Last week, for four nights I had the privilege of opening for Dick Gregory at Carolines on Broadway in NYC. This is a man who is still speaking the truth and making it funny at 76 years of age. He marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., Medger Evers, and Malcolm X, and somehow I was lucky enough to share the stage with him.
Fifteen years ago when I first became obsessed with stand-up, Jerry Seinfeld was my idol. But as I broadened my horizons I discovered the comedians who weren't just funny but were also using their time onstage to open people's minds and make the world a better place, such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and others.
But Gregory's service to the country has never stopped at the edge of the stage. For most of his life he has marched, protested, and spoken out. He has been arrested countless times. He has not seen fame as an end but rather as a tool to fight for social justice. In fact the first time I saw him live was two years ago when we were both at a Save Darfur rally in Washington D.C. He was onstage, and I was standing below in a sea of people.
One of the phrases repeated often in his show this weekend was "if you stop and think about it." And that's exactly what he wanted the audience to do - let go of their prejudices and think about the issue at hand. For example, when explaining why the death penalty doesn't make sense, he said, "If you stop and think about it, Jesus was executed by the state. ...If Jesus came back today and bugged the wrong people, he'd get the electric chair."
Jokes like that aren't simply about making a point. They're about making a point when it's not necessarily a popular position to take. Seventy percent of America supports the death penalty. So that means a large portion of the audience disagrees with Gregory on topics like that one, but ultimately it doesn't matter whether they agree or not. Gregory has shown me, and hundreds of comedians like me, that standing in front of an audience with a microphone is a magnificent gift. It's a gift that should be taken seriously and used to its fullest. One of the pieces of advice he gave me this past weekend was "Never forget this is your job. This is not a party. You are here to work."
Although comedy has changed over the years and jokers like Larry The Cable Guy sell out arenas, the jester is still often the individual most able to speak the truth to power. Just a few days ago Jon Stewart got millions of people to reconsider the information they are receiving from CNBC. Thirty-five years earlier Dick Gregory got millions of Americans to reconsider the stories they were told about the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Essentially, he asked America to stop and think about it.
This is why Dick Gregory matters to comedians and activists alike. This is why opening for him was one of the highlights of my career to date.