Dick Gregory interview

The revolutionary US stand-up and civil rights activist talks to Ben Williams about his career

It’s not often that a comedian casually name-drops Martin Luther King during an interview. But not every comedian has lived a life as vibrant as Dick Gregory’s. Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby’s influence on comedy is often praised, and rightly so. But the St Louis-born comic who paved the way for them is too often forgotten.

Gregory is one of the all-time great American stand-ups, mixing friendly storytelling humour with a clear political message. As the first black comic to play a white nightclub, he not only opened the doors for hundreds of black stand-ups, he also helped shift racial prejudice among white audiences through his comedy. ‘I used to get letters saying, “I didn’t know black children and white children were the same,” ’ the 79-year-old tells me over the phone from an Atlanta hotel, ‘and it dawned on me: where else would they hear black folks talk about their children? They don’t hang around in black society, and the maid’s not going to talk about them…’

Gregory started performing in the mid-’50s while serving in the army. After completing his military service he moved to Chicago in the hope of turning his stand-up into a profession, but it wasn’t until 1961 that he changed the face of comedy for ever. ‘It was an unwritten law that black comics were not permitted to work white nightclubs,’ he says. ‘You could sing and you could dance, but you couldn’t stand flat-footed and talk; that was a no-no.’ Surprisingly, Hugh Hefner was the promoter to break that rule when he asked Gregory to appear at the Playboy Club in Chicago one Sunday when his regular act refused to work seven days a week. ‘It went over so good they gave me a two-week contract and my act made the front page of Time magazine,’ Gregory explains.

His two-week stint turned into a three-year residency, and when word about his skill spread he was invited on to ‘The Tonight Show with Jack Paar’, then the most powerful programme on American television. Initially, however, he refused to appear. ‘I told them, “A black act had never been permitted to sit on the couch,” ’ he explains, referring to the fact that every black act that appeared on the show had performed rather than sat down and be interviewed. ‘So they told me, “Come on in, you can sit down,” and that changed my life. I was making $250 a week at the Playboy Club. Sitting on that couch, my salary jumped to $5,000 a night. In the year before, I made $1,500 the whole year, and in the next 18 months I made $3.5 million – that’s how big it was.’

Dick Gregory with Martin Luther King Dick Gregory with Martin Luther King

But, despite the vast income and quickly becoming a household name in the States, the money never meant a lot to Gregory. As he explains, ‘You hear entertainers all the time, saying, “If I couldn’t get paid for this, I’d do it for free.” When’s the last time you ever heard a business person say, “If I couldn’t get paid for being chairman of British Petroleum, I’d do it for free”?’ The father of ten, who has been married to wife Lillian for 53 years, seemed to repeatedly sacrifice his career for the civil rights movement. At the forefront of every turn of black American history in his lifetime, he was friends with fellow campaigners Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and effectively quit stand-up in 1973. ‘I said to my agent: “It’s unfair for me to book myself into a nightclub through you, they spend all their money advertising, and then I might end up in jail.” Anybody can be loved as a celebrity, but when you cool off, they don’t love you, and then you don’t make money any more. The respect you have for being a decent human being; that’s plenty.’

Gregory still protests to this day. In March this year he was arrested, along with George Clooney, for demonstrating outside the Sudanese Embassy about the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. He’s committed to many hunger strikes protesting against the Vietnam War and capital punishment, among others, and is currently only consuming fluids to show compassion for the people losing their jobs in this economically depressing climate. But it’s in these hard times that Gregory believes comedy is most important. ‘I feel a different laugh from the people I see come to the clubs. Before I felt: Wow, you sure are funny. But now I feel: Oh, thank God for you. The difference is: There’s something you’re doing up there that I need. I just thought it was a laugh, but it’s medicine. It makes me forget about my sick grandmother; it makes me forget about the folks we have to put in the old folks home because my husband and I have to work every day and we can’t look after them.’

In his own old age, Gregory shows no signs of retiring, from comedy or his beliefs. Although he rarely performs stand-up these days, he’s excited about his trip to our city. ‘You people in London have trees older than our country!’ he jokes when I ask for his thoughts on our capital. Before we wrap up, he also chips in his two cents about our monarch. ‘I love Queen Elizabeth,’ he says. ‘I love her because she’s so rich. Queen Elizabeth makes $360 million every 24 hours from interest on her money. You know, I always say white is not a colour, white is an attitude, and if you haven’t got trillions of dollars in the bank that you don’t need, you can’t be white. Queen Elizabeth is white.’