Dick Gregory: Serious about humor

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory.

CBS News

Dick Gregory has long proved he could find humor in our country's race relations while confronting racism, often at great personal cost. Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours" takes us through his career from its early days - and fair warning, there's language ahead some will likely find offensive: 

In the early 1960s, a young Dick Gregory emerged as one of the hottest comics in the country. Today, at 84 years of age, he is still saying it as he sees it.

"If them cops was shooting your children, if they shot dogs like that, white folks would burn the police station down all over the f****** world, right?" he said recently at an appearance at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York.

Gregory first made his name, along with contemporaries Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, by focusing his wit on something that was no laughing matter: racism in America. A half-century later, that humor has been revived in a one-man play called "Turn Me Loose."

Actor Joe Morton, who plays Gregory, took a break from his starring role in the hit TV drama, "Scandal," to channel the comic and his groundbreaking performances.

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A Greenwood police officer removes comedian Dick Gregory in Greenwood, Mississippi, April 2, 1963, as he left the County Court House after a group registered. Gregory was escorted across the street by a police officer when he was told he was moving too slow. AP

"I needed to do this play so that I can face people and say, 'Here are the things we need to talk about,'" said Morton. "I mean, we live in a world where racism hasn't changed at all. It's that old thing of, you know, the more things change, the more things remain the same."

The play, which ran in New York and is expected to open next in Los Angeles, reenacts the brutal heckling during Gregory's early live appearances.

Moriarty asked Gregory, "How did you have the strength to deal with that, especially with humor?"

"Before I ever got to that point, I had my wife heckle me," he replied. "All the filthy words you could think [of]. She couldn't even say 'em. You get ready for that."

Gregory began performing comedy while in the Army, but got his first big break in 1961, with a 15-minute tryout at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in Chicago.

"So I pushed this white boy out of the way and ran up there and got on stage," he recalled. "Two hours later, they called Hefner. And Hefner came by and they went out of their mind. Out of their mind!"

Gregory knew that to really make it, you had to appear on "The Tonight Show with Jack Paar." And white comics had an advantage: "White comics could sit on the couch; a black comic couldn't," he said.

So, as Gregory tells it, when Paar's producer called a few months later with a coveted invitation to appear on his new show, "The Jack Paar Program," Gregory hung up.

"Hung up! And then the phone rang again. It's Jack Paar. 'Dick Gregory, this is Mr. Paar. How come you don't wanna work my show?' I said, ' 'Cause the Negroes never sit down.' 'Well, come on in, I'll let you sit down.' And that's how it happened. I came in, did my act, went to sit on the couch. It was sitting on the couch that made my salary grow in three weeks from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night. "

Paar: "What kind of car you got?"
Gregory: "A Lincoln, naturally!"

Gregory wanted more than just a seat at the table; he wanted to change America, and soon standup became sit-ins at civil rights rallies.

And it was a family affair -- Gregory, his wife, Lillian, and their 10 children. His oldest, Michelle, a college professor, recalled that she was arrested for the first time when she was five years old; her sister, Lynne, was three.

When Dick Gregory's face appeared on the dollar bill

Christian Gregory, a chiropractor, says he was arrested six or seven times before the age of 12.

Summer vacations, Christian says, were filled with marches, voter registration drives, and a lot of humor. "It felt odd sometimes to be laughing when you were involved with something that was so life-altering and difficult," he told Moriarty. "But laughter, it was healing for us."

And for some events there was no healing: the deaths of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. took a terrible toll on their father. 

"We would sometimes see the news footage of our father being beaten," said Michelle. "And sometimes it was the police beating him, and sometimes it was folks who were upset about the protesting he was doing. But we always saw our father come home. And I think it was important for him, for his kids to see, 'I'm okay. And this is important, what I'm doing.'"

Barack Obama's debt to Dick Gregory

Gregory talked about his role with the late Ed Bradley during a "60 minutes" profile in 1989: "I chose to be an agitator," he said. "The next time you put your underwear in the washing machine, take the agitator out, and all you're going to end up with are some dirty, wet drawers!"

He certainly stirred things up during the 1968 presidential campaign. When Alabama Governor George Wallace, an avowed segregationist, entered the race as a third-party candidate, Dick Gregory jumped in, too.

"Were you needed in 1968?" Moriarty asked.

"Yes," Gregory replied. "And needed now. Yea, needed now."

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Dick Gregory with correspondent Erin Moriarty. CBS News

The election went to Richard Nixon, with Gregory winning nearly 50,000 votes as a write-in candidate. His political views and anti-war hunger strikes cost him fans, a lot of money, and even time with his family.

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HarperCollins

"He was top of his game, and then he gave it up in part to be part of the civil rights movement," said Moriarty. "Neither one of you regret?"

"None of us did," said Christian. "I mean, we get it. We get it. If you were raised the way we were raised and you didn't get it, something's wrong."

It has been worth it, say the Gregory children. Their father has now returned to the stage -- more a sage than a standup comic, with many of his shows, like a recent one in New York, sold out. 

And to watch and cheer him on, there is usually at least one proud child in the audience. 

Michelle Gregory said. "I think of that courage and intellect and humor and how that gets interwoven with my father, and when you have those sorts of values in life, I guess the question is, why should it ever stop?"    

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