Comedian Dick Gregory, who died Saturday at age 84, was a paragon of health and a provocateur against the status quo. Both these impulses made him as much a role model to activists and satirists as he was a chronic thorn in the side of the comfortable and powerful.
In encouraging his audiences to eat more fruit, drink more water or read more newspapers, Gregory performed a kind of consumer advocacy with better jokes than Ralph Nader. On occasion, he’d get carried away with conspiracy theories — but always with a laugh line. There were, altogether, many things that made him angry about his country and its leaders. But the jokes still came at you in short, tight bursts, as if aimed at the ground beneath you for the sole purpose of keeping you awake.
Gregory was clued in to social justice issues for a longer time than most of the founders of Black Lives Matter have been alive. When he began his career as a stand-up comic in the 1950s, Gregory made it clear that he was playing in a wider field than his African-American predecessors. He was mentioned in the same breath as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and other stand-up performers of the era intent on making their material as current as the daily newspaper and as insurgent as a political protest. The civil rights movement and the socio-cultural upheavals it caused gave Gregory a lot of material.
One recalls the bit in which he described a pair of white Klansmen looming over his shoulder as he’s about to eat a piece of chicken at a whites-only Southern diner. “Just remember,” one Klansman says, “that whatever you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.”
“So I brought that chicken up to my mouth,” Gregory said, “and I kissed it.”
Gregory could have made a comfortable living merely by telling such whoppers in nightclubs. But he’d decided it wasn’t enough to talk about the movement. He had to take an active role. So he risked his life and, some contended, his livelihood by traveling to the South and battling racial segregation. He bore witness, made speeches — and continued to tell jokes.
Throughout, he led a full, active life both up-to-the-minute and ahead-of-his-time. In doing so, Dick Gregory gave everybody something worth aspiring to — a means of making oneself a better person. That may not sound like much, but ask yourselves how many celebrities in any field could have that effect — and carry it off with as little effort and, of course, as much humor as he did.