Back on the Laugh Track A comic returns: Dick Gregory, once ahead of his time, is catching up with himself

November 29, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Sure, some people used to think he was nuts, says Dick Gregory, but that was decades ago. Today they know better.

Today, says Mr. Gregory, folks can see he was onto something in the 1960s when he accused the U.S. government of involvement in the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And when he told a nightclub audience that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was hostile to homosexuals because he was one. Even when he said the Central Intelligence Agency was watching us through our own television sets.

Dick Gregory: prophet, kook, conspiracy fan. Pick a noun and add it to an already eccentric curriculum vitae: social activist, diet guru, author and, most recently, comedian on a comeback. Mr. Gregory has done about 30 stand-up comedy shows around the country since he returned to the stage last October after a 21-year absence. Starting tomorrow, he'll perform four shows at Center Stage: Dick Gregory "Live on the Great White Way."

The title refers to Broadway, he says, not to a racial theme. The two-hour show will likely get around to the American obsession, however, as race makes news in one way or another every day.

And news is the heart of the show. "I'll pick up the paper, whatever's in the paper," he says, when asked what the show will be about.

Mr. Gregory, the 63-year-old ascetic, claims to gorge on news, spending $150 on newspapers and magazines a week. Information is power, he says. Information is everywhere. Look, he says, at how hip the audiences have become since he quit the stage in 1973.

"The way the news is now," says Mr. Gregory, "nobody doesn't know about what's going on in Bosnia."

Or at the Million Man March, or in the Newt-Bill feud that resulted in the federal government shutting down for a few days. Funny thing about that, says Mr. Gregory, "The government closed down and nobody knew it."

But who can ever say what the federal government is doing? Mr. Gregory notes that the government has the equipment to map the ocean floor but cannot "count nappy heads" at the Million Man March.

He was at the march in Washington with his sons, three of his 10 children. He took to the speaker's podium before Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, looked out over the masses and said, "We are here today because we are in pain." Pain is what the march was about, he says.

And yet, he couldn't help but notice that so many classy Washington hotels were booked solid during the march. A sign of African-American progress, perhaps. Mr. Gregory, who lent his voice to the civil rights battles of the 1960s, sees such signs everywhere.

"Race relations are better now than in any time in the history of this country," he says, adding that he believes today's struggle is more with racist attitudes than with institutions. "Forty years ago we were wrestling with something that was physical, segregation; we were fighting Jim Crow. We weren't attacking racism."

Mr. Gregory is known for having broken ground on the previously all-white nightclub circuit in the 1960s. In the peak years, he was doing his mix of political and social humor and making $25,000 a week. He was big, very big: 360 pounds, and smoking four packs of cigarettes and drinking a fifth of whiskey a day.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Mr. Gregory became a born-again health fanatic. He quit cigarettes and alcohol and shed pounds by the score. He has spent parts of the last 25 years raising anorexia nervosa to the level of political statement -- fasting to end the Vietnam War, to call attention to world hunger, homelessness, women's causes and the plight of Native Americans. He has fasted to rid Shreveport, La., of drugs and most recently on behalf of affirmative action at the University of California, Irvine.

Today, the 5-foot-10 Mr. Gregory weighs about 140 pounds. He's lecturing on nutrition and marketing his Bahamian Diet formula, a powder mixed with fruit juice that he built years ago into a million-dollar-a-year business. And he is back on the comedy circuit, which he quit in 1973 because he did not want to perform in nightclubs where people drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes.

He's back thanks to an offer from a Broadway producer, who suggested booking Mr. Gregory into theaters rather than nightclubs. At least they only serve alcohol in the lobbies before and after the shows and sometimes during intermission. He's been performing steadily since his comeback debut at the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn in October, 1994.

But is he still funny? A cassette tape of a show performed last August in North Carolina -- ranging from social commentary to bathroom humor -- demonstrates that he's still got a fine eye for the absurdities of people, politics and the news media.

How funny is he? Put it this way: Mr. Gregory is so funny that he claims to have actually cracked up members of the Nation of Islam, whose public demeanor tends to make any gathering of Secret Service agents look like a Marx Brothers festival. He's never seen an NOI member sweat, he says, but he has seen them laugh at his jokes.

That says a lot, even if the audiences at Center Stage will probably have to tolerate a quick nutrition lecture thrown into the comic mix. It's all part of the act of a nutrition guru/activist/comeback comedian/etc./etc. Mr. Gregory is pleased that he jumped at the chance to get back on stage.

"I love it," he says. "I can't believe I stayed away this long."

Dick Gregory

When: Tomorrow through Sunday

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

Tickets: $28 and $18

Call: (800) 332-0033

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