We caught up with a few of the headliners of this week’s Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival and got their thoughts on comedy, coming to Traverse City and some of their future projects.
Activist and comedian Dick Gregory has been performing stand up comedy since the late ’50s. He entered the national comedy scene in 1961 when Chicago’s Playboy Club, as a direct request from publisher Hugh Hefner, booked him as a replacement for a white comedian. Now 80, the African American comedian and civil rights activist whose social satire changed the way white Americans perceived African American comedians is as feisty as ever. While in the ’70s, Gregory abandoned full-time comedy to focus on his political interests, which widened from race relations to include such issues as violence, world hunger, capital punishment, drug abuse and poor health care. He has now returned to the stage making 100 plus appearances a year. He will be presented with the TC Winter Comedy Arts Legends Award on Saturday at 6 pm prior to his performance at the City Opera House.
Northern Express: Mr. Gregory you have been an outspoken critic of the injustices in our society for 60 years especially in the area of race. You have used your stand up career to at times make light of these, do you have any sense that race relations have improved at all in our country?
Dick Gregory: Yes and no, the physical has improved, but not the mental. What I mean by that is after listening to white folks for years, I assumed that all black folks looked alike. Well after President Obama was elected, I haven’t had one white person come up to me and say, “Excuse me, Mr. President.” So I guess we don’t all look alike. But sure, it has improved, but that is like saying we have cured some of the cancer in your body but there is some still there that you can live with. Well, you still have cancer in your body. The same can be said when it comes to race relations. It is a mental thing now, it is in the mind. That is where racism exists, and now we are trying to rewrite history like some things didn’t even exist.
NE: You mean like with the N-word being removed from literature and historical based films?
DG: Exactly what the hell is the N-word? I know you are trying to be respectful but if you ask a 12 year old kid, “Hey, some one called the president the N-word, they would say, “the N-word. That’s the 14th letter in the alphabet.”
Look, I didn’t invent the word nigger, it is a part of our history and to suggest that we not use the word in the context it was used in recent films like Django Unchained and Lincoln would be to create a lie. I know when I wrote my bestselling autobiography back in the early ’60s and titled it Nigger, bookstores had real issues. I remember my mother being upset with me for the title. I just told her, “don’t worry, anytime you hear a white person say Nigger they are just promoting my book.” I am just saying we can’t pretend these things never existed or don’t exist today.
NE: When you perform in Traverse City will your comedy routine focus on the societal ills of today?
DG: Sure, there will be a focus on what is going on today. It is actually easier for me to do my type of comedy today because when I started, there was just three TV networks and a handful of radio stations. Now there are 40,000 internet radio stations, cable TV and more. So there is no such thing as an uninformed person. There might be wrongly informed people but for the most part, with all that information people are probably over-informed.
I will address the thugs in the media and all the lies they are creating. Thank God we have people like Michael Moore who are willing to speak and write the truth. Michael Moore changed the way people looked at the news. He changed the belief system. He proved that you don’t need to put on a $4,000 Neiman Marcus suit and wear a $400 pair of shoes to get people to believe you. What Michael Moore showed us is money is not power, education is not power. Information is power and if you are giving people bad information you eventually find you don’t have power.
NE: So you feel that the media and the government are lying to us?
DG: Look I am 80 years old. I remember the time I use to lie and rewrite the truth to get a girlfriend. So If I would lie to get some booty what do you think these thugs will do to control the whole world?