Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"Not poor, just broke": Deceased Artiste Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory never shut up. When other standup comedians did “safe” comedy about airlines, the “battle of the sexes,” and living in suburbia, Greg (as he was known to his friends and fans; he wrote that “the White press started referring to me as 'Dick' Gregory”) took his place as “the black Mort Sahl,” dissecting issues of the day with pointed humor.

When other comedians avoided civil rights marches (Lenny Bruce, whom Greg considered a “genius,” openly admitted he was wary of attending the marches), Greg put himself in the front lines and always had a fast joke and insight for a nearby news camera. When black celebrities had a choice in the Sixties whether they would keep their career on an even keel or make a statement with their behavior, Greg made it clear where he stood and actually killed his comedic career by being such a committed individual. Greg wouldn't shut up, and for that we should all be grateful.

He may not have been the single best black standup comic of all time (that honor will always go to Pryor, of whom Greg said in his book Callus on My Soul, “Richard Pryor surpassed me in many ways.”) and he never had a fraction of the multi-million dollar success of Bill Cosby or Chris Rock. But because he took the chances he took and because he never stopped talking about injustice, Gregory was arguably the most important standup of his generation and inarguably the first “modern” black standup.

The first thing that strikes you when watching footage of Greg in the early Sixties — of which there is precious little on the Net — is how relaxed he is. It's not a spaced-out calm, it's an impressively low-key attitude he maintains while saying very sharp things. Take, for example, the segment he did on a Merv Griffin Show episode in 1965, which aired recently on Get TV and is sadly represented online by this brief snippet of panel talk rather than standup:

The topics he discussed are sadly timeless, most prominently police brutality in communities of color. He remained concerned and authentic while also being level-headed about the topics under discussion. Greg had the aspect of a reporter (or, more properly, an op-ed columnist) in his standup, someone who is pointing out the absurdity of it all, but also noting the “normalcy” that disguised racist views, the way in which most of the things he opposed were touted simply as “the way it is.” The best early footage of him can be found here at 15:18:

As he got older he became much more outraged. It was a brutal reaction that came about most likely because he had seen so many of his allies from the Movement die violent deaths (many of which were highly suspect and — gosh, can it be? — wound up benefitting our government). So Greg became an old voice calling young people to account, saying in essence that the work his colleagues started isn't done and, most likely, won't be finished for decades to come.

Greg celebrated the Obama presidency but had no delusions about a “post-racial” America, and he said so, which made it impossible for him to get on mainstream TV. Except for Arsenio Hall, who continued to bring on the “old guard” of black standups (Gregory, Mooney, even Dolemite himself, Rudy Ray Moore).

So Greg guested on left-wing programs — not the phony liberal shows on MSNBC, but the shows that are as “Left as is comfortable” in the U.S., like Democracy Now. This tribute episode includes a large chunk of a 2001 interview in which Greg does parts of his act in an interview with Amy Goodman.

There again you've got Greg in his element — talking with an assurance and a wry straightforwardness that never let the viewer lay back and disconnect. When he was in his standup persona, Greg invited you to laugh but he never wanted you to get so comfortable that you'd tune out the fact that the absurdities he was talking about are taken as “normal” in America.

Greg put his life on the line on a regular basis. He kept taking crazy chances with his health (through countless months-long hunger strikes) and his personal safety way into his senior years. In what was a clear challenge to younger people (and the rest of us), he was saying, “here's an old man who won't sit down and be quiet — what about you?” He could, however, still do a calm and straightforward interview.

An ample amount of Greg's comedy is available online in audio form, but his books still need to be read. From the first he shook things up, calling his autobiography nigger (1964), to get the word right out there on bookshelves. He also offered reflections on the Movement in From the Back of the Bus (1962), the story of his write-in run for President (Write Me In!, 1968), a second volume of his autobiography (Up From Nigger, 1976), and a survey of his dietary/health advice (Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat, 1973).

