the comedian dick gregory -- 1/28/15

Today's selection -- from Furious Cool by David Henry. Dick Gregory was a brilliant, pioneering black comedian who was among the first to break the color barrier in nightclubs:

"Dick Gregory, along with Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge, belonged to a new generation of black comedians unencumbered by the deferential buffoonery of vaudeville or minstrelsy. Gregory, especially, did not flinch from skewering white audiences on issues of race: 'Wouldn't it be a hell of a thing if this was burnt cork and you people were being tolerant for nothing?' and 'Everyone I meet says, "Some of my best friends are colored; even though you know there ain't that many of us to go around."

"Perched on a stool in a three-button Brooks Brothers suit, Dick Gregory possessed an unflappable cool, taking long, contemplative drags on his cigarette and exhaling well-timed streams of smoke into the spotlight before delivering his punch lines. Not even the inevitable catcalls of 'nigger' could rock his composure. 'According to my contract,' he replied to one such heckler, 'the management pays me fifty dollars every time someone calls me that. So will you all do me a favor? Everybody in the room please stand up and yell "nigger." ' ...

"When Gregory arrived, out of breath, at the Playboy Club [having been called for his first] night, he was told to go home. A mistake had been made. They were very sorry, but they hadn't realized the room had been booked by a convention of frozen-food executives from the South -- not the best audience for Gregory to break in with. They offered him fifty dollars and said they would try to work him in again soon. 'But I was cold and mad and I had run twenty blocks and I didn't even have another quarter to go back home,' Gregory wrote. 'I told [the room manager] I was going to do the show they had called me for. I had come too far to stop now. I told him I didn't care if he had a lynch mob in there. I was going on -- tonight. '

"'He looked at me and shrugged. Then he stepped aside and opened the door to the top.'

I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said, 'That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.'

About that time these three cousins come in. You know the ones I mean, Klu, Kluck, and Klan. About that time the waitress brought me my chicken and they say, 'Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin' Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.'

So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it.

"At the end of his show, the frozen-food execs gave him a standing ovation. They handed him money as he left the stage. One of them said, 'You know, if you have the right managers you'll die a billionaire.'

"Hugh Hefner came down for the second show to see what all the excitement was about and immediately signed Gregory to a three-year contract, beginning with a three-week run that was held over through March 12.

"'And, just like that,' Phillip Lutz would write in the New York Times, 'with little fanfare or protest, nightclub comedy was integrated.'

"Time magazine of Friday, February 17, featured a prominent article on Gregory, and the following Monday morning a call came from someone on Jack Paar's staff inviting him to appear on The Tonight Show.

"'My wife took the call and she's so happy,' Gregory said. 'I got on the phone and said, "No, I don't want to do this," and I hung up and started crying." '

"Gregory had long dreamed of appearing on The Tonight Show, sometimes practicing for hours in front of the mirror after the show signed off at 1:00 a.m., imagining how he would comport himself and what he would say to Paar when his opportunity finally came, as he was sure it would. Then one night he went out drinking with singer Billy Eckstine who began 'cussin' Paar out to me. [He] told me, "Hey, man, that motherf**kin' Jack Paar, he ain't never let a nigger sit on the couch." '

"'I was so embarrassed, so humiliated, I never told my wife that I could not do the Paar show. It was just a personal thing.'

"Fortunately, Gregory's phone rang again. This time it was Paar himself

'Dick Gregory?'


'This is Mr. Paar. How come you don't want to work my show?'

'I just don't want to work it.'


'Because the negroes never sit on the couch.'

There was a long pause and he said, 'Well come on in, you can sit on the couch.'

"While Paar and Gregory exchanged a few canned jokes ('What kind of car you got?' 'A Lincoln, naturally'), so many phone calls came in to the NBC switchboard in New York the circuits blew out. The calls, Gregory says, were coming from 'white folks who were seeing a black person for the first time in a human conversation.'

"Gregory had been earning $250 a week at the Playboy Club. After sitting on Jack Paar's couch, he said, his salary jumped to $5,000. 'What a country!' he would say. 'Where else could I have to ride in the back of the bus, live in the worst neighborhoods, go to the worst schools, eat in the worst restaurants -- and average $5,000 a week just talking about it?' "


Algonquin Books


Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him


David Henry


Copyright 2013 by David Henry and Joe Henry


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