll stand up in unison and say, ‘nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger.’ I want to bankrupt this owner.” And then I’d go back to work.

When I went up to Hugh Hefner’s that night, I didn’t know that was a group of southern white men that was there for a frozen food convention. Somebody had rented out all the rooms to a group from Alabama. I walk up on the stage and go, “So ya’ll from Alabama. I spent twenty years there one day.” Wow! It was that type of thing.

If I’m a brain surgeon and the Klu Klux Klan gets shot in the head, it ain’t my job to punish him in that hospital. It’s my job to operate on him the way I would anybody else. I’m not in that room to deal with my likes and dislikes. I’m not in that room, a prostitute came in and got shot – she’s the one who stole my wallet. And that’s the same way I was when I was in that night club.

I had a guy from the New York Times ask me in the 60s, “Mr. Gregory, how many of these white folks do you think are laughing at you because they’re embarrassed or they’re nervous?” I said, “First, to be a negro in America like I am, we got some negroes that’s whiter than white folks. I can’t look in that audience and know if that’s a white person or a negro. You, as a press person, you have a right to go out and ask them if they were laughing because they was nervous or embarrassed.” That’s the way I’ve always...

So when I go down to Mississippi, and let me tell you, with a wife and a family, I went to Mississippi many times knowing I wouldn’t come back. But I went anyway. Could somebody tell me today that I could sit and talk to you and tell you that the head of the Mississippi State Troopers is a black man? The head of Social Services in Mississippi is a black woman? I didn’t know this was going to happen. Martin Luther King didn’t even make sense to me, okay?

Let me tell you what made sense to me. I’ve been looking at John Wayne all my life. And John Wayne said, if you right and they wrong and they don’t listen, get your gun and kill ‘em. John Wayne was my man. I don’t talk about no left and right wing. I go by John Wayne.

So I went down to Mississippi in spite of my hero being John Wayne. I didn’t believe you could do nothing with love. And then I watched the whole thing change. The whole thing change. I said, wow, that’s my humanity. Not up on that night club. Not up on that stage. No, no. I’m down there in Mississippi. My wife’s down there. My children, I take down there.

I didn’t believe in this crap, I want this for my children. When I went to Boston and bought me a Rolls Royce, I wasn’t buying it for my children. I was buying it for me. I had no guarantee that they wouldn’t grow up and marry someone who didn’t like me and won’t let me ride in theirs.

I was getting these rights for myself. I wanted to feel free to walk down the street and see a white cop look at me and think I’m a criminal, because it might not be a white cop, it might be a light-complected black guy. I wanted to feel what it’s like driving down the street with two Ph.Ds and hear a siren and I squeezed the steering wheel. And then he pass me, and I thank god, he wasn’t after me in the first place. That’s what I wanted to feel inside of me. I wanted to feel what a human being feels like.

I was a little boy, I had a fine brain and a fine mind and I didn’t have to be validated, but all I wanted to do was own me a shoe shine stand, man. If you was going to get married as a negro in St. Louis, or you were going to celebrate your fiftieth anniversary, the two hottest clubs in St. Louis were the chauffeurs’ and waiters’ clubs. The chauffeurs had a club, the waiters had a club. Those were the hottest clubs. And if you were going to bring somebody in town, like they bringing me in on Sunday, back in them days, if you were going to bring in an act in the negro community, you brought them in on Wednesday night. You know why? Because Thursday was the maid’s day off. They could come out and holler all day because they didn’t have to go to work on Thursday. All of that.

When I was a little boy, if you was my daddy’s brother, and you died in Memphis, we had to go to the church minister and get what we called a “pee route.” Because you couldn’t go in no place and use the toilet. You had to find sisters and brothers in the church to go sleep with, because you better not be caught on the highway, at least you didn’t believe you wanted to be caught be a redneck sheriff. All of that. I wanted to know what it was like if I didn’t have to do that. So I was getting this for myself. That’s why I was willing to die. That’s why I was willing to take my wife and my children. Let’s do it.

I become one of the most famous names in comedy. They teach a course, I don’t know if they do now, at the Sarbonne in France, called Dick Gregory’s Humor. I was asked one time, how come you don’t think they teach Dick Gregory’s Humor in colleges in America. I said if I was from France, I wouldn’t be teaching it here.

I’m just so glad that I knew people like King. My whole life changed. My whole life changed.

How often are you out onstage these days?

I do about 240 dates but most of them is lectures and seminars and stuff. I do 40 or 50… I’m a regular at Caroline’s in New York. That’s probably the number one comedy club in America.

I’ve been covering the scene here since 1998, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you come in and do a comedy show here.

Oh, no. I got out of show business. The last show I did was the Sugar Shack there in Boston. I got out of comedy in 1973. I didn’t know anything about second-hand smoke. I just didn’t want people who loved me to have to come and catch me in those surroundings. Where you had to take a drink. As the scene started opening up and the law was you couldn’t smoke in clubs, I went back in.

When was that?

Maybe ten years ago.

Sunday’s show, would you characterize it as a stand-up comedy show?

Oh yes. Stand up. I’ll be funny. They in for a treat.

I have the State of the Union triple CD from a while back, and it seems like even in the lectures, you have a hard time not being funny.

That’s the way I’ve been all my life. My mother, we went past spanking. My mom used to whup me, I’d be funny while she was whupping me. “I dare you to do that again.”

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