The founder and executive producer of the Black Spectrum Theatre Co. in Jamaica, Queens, Carl Clay, told me last Saturday afternoon that I could have 10 or 15 minutes with Dick Gregory before his show, but no more: I mustn’t tire him out. But for the past 59 years, as a comedian and commentator, Dick Gregory has been quite tireless. And so he was on Saturday night.
Gregory has just turned 84. With all the candles on his birthday cake, he says, anyone standing nearby might just pass out from the heat. And coming out the stage, looking like a biblical prophet with his trademark white beard, he did move slowly. But his fire was undiminished. For an hour or so, he preached at and harangued and chastised the audience, which, but for me and one other gentleman, was all black. For Gregory, that’s unusual: 85 percent of his audience, he says, is white.
Whatever its complexion, he talks the same way, though the shows always differ. He prides himself on his topicality. Years ago, when he had comedy writers, he had one law: “If the show starts at 8, you can’t turn in my shit ‘til 7:30.” It’s the immediacy he admired in Lenny Bruce—how Bruce could do “30 brilliant minutes” on someone who’d just dropped a glass. Tonight, there was plenty of trash talk about Donald Trump, but Hillary Clinton fared no better. The two, he said, were actually cousins, with the same “motherfucker” for a speechwriter.
Why do you keep working, and do you consider comedy “work”? Same as you writers: We ain’t nothing but pimps who don’t work. You your own boss. Athletes get old. This, you get more genius. You make the best potato salad in the world, but you keep improving on it. That’s what this is like.
Many comedians, such as Lenny Bruce, struggled with drug addiction. Why did you never use? I never smoked a reefer. White folks, anything they said was crude, I wouldn’t do. I haven’t worked this fucking hard to have to look over my fucking shoulder. Cigarettes wasn’t criminal, I smoked four packs every day, I took a fifth of scotch every day, you understand? Whatever that motherfucker said was legal, I did.
‘If you are an 8-year-old now, all you ever know—racist mom and dad can’t affect this—you can say, “Oh, I didn’t know a white person can be president!’
Do you think whites understand blacks more than they once did? Sure. You got black people into positions of power now. I knew that black folks didn’t stink; White folks don’t know that ‘til they get next to me. I knew how smart they was; white folk didn’t know that until they sitting in class with them. Before, you didn’t see black folks, and if you did, they was working, but now they play with them, they go to school with them, they go on summer trips with them. The whole rhythm has changed. You can feel it.
How do you stay informed? I knew eight years before Obama became president: an FBI agent told me a black man was going to become president twice. I get shit before the FBI gets it because 90 percent of the people that do the work is black folks. They love me, respect me. Pullman porters—99 percent of them died millionaires because they were with rich white folks, and when they don’t see you, you’re invisible. They knew when the stock market was going to be fixed. They knew it all.
Talk about President Obama’s legacy. We finally get a black president, and it was a “behaved negro.” But if you are an 8-year-old now, all you ever know—racist mom and dad can’t affect this—you can say, “Oh, I didn’t know a white person can be president!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
David Margolick is a long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights.