Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory

Date of birth: 12-10-1932

Born into poverty in St Louis, Missouri, Gregory went to university on a track scholarship before he was drafted into the US Army,  where he got his start in comedy, through talent shows for the troops.

After his military service, he moved to Chicago in the hope of becoming a pro comic, and joined with fellow black comics including Bill Cosby, to try to work as themselves, breaking from the stereotypical 'minstrel'.

He started working in mainly black clubs, but occasionally would play to white audiences too - and it was one such performance where he was spotted by Hugh Hefner, who hired him to  work at the Chicago Playboy Club.

He became known as one of the first comedians to highlight the social inequality and prejudice encountered by black Americans on stage and on TV, where his career began with an appearance  on Jack Parr's Tonight Show

Gregory  is known for his activism as much as his comedy and has campaigned on issues including civil rights,  the Vietnam War, economic reform and, anti-drug  He even ran for President of the United States in 1968  for the Freedom and Peace Party. And in 1990 he travelled to Tehran during the US Embassy Hostage Crisis to try to negotiate the hostages' release. He has also disputed the official account of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US.

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Masters Of Comedy

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

It was called Masters Of Comedy; and for once that was no hyperbole, thanks to the incredible pedigree of the two veteran American headliners, both renowned for hard-hitting stand-up uncompromising on racial issues.

Dick Gregory has been a comic since the Fifties, when segregation was still in force (and indeed, was instrumental in the fight to reverse it) while Paul Mooney has written for Richard Pryor, Damon Wayans, Dave Chappelle and more... so it was surely quite the coup to get them both on the same bill at the Brixton Academy.

And what a packed line-up it was, too. In all the night ran for almost four hours, with a string of comics and spoken word artists being given the chance to share the stage with these comedy icons. Rapper Akala and poet Anthony Anaxagorou stood out for the way they energised the room with their insightful, opinionated and thought-provoking work, fully in keeping with the political aims of the flown-in guests.

The same couldn’t be said of all the supporting comics. Mr Cee – though popular with the audience – used the crowd-pleasing language of social change for the most unadventurous comedy. Why are certain words always heard together on the news, he asked, ‘black-on-black’ crime, Muslim terrorist? You don’t hear other groups liked the same way, he argued, like paedophile and Catholic....

Really? The cheer that got suggests those two words are very strongly linked in everyone’s minds thanks to the media; while the other joke of this section – that he gets nervous when Indian [sic] men with backpacks get on the Tube is very tired comedy, hardly excused by blaming the press for making him think this way.

Co-host Leo Muhammad – formerly of the Real McCoy when he was called Leo Chester – equally kept things fairly mainstream and observational, such as acting out the walks of old Jamaicans compared with youngsters with low-slung trousers. But although not especially interesting, he kept things moving along briskly and entertainingly, which is more than can be said for his colleague Floetic Lara, whose cringingly naive and only adequately-sung songs about sex, love and finding a good man antagonised the crowd – eventually leading to a rather ugly stand-off with hecklers who wanted her off, from which no one emerged a winner.

Dick Gregory was the first of the big names on stage, closing the first half with a compelling display of excoriating social commentary from a man who’s seen it all in his eight decades, from the St Louis ghetto to fame and fortune. The ghetto made him funny, he jokes, and now people there can’t afford to see him...

This is not so much stand-up comedy as stand-up wisdom. That’s not to say he can’t be brilliantly funny, but his convictions and his viewpoint are the big draw. First he reassures the few white people in the room that, for the ensuing set, that whenever he mentions ‘white people’ – he doesn’t mean them. ‘White is an attitude,’ he says – the entitled rich, squeezing the world and its people for every last dime, rather than the working man.

God provides a central thrust of his arguments as, for example, he suggests that ‘God doesn’t make mistakes’ in creating anybody. But he has little time for the King James Bible or religion – or indeed any organisational structure that seeks to manipulate people – and his spot-on descriptions of Baptist services suggest he has first-hand experience of what he talks.

He, himself, is no mean preacher – just hear him speak about the evils of the multi-billion dollar industry in products to straighten black hair, both in terms of the concealment of a natural physical feature and in terms of the economic binds, as most companies in this market aren’t owned by black people. Chris Rock covered similar ground in his great 2009 documentary Good Hair, but without Dick Gregory there surely wouldn’t be any Chris Rock.

Not everything he says you’ll agree with – black or white – but it’s always fascinating to hear his views, which he can express succinctly, such as making a crucial difference between racism and prejudice, before cracking a wry comment to lighten the mood. And yes, his advanced age is the source of some of the best gags of the set.

In the second half, Curtis Walker niftily made references back to Gregory’s material in his sharp, entertaining but all-too brief set – the curtailment of which to make way for yet another Floetic Lara song kicked off all that unpleasantness. Combining a spirited delivery with some topical material about the Olympics and Paralympics, wittily contrasted with his own lack of physical prowess, proved a winner, ahead of Paul Mooney.

But given his esteemed reputation, Mooney was quite the disappointment, with a semi-coherent set of confused arguments delivered with a ceaseless volley of N-bombs that - whatever the arguments for or against the word – just deadened the impact by repetition, much like a comic who says ‘fuck’ five times a sentence. Given his old buddy Richard Pryor’s eventual denouncement of the word, you might have hoped for better. Indeed, Mooney himself said he’d stop using the word after Michael Richards' outburst on stage at The Laugh Factory – but if he ever did, he’s making up for lost time now.

He opened by talking of Barack Obama becoming President as the white man’s worst nightmare – as if he’d suddenly instigated the Black Panthers’ manifesto as policy – then muttered for a few minutes about black Britons, which mainly seemed to involve saying his beloved ‘nigger’ in a posh voice.

Mooney obsesses about inter-racial relationships; claiming every white man has a lust for black women, and either berating or praising (so confused was his routine, I’m not entirely sure which) that ‘bold white bitch’ Brigitte Nielsen for her 2005 relationship with one-time crack-addict hip-hop star Flavor Flav. ‘She went from Rambo to Sambo,’ was the unedifying pay-off for this convoluted bit.

And let’s not start on the garbled conspiracy-theory bit that ‘they’ have a cure for every disease, which preluded a cliched bit of stand-up about the litany of side-effects that legally have to be mentioned in US drug advertisements.

Mooney occasionally flashed great lines which suggested what he was once capable of, but the overwhelming impression here was the sad image of a man who’s lost the plot. Gregory might be almost ten years his senior, but he’s by far the sharper of the pair.

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Published: 17 Sep 2012


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