Before there was Richard Pryor, before there was Bill Cosby, there was me – the inspiration for a generation of baby boomer black comics. By the early 1960s, I became the first black “crossover” comedian. People called me the “Black Mort Sahl.” I called Sahl the “White Dick Gregory.”
But, hey, I was more than just another funny face. I leaped into the civil rights movement and anti-war protest as fast as any baby boomer activist.
I faced racial issues straight on with jokes like: Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said: “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.
It seemed like I appeared every time you turned on the television. My autobiography: an instant best-seller. I was a pop culture celebrity.
Soon I was up my to neck in social protest. I went on hunger strikes, challenged Richard Daley for Mayor of Chicago, and ran for President on the “new left” Freedom and Peace Party ticket in 1968.
When a stand-up takes his issues that seriously, the public stops laughing. My show business career began to shrink. So did I. Hunger strikes morphed from protest to life style. I became a vegetarian and went on extreme fasts, some lasting up to 50 days. For a time, I advocated breathanarianism, a new age idea that one can achieve maximum health by giving up food entirely.
I’ve been hitched to the same woman all my life and have – count ‘em – ten kids. I’m still performing and cantankerous at 81. This year, I’ll reach the number I was chosen on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.
Baby Boomer Trivia Questions
► First black to be nominated as the Academy Award Best Actor in a movie?
James Earl Jones
► First black to win an Emmy for Best Actor or Actress in a television series?
Bill Cosby (Bill Cosby Show)
Isabelle Sanford (The Jeffersons)
Red Foxx (Sanford and Son)
Esther Rolle (Good Times)
► First black to be the star of a network television show?
Nat King Cole
Answers at end of post
Notable Quotables from Dick Gregory
~ Riches do not delight us so much with their possession, as torment us with their loss.
~ I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark.
~ Just being a Negro doesn’t qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine.
~ I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.
Answers to Baby Boomer Trivia Questions
► Sidney Poitier was the first black nominated as Best Actor. He won for Lilies of the Field (1963).
► ♫ Movin’ on up…
Isabel Sanford played the patient and loving wife of the “black Archie Bunker,” George Jefferson, in the long-running The Jeffersons. She accomplished in 1981 what no other black had – the Emmy for Best Actor or Actress in a Television Series.
► An actress who had her best years when many baby boomers didn’t have a TV was the first black to get her own network show. From 1950-1953, Ethel Waters starred in Beulah. Called “queen of the kitchen,” she was wise and smart – raising the kids and organizing everyone’s life – a model for the television hit Hazel.