Dick Gregory, an author, activist, and one of the pioneering comics of the American stand-up scene, has died. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Gregory—one of the first black comics to play in white clubs in the 1960s and ’70s—was 84.
Gregory got his start performing in the Army, doing routines during military shows; after his discharge, he moved to Chicago to pursue a stand-up career. While playing in black clubs around town, Gregory’s material—sharp, timely, and consciously removed from any hints of the minstrel acts that had previously served as American whites’ viewpoint into black comedy—caught the ear of Hugh Hefner, who invited him to perform a fill-in slot for the largely white audiences at the Playboy Club. “Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs,” Gregory once told interviewers about the period, “But weren’t allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does.”
The Playboy Club gig became a regular one, and Gregory’s career began to grow by leaps and bounds. Famously, he refused a number of requests to perform the Jack Paar Tonight show, the biggest comedy gig on TV, until Paar agreed to invite him to the couch to interview him (a privilege which had never before been extended to a black comic.) Afterwards, Gregory became a national figure, releasing albums, touring theaters, and bringing in millions of dollars a year.
As the strife of the ’60s grew, his voice also turned increasingly political. Gregory protested the Vietnam War, befriended major civil rights leaders, ran for the mayorship of Chicago (and the presidency, after that first bid failed, bringing in 40,000 votes as a write-in candidate). Besides his long career as a comic, feminist, activist, and author, he was also a devoted critic of the U.S. government, doubting any number of official stories—the Warren Commission, the moon landing, 9/11—that he saw the government’s hand actively popping up in. But through it all, he stayed damn funny, continuing to take the stage and tour well into his advancing years, despite a bout with cancer in his 60s.
Gregory’s death was announced earlier tonight by his son, Christian. His long-time publicist, Steve Jaffe, eulogized him thus: “He was the one of the sweetest, smartest, most loving people one could ever know. I just hope that God is ready for some outrageously funny times.”