All the above (except the diet book) was in my local Jackson Heights, Queens, library when I was growing up and I found them to be great “101s” about the civil rights movement, with the proper amount of somberness and tenacity but also with jokes (it never hurts to teach with a smile).

I recently finished reading Greg's last memoir Callus on My Soul (2000), which was apparently going to be turned into a documentary by actor-filmmaker Bill Duke. There's a short version of the doc (or a long version of the trailer?) on Vimeo:

It was great to “catch up” with Greg's life — he hadn't written in the intervening years about his weight-loss product years and the many (many!) political issues he protested since the Sixties. His process for opposing an event or institution was specific: speaking out, protesting, and getting arrested if necessary. In Callus he dotes wisely on the importance of the “press” a given protest would get – decades before the Internet, he, like Abbie Hoffman and others on the Left, understood that the most important thing is the media coverage of an event. Check out the footage after 34:00 in this assemblage of great clips:

Callus has one curious “thread”: the number of times that Greg felt “something was wrong” and didn't go somewhere, only to later find that one of his friends was killed in the place he didn't go. It is an odd trope — it's almost like he was saying that he was sorry his friends had to die, but that he's glad that he hadn't joined them.

Perhaps, though, this only struck me as odd because of my own atheism — throughout his life, Greg credited two forces for keeping him out of harm: God and his wife, Lil (who survived him; the couple were married for 58 years until Greg's death). In the instances in which he survived a “near-miss” his prayers, he says in Callus, were what kept him alive.

The book has an informal voice, thanks to co-author Sheila P. Moses keeping Greg's own thoughts and reflections on things in the forefront, while offering younger readers historical context for the situations he writes about. One of the things that was always impressive about Greg was the degree to which he credited his writing staff. On his comedy albums he made their names known, and in his books, he put the cowriters' names right below his own, in the same type-size (no invisible ghost writers for him). Here’s a long C-SPAN interview with Greg about Callus:

In a profession like standup comedy, where the younger performers want to appear like “whiz kids” who write all their material, it was refreshingly honest of Greg to acknowledge the presence of the men (and women) who made his act as good as it was.

Sadly, a lot of the videos found on YT consist of Greg as a senior berating his younger interviewers for not being familiar with history he was talking about (real and extrapolated). The very real conspiracies  he had discussed in decades past had transformed into discussions of how each trauma experienced by a black celebrity was a conspiracy — making it seem as if the immaculately talented Prince and Michael Jackson were the targets of state-sponsored “hits” like Medgar Evers, JFK, and Dr. King were.

Those videos show that Greg lost none of his fire as he got older, but he unfortunately went off in a direction that didn't befit his kind of intensity. Of far more importance is the very real situation he talks about near the end of Callus: the CIA's introduction into black communities of a billion dollars’ worth of cocaine, creating the crack epidemic of the Eighties — and funding the Contras in Nicaragua and American activities in El Salvador.

This is the kind of “reporting” we needed and always got from Greg. And if he wasn't as calm and wry as a senior as he was as a young man, he continued to fight the good fight until his last days. A hell of a legacy for man who started out as a nightclub comedian….


A few of his comedy albums can be listened to in their entirety on YT, some track by track (such as his first from 1961, In Living Black and White). Here is one side of East and West:

The Two Sides of Dick Gregory (1963):

The later Greg, from 1969: The Light Side: The Dark Side:

One of his best routines from the later period, “Frankenstein,” finds him conflating a bunch of the Universal monster pics, but creating a nice allegory for the Civil Rights Movement:

A very good interview from 1966, shot in a nightclub:

1968 interview, about presidential candidacy (b&w)

A quite odd program: Friends of… Gloria Swanson from 1977. An apparent lunchtime presentation that lasts two hours, it was produced here in NYC by Metromedia Ch. 5. The discussion centers on food and health. (Greg openly condemned sugar — but would you rather eat sugary food or kelp? That was the main ingredient in his nutrient product called “Formula Four X.”)

As a final shot over the ramparts, here’s Greg and the brilliant Mr. Paul Mooney cutting loose for an hour on the radio in 2012:

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