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Social Satirist Dick Gregory Was The 'First To Have A Crossover Market'


We want to take a moment now to remember the pioneering legacy of comedian-activist Dick Gregory, one of the first comedians to satirize issues of race and politics in the 1960s, paving the way for future black outspoken comedians like Richard Pryor, Redd Fox and Chris Rock. Gregory was one of the first African-Americans to gain notoriety by white audiences, appearing in major comedy clubs and late-night television.


DICK GREGORY: And we have a lot of racial prejudice up north, but we're so clever with it. Take my hometown, Chicago. I mean, you can't see it just going in there. Well, negroes in Chicago move into one large area and it looks like we might control the vote, they don't say anything to us. They have a slum clearance.


BROWN: Later, he became a noted civil rights activist. He was among those who participated in the historic 1963 March on Washington. And two years later, he was shot in the leg during the Watts riots in Los Angeles. And something that may surprise many - he ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and ran for president in 1968 under the Freedom and Peace Party. Dick Gregory died last night. He was 84. One of the first to express his condolences on Twitter when the news broke, stand-up comedian and actor George Wallace. He joins us from his home in New York City. George Wallace, welcome to the show.

GEORGE WALLACE: Hello. Hello, everybody. And God bless you. And I'll just say thank God for our good friend Dick Gregory. We're going to miss him.

BROWN: George, what was your first reaction, if you could remember back, when you actually saw him perform?

WALLACE: Well. I saw him on "The Tonight Show" - - the Jack Paar show. I was a little kid then. I'm just - of course, any black man on TV back in that day, you'd call everybody - turn the television on. Turn the television on. Black man on. Didn't matter what his name was - black man on. Colored man on. So seeing Dick Gregory, and he being smart and talking to both black and white audiences, you got to go, oh, this guy is really different.

BROWN: Let's talk a little bit about that "Tonight Show" groundbreaking thing because Gregory said he wouldn't go on unless he was able to sit down next to the host, Jack Paar. And that was something a black performer had never done before.

WALLACE: And that's what was smart about him. He's going, hey, my jokes are just as good as theirs. Why can't I get attention? Why can't they treat me like they treat the white - equality. Bring me to sit on the sofa. I've got a few words to say. He first hung up on Jack Parr. That was NBC at the time. That's what you call groundbreaking material right there, hung up on NBC.

BROWN: And this was in 1962. I remember there was an interview with Gregory last year, and I want to get your thoughts about this. He says, when I started, a black comic couldn't work a white nightclub. You could sing. You could dance, but you couldn't stand flat-footed and talk. He said then the system would know how brilliant you were.

WALLACE: Isn't that amazing? He's one of the first to have the crossover market, even before Bill Cosby. And, you know, there were people like Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham, even Flip Wilson. They were working the black clubs. But Dick Gregory was so smart, now, we're not just doing that self-deprecating humor. We're talking about civil rights. He's running for mayor. He's running for president.

He's the first one to bring attention to police brutality back in the '60s. And he worked down in Alabama, went to jail in Mississippi and all of those places. But he was a funny man. And something about humor can get you in the door. I think he just did a comedy show less than a month ago, until the last day, doing jokes. And I'm sure he's doing jokes up in heaven right now.

BROWN: That was comedian George Wallace remembering pioneer comic and activist Dick Gregory. Thank you so much, George, for talking with us.

WALLACE: Thank you so much. This is Dr. George Wallace. I love you, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.