John Brown Day features talk with comedian Dick Gregory

LAKE PLACID – Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory will be one of the featured guests at this year’s John Brown Day.

Ranked among Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time, Gregory will appear at John Brown Farm in Lake Placid at 2 p.m. Saturday and participate in a conversation with North Country Public Radio’s Ellen Rocco. The weekend’s schedule also includes the world premiere of “The Voices of Timbuctoo Abolition Oratorio,” composed by Glenn McClure, directed by Helen Demong and sung by the Northern Lights Choir, at 8 p.m. Friday at St. Bernard’s Church in Saranac Lake and then again at John Brown Day Saturday.

Also appearing Saturday is Kate Clifford Larson, a biographer who will speak about the relationship between Harriet Tubman and John Brown.

Gregory was born on Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Mo. He now lives in Plymouth, Mass. As a youngster, he gained notoriety as a runner, setting records at the scholastic and collegiate levels in the half-mile and mile. He attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale before beings drafted into the U.S. Army, and he went on to become a comedian whose name is mentioned in the same breath as Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Nipsey Russell.

Gregory spoke to the Enterprise by phone last week. The following interview has been edited for content and length.

Weekender: When did you first realize you could make other people laugh?

Dick Gregory: I was just the funny child on the block. Everybody abused me, said I was skinny, didn’t know where my dad was. And one day I was out with a friend of mine, and I said, “Charles, did you hear what that brother just said about me? That s*** was funny!” … So I started listening, and then I started using it on them. The last one with the gun gets charged with the crime. So I would see them coming, and I would say the same little nasty things they say about my mother, I’d say about their mother. And the people would laugh at it. And I got so good at it, you know, the juvenile games, when they see me coming, they’d cross over on the other side of the street. Back then, I didn’t know how to put it together, but I knew there is no weapon as strong as humor. They called me “swift mouth.”

Weekender: So these kids who were picking on you, unbeknownst to them, were feeding you material for your jokes?

Gregory: (laughing) Yes.


Weekender: Is that when you thought you could make it as a comic?

Gregory: No. Because I didn’t have timing. Laughing is just laughing. Comedy is where you put timing to it and you stand before a mass of people. There’s no school that teach timing. That’s why all comics are different. You can hear 10 comics do the same joke, and it will sound different, because of timing. That’s what made Richard Pryor one of the greatest geniuses in the history of comedy.

Weekender: What is it about comedy that makes it such an effective forum for talking about things like like racism, sexuality and politics?

Gregory: It depends on you. Comedy is a friendly relation. … When mothers and fathers pick up little children and throw them up in the air, there’s that horrible look on their face. And then, when they catch them, that friendly relation, the other children shout, “Do me! Do me! Do me!” It’s a friendly relation after the disappointment. When Kennedy got shot, they’d almost put you in jail if you had walked up on a stage and did a comedy act about he had no business going to Dallas. Now, you could write a Broadway play about how stupid he was to go to Dallas. It’s time. Time sets in. It’s a disappointment what happened, but now it’s so long, the friendly relation is there.

Weekender: You were a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. What did you learn about them that maybe the history books or the media narrative doesn’t include?

Gregory: What I learned from King was that I’d rather be killed by somebody than kill someone. That’s what I learned from that movement. King was just so nice. I called King a turtle. The turtle was here billions of years ago with the dinosaur. The dinosaur is gone; the turtle is still here. How’d they do it? Hard on the outside, soft on the inside and willing to stick your neck out. That’s King. That’s Malcolm.

Weekender: How has Obama’s presidency affected the national dialogue about race?

Gregory: It hasn’t. If he were a black, conservative Republican, I’d be glad he’s in the White House. … But here’s the flip side: If you have a 4-year-old child today, for the last four years, all that child has ever seen is a black person as president of the United States. Now there ain’t nothing mom and dad can tell that child. They see this black man. Now, when your son or daughter gets to 8 years old, for the last eight years on this planet, a black man has been president. That’s the bonus. Forget all the other things. This is the first time, in our lifetime, this has happened. And that’s the great thing. You will never be able to change that clock back. When I went to the movie as a little child and I saw “Frankenstein,” you cannot bring me a handsome Frankenstein now. You can’t tell me he took a pill and changed. That first impression is the one. That’s the goodness of Obama being in the White House.