Pioneering activist-comic Dick Gregory expanded opportunities for black comedians — with a little help from Hugh Hefner 

Breaking the Chitlin Ceiling

Breaking the Chitlin Ceiling

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."

The other was when he became one of the first black comedians to be interviewed following his set on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar. Gregory turned down multiple requests to appear on the program until he got assurances he'd be interviewed afterward.

Gregory has been part of two revolutions — one in entertainment, the other within wider American society. Along with Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge, Gregory changed America's perceptions about black comedians. He was also in the vanguard with Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl among those making incisive social statements in a comedic vein.

But after becoming one of the nation's highest-paid comedians, Gregory made activism his main priority for decades, beginning with his participation in civil rights marches and demonstrations, and continuing through numerous other issues.

These included anti-apartheid efforts, runs for mayor of Chicago and a write-in presidential campaign, challenging the findings in the Kennedy and King assassinations, feminism and environmentalism. Later came his ongoing campaigns on behalf of healthy eating and better nutrition, particularly within the black community.

Married for more than five decades with a family of 10 children, and the author of two autobiographies and several other collaborative books on politics and cultural events, Gregory has maintained an intense curiosity, fierce desire for positive social progess and razor-sharp sense of humor. He currently does more than 200 dates a year, many of them with the brilliant comic and satirist Paul Mooney — a kindred spirit who Gregory says "makes me want to come back out immediately after finishing my set so I can hear what he has to say, and how sharp he is."

"I've never really focused on being an entertainer, just telling audiences what I see and how I feel," Gregory says when asked how he's managed to stay on his game. "The people who come to my shows today are sharp. They want to know what you think, and they also want to see something different. There was a time before the Internet and cable TV when a comic could travel all over the country and do the same show. You better not try that now.

"But most importantly, I've been blessed to still have my health and still have things to say, and I'm grateful that people want to hear them."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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