Things were very different for comedians, particularly black ones, when Dick Gregory came to prominence during the early '60s. Most black comics were relegated to "the chitlin circuit," and few got the chance to display their talent on television or in larger clubs.
Now, approaching his 82nd birthday, Gregory is a legend, both as a performer addressing social issues through comedy and as an activist heavily involved in civil rights and equal justice causes as well as nutritional advocacy. Appearing at Zanies on Wednesday as the kickoff to the Wild West Comedy Festival, the famed comedian cites his appearances at Chicago's Playboy Club in 1961 as a major boost, following his early days in all-black venues after leaving the Army in the late '50s.
"When I started you didn't have comedy clubs all 'round the country, places where people would come and you could practice your craft before audiences who were already well informed about the issues," Gregory said during a phone interview last week. "The white nightclubs would let you sing and dance, but they didn't want you to stand up there flat-footed and talk.
"Hugh Hefner gave me a great opportunity in Chicago. I was a struggling comic just barely making a living, but after the Playboy Club appearances I started getting calls from all over the place. TV shows, nightclubs, all across the country. That was a major turning point."