Comedian and social critic Dick Gregory will take to the stage Thursday, at 6 PM, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Oratorium stage.
Gregory will speak with the Smithsonian's Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as part of the festival's program, "Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture."
Gregory is known for incorporating messages about social justice and equality in his comedic performances. I had the chance to speak with Gregory by telephone about his development as a comedian and how audiences have changed throughout his 40-year career.
From your perspective, how does comedy relate to the Folklife Festival theme of "Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture?"
Comedy don’t. Satire do. It’s broken down into two things. Comedy is when you and I exchange something, talking about our pain. For instance, we're friends all our life, and you hit your finger with a hammer and break a bone. You go to the hospital and they straighten it up, operate, put a cast on it. Five years later, we’re sitting together, and laughing, and talking about how stupid that was. That’s the comedy between you and me. Now, you decide one day you’re going to do a whole satirical play on all the stupid things people do to hurt themselves. So then, that’s different than just a one-liner.
How did you learn to develop your style of satire?
Probably the most brilliant person at satire was the black minister. Think about it, the black minister does not have Hollywood writers and yet that black minister writes 52 sermons every year and never repeats. He doesn't write the funny stuff in, but once he gets that rhythm—that humming—and then he starts talking about all the stupid things that have happened this week. I had a lot of people ask me how I learned. I was born before television. When the white comics came on TV, I didn’t identify with them. I thought that was some corny stuff they were doing, but they were the biggest things in America. Consequently, when people asked me where I learned it, I say I learned it from the black church. The black church wasn’t doing comedy, it was doing humor and social satire. They didn’t know it, but that’s what they were doing.
What was it like working in the early part of your career?
Hugh Hefner reached out and brought me in. Before that a black comic could not work a white night club. You could dance, you could sing, but you couldn’t stand flat-footed and talk. It was like a black person didn’t have the right to stand one-on-one and talk to white folks. But Sammy Davis, he could dance all over, sweat all over, and then stop and tell some jokes. But when Hefner brought me in, that’s the first time in the history of America that a black comic could stand flat-footed and talk to white folks. Now if you go back and listen to those records, we were hustlers—and I don’t mean hustlers in a negative sense—because it was all we were permitted to do. When Hefner cracked that color line, then the young comics that came up behind us weren’t hustlers, they had an art form.
How did you make the transition to using satire as a way to address issues in society?
See, now the switch wasn’t hard for me because I wasn’t planning all my life on being a comic. I wasn’t planning on using it to change nothing. I had always used humor. It’s like if everybody tells you, 'Girl, you can really make cornbread.' So ten years later, you’re a full-blown woman, and now you’re making cornbread and your number one buyer is Safeway. But you didn’t start making cornbread to sell it to Safeway. You were just making cornbread and Safeway said 'God, this is better than what we have.' Well, that’s what happened to me.
You can use social satire to break down all kinds of things, as long as you don’t pick on the underdog. Let’s say there’s a white comic who decides to do satire, but is putting down the negro. You can’t put down the underdog and survive. It just don’t work.
After more than 40 years in the business, how do you keep up with changing audiences?
First, I spent about a thousand dollars every week and a half buying newspapers. So I know everything. But here’s the difference: What I do now, I wouldn’t have been able to do 30 years ago or 50 years ago because of television. You see, a plane crashes in Afghanistan and that plane is in your living room in 30 minutes. So there’s no such thing as a dumb audience. There’s such a thing as an uneducated audience. You might have two PhD’s and this person might not have finished grade school, but you're looking at the same news. Before that wasn’t there.
Before that, Shelley Berman sold a million records on "Coffee, Milk or Tea" about the airplane stewardesses. That wouldn’t have worked in the black community because 99.9 percent had never been on a plane. Today you can say anything you want to say about the airlines and my grandmother who’s 90 years old and hasn’t been on a plane, you’re not going to lose her because she knows what happens on airplanes.
Dick Gregory will speak at tomorrow evening at the Folklife Festival. In the event of rain, the program will be held in the Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History. For more information about the Festival, please click here.