Thursday, February 19, 2009
Dick Gregory is an anomaly. He’s a comedian who harnesses anger and indignation; a peace activist who served in the military; a longtime nutritionist who used to smoke and drink; a women’s libber who cracks jokes about ladies; a voracious reader who doesn’t trust the media; a progressive who still says “Negro”; a government conspiracy theorist who once ran for president (1968). His books and albums have sold in the millions, but he can’t forget his upbringing in poverty. The list goes on. So does Gregory. He and his wife, Lillian (“Lil”), would have celebrated the 50th anniversary of their marriage this past Feb. 2 – but Dick was working on a film. (The couple, who have 10 children, will celebrate officially next month.)
When asked during an indulgent and lively two-hour interview, where he was going next, Gregory responded: “Man, I do 200 dates a year. I don’t know where I was or when I was. If you ask me where I’m going next week, I’ll say ‘Talk to Lil. She knows, I don’t.’” What he does know is enough to fill three average lifetimes, and he’s more than willing to take us on his long, illustrious and convoluted journey.
The latest stage of that journey brings him to Seaside’s Embassy Suites this Saturday, where the longtime civil rights activist will deliver the keynote speech at the Monterey County branch of the NAACP’s awards banquet in honor of the organization’s 100th anniversary (specifically, Feb. 12 was the day).Where are you now and what are you doing?
I’m in Washington, D.C. – I live in Plymouth, Massachusetts – I’m speaking on Black History Month, the NAACP, which is 100 years old this year. Can you imagine what it was like 100 years ago, to join the NAACP? You took your life in your hands.What influenced you to do comedy?
The black church. I was raised in St. Louis. Who was more funnier than the black preacher? Fifty-two weeks a year he had a new sermon, with no Hollywood writer, and nobody could go to a black Baptist church and not laugh. But that’s where I got my social commentary, too.What was the comedy scene like in your early days?
Let’s go back. I’m 76 years old, right? Before TV, there was nothing but nightclubs; there were no comedy clubs. Comedy was the opening act, you were never the main act. You were called the emcee. The mob owned 90 percent of the nightclubs. I owned a nightclub in Chicago. We had blues singers, and I would walk out with the Chicago Tribune and talk about whatever. Black people knew I was going to be funny. When the white college students started coming ’round, the police would come to protect them. I was the first black comic to work a white nightclub. I didn’t know that at the time. Hugh Hefner said, “Why don’t you come to the Playboy Club?” After civil rights, you could walk into a white nightclub and talk the same shit you were talking at the black nightclub. But Billy Eckstine told me about “the couch,” that I couldn’t go on the Jack Parr Show because Negroes weren’t allowed to sit on the couch. But I finally did. When I went on, I was making $250 a week. After that, I made $1 million the next year. That’s the power of TV. I got out of the nightclub biz in ’73. I thought it was an insult to my God-given talent. I didn’t know about second-hand smoke. At a jazz club, a rum and Coke is the same amount as a Coke. So people drank. And I thought, People have to get drunk to enjoy my show? No. I didn’t like to memorize lines everyday so I didn’t do TV. I think that’s why Hollywood’s so crazy. That’s not how the brain wants to work. It’s like tap dancing: You’re doing the same thing with your brain as with your feet. Redd Foxx was one of the few who transformed the stand-up form to TV. Eddie Murphy – his act transferred great to TV and film.
“I WAS VERY CLOSE TO BILL [CLINTON], BUT I WOULD TAKE IT AS AN INSULT IF HE HAD ASKED ME TO BACK HILLARY.’’Who are your favorite comedians?
I’ll give you three comedic geniuses: Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce. I was working every night, so if it wasn’t for TV, I wouldn’t know a lot of them. Richard Pryor and David Chappelle are great writers, too.Bush seemed easy to make fun of. Will comedians be able to squeeze comedy out of President Obama, and should they?
You can make fun of God: Muslims pray on Friday, Jews on Saturday, Christians on Sunday, and God has the next four days off. I haven’t heard any good Obama jokes.Where were you during the Democratic convention?
I was at home, watching it on TV. I saw it coming. Four years ago. In Hollywood, there were five movies, and [TV drama] 24 with a black president in them, so I knew something was going to happen. I think [former Atlanta mayor] Andy Young, Congressman John Lewis, Jesse Jackson’s wife, Magic Johnson and them should be dropped off on another planet [for supporting Hillary Clinton over Obama]. They all couldn’t see in him what we saw in them? I was very close to Bill, but I would take it as an insult if he had asked me to back Hillary.What does President Obama signify about the United States?
You all should be glad you got him as a president, because if it was me, I would take my tanks to New York ’cuz I’ll be damned if I can’t get a cab [with the Army’s help].African and Middle-Eastern cab drivers pass up black people, too.
Dark cabbies take after the racist white system they live in. Before the women’s movement, women wouldn’t hire other women. A woman sitting on a jury wouldn’t convict a rapist.What do Americans need to know about their government today?
Know who you can fight. Anytime the pharmaceutical companies put out medicine that kills people, they get an $800 million fine, but don’t have to admit guilt. Madoff took $50 billion from white folks and he’s still in his apartment. OJ is serving 30 years for stealing his own stuff.Without the NAACP, could we have a Barack Obama in the highest office in the land today?
