Off the Cuff with Dick Gregory, comedian and civil rights activist

Alex Howard, News Editor

You started doing comedy after you were drafted. What was that like?

Well, first, I’ve been funny all my life. See, the greatest laugh you have ever heard wasn’t tonight. It’s friends and relatives. That’s funny. A comedian is timing, timing, timing. The funniest people you ever meet man, just ordinary friends, man. People come by your house when you a little boy for dinner or something and they tell you the same fucking joke over and over, but it’s timing, timing, timing. That’s the only thing it’s about. And then, remember, comics don’t make money compared to writers. Oh Jesus. Writers. Ed Weinberger used to be my writer when I first started, he wrote the Bill Cosby Show. Bill Cosby’s made a billion dollars, Ed’s made 10 billion But it’s timing, timing. Anybody can throw a God-damned baseball. But it’s the timing. How you make a curve.

How did you find your timing and voice?

All voices are different, you know? I just started. There is no school for comedy. Only occupation. You can learn how to play the violin, learn how to be a doctor — there is no school for comedy. So you just keep going and keep going and the people will tell you. That’s all. It’s just that whole special something. I don’t know what the fuck it is, man. If we did we’d become billionaires just teaching people how to do it. It’s energy. It’s an ether that comes out.

You were at the forefront of using comedy for social progress –



That’s bullshit. They say that. Let me tell you why. I would take it an insult to try to get [women’s] rights through humor. America has the greatest military in the world and ain’t never sent comics to the front line. Never. I had a newspaper reporter ask me when I first started at the Playboy Club, ‘how many of these white folks you think laughin’ because they guilty?’ I said, ‘you have to ask them. Cause being black I know there’s Negroes that lighter than white folks. I can’t look out there and tell who’s white or not. You ask them. They will tell you if they laughin’ because they guilty. I don’t know, they might be, but I can’t tell you that.’ And so it’s just like writing. It gets to be a slant. That’s your signature. Mark Twain writes. It’s a slant. Mark Twain was brilliant. You’ve read Huck Finn?


Nigger Jim? Let me tell you how brilliant that was. Before he wrote that, Negroes in America didn’t have a one name. That was the master’s name. ‘That’s Kotchopees niggas. That’s so-and-so’s niggas.” Mark Twain was so big he gave niggas a first name. Before that, niggas didn’t have a first name. He said, “This nigga’s name is Jim.” That never happened before. Nigger Jim. And when they sit there it was the first time in the history of America there was a white and a black having a conversation as two human beings. That’s what Mark Twain did. It’s pretty incredible.

You’ve talked about Mark Twain and other writers before. Who do you think were your biggest influences?

None. Remember, I’m born and raised in St. Louis. We didn’t have television. Wasn’t no fuckin’ nightclubs. And if it was, it was blues nightclubs. That’s all. My influences was just picked up in the street. Just talking shit, man. Laughing and playing and laughing and then I didn’t know that there was a timing that had to go to it. See, I did not know before Hugh Hefner brought me in to the Playboy [mansion]. Black comics was not permitted to work white nightclubs. You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn’t stand flat-footed and talk. No. Look at the influence black comics have had in the whole world. I mean, you go from writing to movies to colorful love stories and all that. One man that brought that in, which was Hugh Hefner.

You were in a documentary called “Why We Laugh” about the history of black comedy. What do you think of today’s state of black comedy and black comics compared to when you started?

You can’t compare it. Remember, I couldn’t work here. I was working black clubs. I was hustling. I was telling you problems that had already happened that you knew about. You knew about it. Slaves had to do that in the slave tent. Just sit there and talk shit. They know what you’re talking about, but you better not talk about no stock market. And I see, when you come in a club like this, the basic white folks, they don’t think alike but they’ve read the same books. They know about income taxes. They know about Shakespeare and all that shit. This is shit they’ve learned. I mean, what the fuck do a god-damned doctor know in Shakespeare? How that gonna help him work on my brain tumor? It don’t. At all. It just sets up a protocol.

Do you consider yourself more of a comic or an activist?

Oh, that’s two different things. You could be a brilliant comic and be a brain surgeon. You know? You both of them. You know that’s the bullshit that society keeps because they trying to understand some shit. And they can’t understand it. When I go down South I don’t go down to get laughs. I go down to do a human dignity thing. I’m willing to die. I wouldn’t be willing to die if a motherfucker said “if you walk up on that stage we gonna blow you [away].” I ain’t goin’. But for the human dignity part it’s a different ballgame. When the women got the right to vote they didn’t do that through humor. People look at some shit when they want to cop out. Say, “Do it by humor.” America has the greatest army in the world; they don’t send comics to the front line.

You’ve caused a lot of controversy with your books and theories. What do you think is the stigma around what you have to say?

People create stigma about shit that go against what they believe in. If you don’t believe in God, then you got no problem with someone calling God a motherfucker. If you do believe, then it’ll scare the shit out you. So it’s all the bullshit that’s up here [points to his own head]. And so when you stop and think about, “What is controversial?” When [women] said, “I want the right to vote.” That was controversial. When [women] said [they] want equal pay. That was controversy. But it ain’t controversy if you go to war and shoot a motherfucker in the head and kill him. Cause that’s what they want, hm? You see, forget war. It’s that PR machine. If you want to have some fun one day, look up how much the Pentagon’s budget is for Public Relations. It’ll scare you. It’s a machine they running. Shit, man, before there was TV, just movies, every war story was a love story. You didn’t see no fucking blood, [laughs] alright? And then TV comes and the bodies were in the living room and you hear, “oh mama, mama.” You got folks going to war now and they in a marathon with one leg missing. A fucking leg missing. Get out my god-damned race, man. [laughs] Remember at one time back they burned books, man. Why? Because it was controversy, because it went against what they was talking about.

Is there a difference between predominantly white or black crowds, and do you have a preference?

Oh, 98% of my audience is white. Why? Because of social economics. See I get white men who come in — white clubs are easy to do because most white men can’t afford to stay, not economically, their time’s too valuable to sit through two shows. And then what happens is you come to town once or twice a year, and they come to see you. That’s why they do the same thing over and over and over. You seen them. And they perfect it. Cause you doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over for 20 fucking years man. Over and over and over.
Well, I appreciate you coming out.

Thank you.