The world lost a comedy icon last month when Dick Gregory died of heart failure on August 19th. Great comedians know how to make people laugh. However, comedy legends can do more than that. Sometimes, comedy can transcend just making people laugh. It can make you laugh, cry, think and even help change the world. That was what Dick Gregory did. Though primarily known as a comedian, Gregory was also a writer, social critic, civil rights activist and too many other things to fit in this blog post. Born in St. Louis in 1932, Gregory earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University. Gregory set school records in track but was drafted into the Army before he could finish his degree. It was in the Army that Gregory got his start in comedy after an officer noticed how much he loved to joke around.
After being discharged, Gregory began to headline at nightclubs in Chicago. He began his career mostly in African-American clubs but soon began playing for white audiences as well. Hugh Hefner, who Gregory credits with helping to start his career, hired him as an act for the Playboy Club after hearing Gregory in Chicago one night. Gregory became known for making clever jokes about race and politics. He created a national conversation about racial discrimination when he refused to appear on The Tonight Show. Gregory refused to be on the show several times because black performers on the show were not invited to talk to the host after they performed like white performers were. The host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Paar, finally agreed to talk to Gregory after he performed which was a first for a black performer on late-night television.
By the 1960s, Gregory had made several television appearances and was one of the most popular comedians in America. He also earned a reputation during this time for fighting injustice. Gregory was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-war movement. Gregory was arrested several times during the civil rights era for fighting racial discrimination. He was good friends with many famous people in the anti-war movement, such as Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and John Lennon. Lennon even credits him as inspiring the lyrics to Imagine and has said Gregory helped him kick his addiction to opiates. In the 1970s, Gregory was also an outspoken advocate of feminism.
In the years since the peak of his fame in the 1960s, Gregory has continued to write prolifically, advocate for various social causes and perform comedy. He went on hunger strikes to support animal rights and the equal rights amendment. Up until his death, Gregory was occasionally doing stand-up and appearing in comedic films. Today, Gregory is known as a trailblazer in comedy who wasn’t afraid to be anti-establishment or to speak on controversial issues of the time. He inspired later rebellious comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. When asked about who was his greatest influence, Pryor said “Dick Gregory was the greatest, and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door.” Several modern comedians such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock also cite him as an influence.
Dick Gregory used the power of humor to provoke people to think and change the world for the better. He showed the comedy world that comedy can be so much more than a way to make people laugh.