When I was about six months into first starting standup, I had the chance to interview Dick Gregory for my college paper.
It was a great experience, but it was also one of those things where I was way too young (both as a comic and as a human person) to fully understand how incredible it was to be able to sit down in a jazz club and chat with a legend. I'm not that much older now than I was then, but looking back, there are a hundred different things I would've rather asked him or talked about.
At the time, though, I was still young enough to believe that art or comedy or a bumper sticker on a folksinger's guitar could actually kill fascists and influence change or whatever. I think a lot of us believed in that kinda nonsense at that age.
Besides, I was a twenty-year-old open mic-er, and every comedy documentary has a soundbite about how standup "holds a mirror to society" or "speaks truth to power" or some other bullshit every twenty-year-old open mic-er desperately wants to believe.
Of all the things I could've asked Dick Gregory, that social-justice-through-comedy shit was what I was most excited to ask him about. After all, Dick Gregory is the guy you talk about when you talk about the crossroads of comedy and social change. So over the course of the interview, I was hoping to learn more about how humor could be used as a tool for progress.
Luckily, he cut me off and set it straight:
ME: "You were at the forefront of using comedy for social progress, so how…"
DICK GREGORY: "Never."
DICK GREGORY: "That's bullshit. They say that. Let me tell you why. People look at some shit when they want to cop out. [They] say, 'Do it by humor.' America has the greatest army in the world; they don't send comics to the front line."
During our conversation, he talked a lot about how activism and comedy are both important, but also very separate. He also talked a lot about Mark Twain and conspiracy theories and pretty much whatever else he damn well wanted to talk about, because he was an old man who'd met Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, and Dr. King, and I was a child asking him questions he'd already been asked a million times over.
But somewhere in between analyzing Shakespeare and politely ended the interview, he said something else that's really stuck with me over the years:
"I had a newspaper reporter ask me when I first started at the Playboy Club, 'how many of these white folks you think laughin' because they guilty?' I said, 'you have to ask them.'"
Dick Gregory died last week. He was an influential standup, writer, and activist. If you've never had a chance to check out his old records, I highly recommend it.