RACISM is no laughing matter. But ridicule can erode it. Until Dick Gregory broke into the mainstream, American black comedians had only two choices, playing to black audiences, or being the butt of white performers’ jokes.
That changed at the Playboy Club in Chicago in January 1961. The young man took the wrong bus, and ran 20 blocks in shoes cold-proofed with cardboard to get to his first big break, only to be told to collect his fee and go. The audience was a convention-load of frozen-food industry types: male, Southern and white. An uppity black man would be jeered, or worse.
But he was well prepared. A jealous redneck kicked in his front teeth when he was nine, as punishment for merely touching a white woman’s leg as he shined her shoes. His mother, a hardworking housemaid, kept the vital family telephone hidden in a cupboard: welfare cases weren’t allowed such luxuries. But amid the hunger and humiliation, she had taught young Dick that laughing was a better way out of difficulty than crying. Once a man laughs with you, he can’t laugh at you.
His early wisecracks were lame and desperate. His bed was so crowded that he needed a bookmark to keep his place when he got up to pee. His home was so poor that the rats slept six to a bed too. But the gags improved, polished hard when a far-sighted officer assigned him to army entertainment during his military service.
So he pushed the Playboy Club manager aside and walked on stage. He greeted the instant catcall of “Nigger” warmly, claiming (fictitiously) that each such insult earned him a $50 bonus. And his nearby restaurant had the same name, so the publicity was especially welcome.
The power of laughter
That cracked the ice for the rest of his wry, self-deprecating routine. “A white waitress told me: ‘We don’t serve coloured people here.’ I told her: ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat coloured people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ Three white boys—Klu, Kluck and Klan—said, ‘Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.’ So I picked up that chicken and I kissed it.”
The planned 50-minute gig lasted twice as long, ending with an ovation and a three-year contract. “From that moment on the Jim Crow school of humour was dead,” Newsweek wrote. Mr Gregory played the same trick with “Nigger”, his autobiography, which in 1964 earned him a whopping $200,000 advance. He dismissed his mother’s objections to the title: “Whenever you hear that word, you’ll know they’re advertising my book.” He hated the “N-word” euphemism, arguing “let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it”.
Stardom came only on his own terms. He declined repeated invitations to appear on the “Tonight” show, then the peak of American television fame, where blacks were expected to perform standing and leave promptly. He insisted on being allowed to sit, and chat with the host. His fee soared from $250 a week to $5,000 a night.
But his “monster”, as he called his inner flame, led him elsewhere, to civil-rights marches and demonstrations. He made light of the jailings and beatings, which paled against the suffering of others: “You ain’t never seen nothing in your life until you see a five-year kid get hit by a grown man with a brick.” He did not care that protesting derailed his career. Humour was no more going to solve the country’s race problems than it could cure cancer.
He decried bigots as “Whitey” while insisting that the struggle was not black against white, but right against wrong. For all America’s evils and faults, “you can still reach through the forest and see the sun. But we don’t know yet whether that sun is rising or setting for our country.”
His later political career was notable in its ambitions, though scanty in its achievements. He ran against Richard Daley for mayor of Chicago in 1967, and a year later as a write-in presidential candidate. A former college athletics star, he became grotesquely fat, until he adopted hunger strikes as a weapon of protest. The first was against the Vietnam war (he shunned solid food for 30 months). His later fasts related to causes ranging from apartheid to the Equal Rights Amendment, drug abuse, Native American rights, nuclear power, police brutality, prison reform, the hostages in Iran—and Michael Jackson’s innocence on child-abuse charges.
A newfound vegetarianism became a crusade and then a business, with clients including John Lennon and Muhammad Ali. The treatments were unorthodox, involving copious draughts of vegetable juice and thrice-weekly enemas. His diet drinks were profitable rot too, but at least the other advice—a daily mile-long walk, and a single balanced evening meal—was beneficial. He treated his own cancer with diet, herbs and mysterious gadgets, gloating when it went into remission.
The crankery extended to conspiracy theories, of varying merits. He co-authored a book suggesting FBI complicity in the murder of his friend Martin Luther King. He also believed the Moon landings were faked, as were the official accounts of the crack cocaine epidemic and the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. Disarming the powerful with laughter was one thing. Trusting their truthfulness was another.