Of the many achievements in Dick Gregory’s life, none was more impressive than how he handled the point where everything often goes south for comedians.
That would be the point when they say, “But seriously, folks . . . .”
And the audience that loved the funny stuff says, “Huh?” and heads for the exit.
Gregory, who died Saturday at the age of 84, hit that point in the early 1960s, when he added serious-minded activism, at first for civil rights, to his standup comedy.
Over the next decade he waded deeper and deeper into causes, from the Equal Rights Amendment to the anti-war movement.
Eventually he walked right out of standup comedy, which he knew meant trading a broad-based audience for the various groups that embrace causes. With civil rights that was still sizeable. It became more niche when he began preaching homeopathic nutrition and conspiracy theories.
If he ever regretted the defection of folks who loved his comedy and were puzzled by some of his later directions, he never showed it.
He charged into the miracle of coconut water as enthusiastically as he had once won over an audience of Southern businessmen at the Playboy Club by joking that he knew the South well, because “I spent 20 years there one night.”
As recently as Wednesday he was saying he couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital because there was so much to say and he couldn’t wait to say it.
The difference is that over the last half century he wasn’t saying it on The Tonight Show. He had moved to lecture halls, college campuses and friendly media spots like the Imus in the Morning radio show.
It will be worth hearing what Imus has to say about Gregory’s death. They had a rapport, and not only because Gregory stayed with Imus after the radio host lost a job over insulting comments about the mostly black Rutgers women’s basketball team.
While Imus and Gregory disagreed on as many points as they agreed on, Imus found him smart and articulate as well as funny. Okay, and sometimes a loose cannon.
All of which Gregory had worked at evolving into.
As a standup, his jokes about America ran toward wry observations like this one: “When the cavalry won, it was a major victory. When the Indians won it was a massacre.”
To Imus in 2009, he likened American to a steelworker who doesn’t bother to shower before going to a fancy party, but only puts on a new suit.
“I’m bringing a sticky, nasty, sweaty body to the party and I’m wondering who stinks and it’s me,” he said. “America never takes a bath. We just cover up everything.”
Many of Gregory’s fans doubtless thought he had gone nuts when he dieted or fasted from 175 pounds to 98 pounds, or when he insisted the truth about September 11 was being covered up by a huge conspiracy.
Didn’t bother him. He kept at it, tilting at what he saw as an infinite number of windmills powered by human greed, cruelty, indifference and stupidity.
Given that, in the end you’d have to call him an optimist. Even though he said as far back as his comedy days that “nobody laughed Hitler out of existence,” he never decided it was futile to address everything that was wrong.
That may not sound like a big deal. But it’s worth remembering what happened to the two other comedians with whom Gregory was most often linked in the 1960s, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.
When Bruce hit his “but seriously” point and started devoting his shows to tortured discussions of his legal problems, audiences started filing out. Already plagued with personal and drug issues, Bruce was soon found dead.
Sahl’s “but seriously” point came when he started supplementing his reality-check observations on the news with his conviction that the truth about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination had been misrepresented or covered up by the Warren Commission.
Sahl, who is still alive, didn’t lose his career entirely. But he slipped from a spot on the main stage of comedy to the margins.
You could say the same about Dick Gregory. But Gregory went there by choice, under his own power, and up to the end he declared that off the main stage was exactly where he needed to speak from.