Comedian, civil rights activist and diet guru who made his mark during the 1960s satire boom in the US
One famous and often-poached comedy routine of Dick Gregory’s involved his experiences in the US south. “I spent 20 years there one night,” Gregory began. “I walked into this restaurant and this waitress said ‘we don’t serve coloured people here’ and I said ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat coloured people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’” The joke encapsulates the three careers pursued by Gregory, who has died aged 84 – comedian, political activist and diet expert. That Gregory, like many who fought for social justice in the 1960s, wound up in later life selling himself and his new-age lifestyle, should not detract from the impact he made as a comedian, nor the energy he brought to his activism.
It was Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, who in 1961 heard Gregory performing at a black club, and hired him for the Playboy Club in Chicago, thus beginning his breakthrough to a mainstream white audience. Previously, black comedians had played to two distinct markets: they could be as free and risqué as they liked with black audiences on the so-called chitlin’ circuit, but had been confined to supporting roles and stereotypical characters for the larger white audience.