Stand-up wasn’t perceived as a gutsy, heroic, “relevant” art form until three men began challenging audiences with hard-hitting satire. Mort Sahl handled the political revolution, Lenny Bruce challenged sexual and religious conventions, and Dick Gregory was the voice of the rising civil rights movement.
Born in St. Louis, Dick seemed destined for a sports career. He broke track records and by the time he reached Southern Illinois University was judged one of the country’s best running the half-mile and mile. In the Army he mc’d shows and performed comedy, and when he got out rented out nightclubs to produce his own shows in Chicago. Liberal audiences seeking the truth from Bruce and Sahl seemed to encourage stronger comedy. When Gregory subbed for Irwin Corey at the Chicago Playboy Club, he gave it to them.
“I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight,” he said. “I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night.” Gregory told broad jokes about race, laughing at the myth of Santa Claus: “You know damn good and well ain’t no white man comin’ in our neighborhood after midnight.” But he also told dangerously strong one-liners, like the definition of “a Southern moderate. That’s a cat who’ll lynch you from a low tree.” His anger and his ironic sense of humor showed in his classic tale of visiting a Southern diner: “I sit down, a blonde waitress walked over to me. I said, “I’d like two cheeseburgers.’ She said, “We don’t serve colored people down here.” I said, “I don’t eat colored people nowhere!”
Some characterized Gregory as “The black Mort Sahl” for his political gags. Of the Johnson vs Goldwater presidential race, he said, “You got two girls and one is a full-time prostitute and the other is a weekend prostitute. If you choose the lesser of two evils and marry the weekend prostitute, you’re only fooling yourself if you don’t think you’re marrying a whore.”
Like Sahl and Bruce, Dick Gregory was pleased to see “the message” get across, but restless over how much of it was sinking in. He also began to question the value of jokes in producing real change. “We didn’t laugh Hitler out of existence,” he said. “There will be a cure found for cancer, only it won’t be good humor.” Through the 60’s he shifted his energies toward writing books, marching, and giving speeches. He ran for president in 1968. His comedy performances turned into lectures, and he quit stand-up in the early 70’s.
He remained active in the civil rights movement, and made most of his money through lectures and his new business, “The Bahamian Diet.” Noted for his many protest fasts against the Vietnam War, world hunger, hostage-taking in Iran and the death penalty, the vegetarian Gregory became an expert on nutrition (and how to go from 170 pounds to 98 without killing himself). He made a name for himself as a diet expert when, in 1987, he became involved with Walter Hudson, a 1400 pounder so heavy he got stuck in his own doorway at home. Hudson lost 900 pounds. Sales of Gregory’s diet products zoomed up to give him $40,000 in profits each month.
While some wondered why Dick was selling diet products instead of more typically flying to Biafra to call attention to the needy there, he defended his position: “When you see businessmen in airports with the bloated bellies and bald heads—that’s malnutrition too.