Who is Dick Gregory? Unless you are my age or more, you may not know. If you don’t know, HBO has an excellent documentary called “The one and only Dick Gregory,” that includes comedians and actors feting his career and life including folks like Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Belafonte and his wife Lillian, children Ayanna and Christian and various others..
Gregory was a clever and conversational style comedian who, as an African-American, was able to slip into his comedy a wry view of the civil rights deficiencies of his race. He also became an activist and protestor getting arrested over 500 times. He said in the HBO documentary he did not intend on getting involved so much, but the injustice was overwhelming.
He grew to call both Martin Luther King and Medger Evers friends. It is sad and sobering these two men were assassinated for their activism. If Gregory had not been called back home for the sudden death of his infant son, he may have been with Evers when the latter was murdered. What I did not know about Evers is he was a Korean Conflict veteran who noted that he fought for others’ freedoms abroad, when at home he did not have the same freedoms as other Americans.
The comedians in the HBO show note that Gregory’s comedic style was not over the top. He actually snuck up on you with his comedy. One comedian said his timing was excellent abd often the audience did not know they were learning something until it was too late. Early on he smoked during his routines and later confessed he used the cigarettes as a timing device for his punch lines. In fact, one of his jokes was about deducting the cost of 180 cartons of cigarettes on his taxes. He said the IRS told him they better see him with a lit cigarette when he performed.
Another example of his humor is a story about a white man stealing a car and in his get away, struck two black protestors. One of the protestors was knocked 500 feet away and the other crashed through the windshield. So, the police arrested the first black for leaving the seen of the crime and the second black for breaking and entering. HIs timing made this joke funnier than it may appear above.
Gregory may be more known for his hunger strikes protesting the Vietnam War. He used his notoriety to speak openly and honestly about an unpopular war that sent far too many blacks and poor whites to fight. As we learned later with the Pentagon Papers, the US presidents and defense leaders knew this was an unwinnable war and still poured lives and money into it. Gregory’s specific activism got him on J. Edgar Hoover’s watch list which Gregory used in his comedy. He knew he was being wiretapped and the FBI knew he knew, so he thought it was ironic.
I will tell you some that remember him may not remember him in the same light. He was outspoken and he made you think. This offended some. His best audiences tended to be college students who saw the injustice for what it was. Many black comedians stayed away from humor about civil rights and the Vietnam war. This coupled with his activism cost him a lot of money as an entertainer.
I think the documentary is excellent and worth watching, especially if you are unaware of his history. Even if you are, there is much still to be learned.