Dick Gregory sure does answer the phone warmly (even after you miss his call a couple times): "Bless you, my brother! How's the family?" (Fine, Mr. Gregory. How's yours?) "Everybody's fantastic and getting better." It's a friendly, enthusiastic approach that paves the way for a report on the latest news-that-isn't-fit-to-print. News that, were it true, would pretty much throw a wrench in the space-time continuum, or at least our conceit that just about anything the government says to us is true in a post-COINTELPRO, post-NSA spying, post-Clear Skies Act reality.
Which is to say that while Gregory may be a conspiracy theorist (even if he disputes the description), he has a leg to stand on as a civil rights activist during an era when J. Edgar's men were marching alongside guys like him in parades, tapping phones, assassinating rabble-rousers. The 82-year-old comedian, activist, author and entrepreneur, who's doing a one-off show Thursday at Morty's Comedy Joint, has also earned enduring respect as one of the first black stand-up comedians to cross the color line by performing in a white nightclub, namely Chicago's Playboy Club in 1961.
A quick trip through Gregory's bio attests to his restlessness and fearlessness. He participated in sit-ins and voter registration drives led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the '60s. He ran for president in 1968 as a candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, earning somewhere between approximately 50,000 (according to The New York Times) and 1.5 million votes (his own bio). He's been researching and publishing counter-narratives on key events in American history since the '60s, publishing books on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, among other topics. And as for that "entrepreneur" title, during the '80s and '90s, Gregory promoted a powdered diet mix (the Bahamanian Diet Nutritional Drink), which he said would help the infamously 1200-pound Walter Hudson get down to a healthy weight.
NUVO: You're described as a conspiracy theorist on Wikipedia.
Dick Gregory: That's probably the government. I've had people come up to me and say, 'Man, I thought you was crazy.' But now, what makes you think I'm not crazy? How come when you go from being ignorant to being informed, I'm not crazy anymore? My truth don't have to be validated by ignorance. My mother told me a white man brought me my toys, called Santa Claus. Well, you can't be any more ignorant than that. Can you imagine a Jew bringing their children gifts and saying Hitler and the Nazis brought them? I didn't see nothing wrong with capital punishment. I was born in 1933, and when I was old enough to go to the movies, they had all of these movies — a star couldn't be a star, especially if he was a man, unless he'd been in a jail theme. Most of the time they were getting the electric chair, and it was always the priest leading them. So as a little boy, how could I think something was wrong with capital punishment with a priest leading them?
NUVO: Do you think you're a trailblazer?
Gregory: In terms of being a trailblazer, I have to go back to the Playboy Club. That's when the trailblazing started. Before Hugh Hefner brought me in, no black comic in the history of America was permitted to work white nightclubs. You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn't stand flatfooted and talk. Hefner did that, and out of that comes the tens or hundreds of black comics. But before that, nobody knew there was black comics except the ones that was doing buffoonery. And I was a trailblazer in civil rights, but not because of my humor. When I knew I could be killed in Mississippi, I didn't care; it's worth that to be liberated. I didn't go down to there with no humor. I went down there willing to go to jail or be killed. America's won every war we've been in, but we didn't do it with comics; they did it with serious people, and that's always the way I've looked at it. I have no doubt in my mind that when I go to do a comedy act, I could be killed on the stage. It could happen, but I don't go in believing that. Every time I got in that movement and marched with Dr. King, I could be killed.
NUVO: One stock question people ask comedians is 'What was your worst show?' But it seems to me the stakes were so much higher for you than some other guys, and your worst show could've been a close call with racist hecklers or...
Gregory: Let me tell you how I got around that. I'm working the largest black nightclub in the world, Roberts Show Club in Chicago. I'm making ten dollars a night, three nights a week. They have a handyman in there, an older guy that knows everything. He's the one, when things blow out, he fixes it. So I'm making 10 dollars a night, and I say to him, 'If I give you 20 dollars, would you come in tomorrow' — which is Saturday — 'at 7 o'clock in the morning.' He said sure, and I gave him the money — and that's two night's work. So I went up on stage the next day and for two hours, I did my act. And when I walked out of there, my life had changed. Empty chairs can't laugh. The worst heckler in the world is better than talking to an empty chair. So from that day to this day, I've never walked out nervous. I just say, 'The people out there; let me have them.' So I never went through the best show or the worst show. And when I do comedy, I'm talking to me. That shit makes me laugh. I've been in show business now since 1956. I'm 82 years old. I never smoked a reefer in my life; I didn't need it for happiness. Sometimes I would put stuff together in my head and I couldn't wait to get to the club. I used to tell people, I sounded so good tonight I wish I was sitting out there listening to myself. I always looked at it like that, and I always felt about it like that, and so I never had to drink whiskey to feel like I could get out there and perform.