No. Let’s go back. The two people we got to thank more than anyone else, is a black man who few have heard of named Jimmie Lee Jackson. A deacon in the church. For four years, he tried to register to vote and couldn’t. He called up James Orange at the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], who came down to lead a demonstration in Perry County [Alabama]. He was thrown in jail. So [civil rights organizers] got 500 people from the church to go to the jail to read him scripture. When they got there, the state police shot out the street lights and attacked the people. Jimmie Lee Jackson was there. The cops attacked his 82-year-old grandfather and his momma. Jimmie went to protect them and the cops shot him in the stomach twice. They arrested him, took him to jail, booked him, then took him to the hospital. He died days later. SCLC organized a march based on him – Selma-to-Montgomery. That’s what got us the Voting Rights Act. That’s who to thank. Second: George Bush, who would mess this country up so bad that a black man would have a chance at it. God works in mysterious ways. But the NAACP didn’t march for a black man to be president, they marched so the least of us could vote, could read, could write. The NAACP was Christians walking through hellfire.It’s been speculated that the NAACP is old school…
The Bible is old school.But the new NAACP president is the youngest ever in its history, so is the organization looking to reconnect with young people?
Was a time, you got a car, you could get a woman. That don’t work anymore. It’s antiquated bulls***. They should have a police brutality hotline. The police pull you over legitimately and you’re looking for your license, you also show them your NAACP membership card and they know you’re not alone on that highway.NAACP membership card? I don’t think I know any young person who has one.
My mother would sell lunches at the Ford factory, then sell them memberships. Why can’t the NAACP do that again? Membership is down, but not the respect, not the need. Think about how many black folks take their kids to Disneyland to see a rat. But they never take them to [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s grave, without whom we couldn’t walk into Disneyland. Hear me? Ain’t it funny, man? That GM headquarters is located in Detroit – so is Chrysler, Ford. All three of them are in competition, but you don’t think they have lunch and scheme about what the price of a car is? When it comes to human rights, the [headquarters of ] the Urban League is in New York, the NAACP is in Maryland, the SCLC is in Georgia. You would think they would want to be in the same city, so they could have lunch together.What are your thoughts about the new NAACP President Ben Todd Jealous?
I can’t comment on Ben Todd Jealous because I don’t know him. What I’ve heard, I like.You’re a guest speaker at the Monterey County branch of the NAACP awards banquet. What will you say?
I won’t know what I’ll say until I get there. I read $1,000 worth of newspapers so there’s nothing on the planet I don’t know about. But I don’t trust them. I read it to look for the cracks in the fabric.What do most people not know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
His parents were conservative Republicans. And he never had a hidden agenda. He didn’t go to no school to learn how to do what he did. He picked that up on his own. And changed the world with his Revolutionary Theology.You wrote two books with the word “nigger” in the title. What do you think about the word today?
I tell people, how could you be mad if I call you a nigger? If I call you a billionaire, you OK with that ’cuz you don’t know if you will be, but you’re so sure you’re a nigger. When I was a little boy the one thing of all the nasty stuff they called me, you know what was the worst? It was “black.”For a man so busy, what do you do for R and R?
I get up every morning and walk 10 miles.As a nutrition advocate, what are your thoughts about food movements like slow food, raw food, localism and organic food?
The poorer you are, the more you eat for taste. When you eat a barbecue rib, you get instant gratification. That’s why black men account for [more] prostate cancer. Sex wears out the prostate gland, but it gives you instant gratification. That’s why entertainment is so popular with poor folk. We eat for flavor, not health. The strongest three animals in the jungle never ate cooked food, never ate meat. Every time you freeze or boil food, you destroy it. Look up the products from a 1932 supermarket – there were no preservatives. Anything that would keep a dead carrot alive isn’t fit for humans. It’s embalming fluid. I been a vegetarian since 1962.What’s your stance on drugs?
I used to drink a fifth of Scotch every day. I stopped drinking in 1967.What made you stop?
I went on a 40-day fast to protest the war in Vietnam. I used to smoke four packs of cigarettes every day. Because those Hollywood [stars] didn’t say anything cool without a cigarette in their mouth. When they said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” black folks in my neighborhood said that for the next two years. Poor people want to be glamorous. But I’m against all drugs and alcohol. I never smoked reefer.You’ve had a pro-woman streak in your work and life. Where does it come from?
My sisters cook, my mother cooks, girls have been in the kitchen since they were 5, but when it comes time for the big money, in the best restaurants, that face turns to a man’s face. But I was sexist as a young man. Ignorant. I also didn’t know that “You jewed me out of my money” was against Jews, “You gypped me” was against gypsies, “You welched me” was against the Welsh.What scares you these days?
Nothing scares me. Fear and God don’t occupy the same space. I look at that guy, landed that plane in the water? He wasn’t a hero. He was on the plane, he tried to save his damn self, to get home to his wife and family (chuckles). How can McCain be a hero when he got caught? He’s eatin’ food from his enemy. John Wayne taught me that a hero is: You stand on top of the mountain and shoot ’em until they come and get you.What gives you hope these days?
All the decent people I know on the planet give me hope. The NAACP, ACLU. The great thing about civil rights legislation is it didn’t say “for black people only.” At one time a woman at an airline could only be a stewardess, not the pilot, not a president. And she had to be tall and gorgeous. So any time you see a short, fat, ugly woman stewardess, we got her that job. And they ain’t never said thanks and that’s OK.