I’ve had this weird and lucky life where I’ve met (and worked with) a lot of my heroes and I’ve appreciated every moment of it. That said, however, Gregory was on another level. He broke the Tonight Show in 1962, when the host was Jack Paar. He wrote an autobiography and called it Nigger. In the preface to his book, he wrote, “Dear Momma – Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
The book is amazing, by the way. It’s filled with stories that are hilarious and harrowing, and he really makes you feel his desperation. There’s a scene in the book where he’s driving his girlfriend’s car, low on gas, and her mother’s in the car, and she wants a Scotch for the road, and the kids are hungry, and he only has five dollars to his name. So he’s mentally calculating every single purchase to try and get everything he needs to get through the night, when his car gets stuck in snow. There’s a bunch of white boys willing to help stuck cars for five dollars a pop, and he can’t afford that. So he tells his girlfriend that he’s going to get it out himself. He gets out, trying to push the car. But he has to cover what he’s doing, so he says “I regard this as a personal challenge. Man must triumph over Nature.”
She responds that it’s only some snow.
Yes, he says, “But this is white snow.”
Nobody laughs, and in the middle of his frozen desperation, trying hopelessly push his car out of the snow, he allows himself to be a little upset about that. That was a good line, he thinks.
For me, I will just say that’s a very relatable story. And that’s Dick Gregory.
For the next hour and a half or so, I spoke with him while the crew set up in the hotel room. He didn’t trust us. We offered him water, he turned it down. We said, it’s bottled water. “And maybe it has LSD in it,” he said. “I don’t know you.” All he knew was Belzer said we were OK. I told him I was a John Judge guy, and Mae Brussell. He started quizzing me. He had this bag with him, carried by his driver, and he would pull out folders with different stories in it.
I started looking through it. Research. I had boxes at home that looked much the same. All kinds of stuff. Nazis in America, fluoride, chemtrails, political assassinations. We talked about the Reagan shooting and the weird connections with John Hinckley. He wanted to know, I think, that we weren’t fuckups.
In some ways it was déjà vu. When I first met John Judge, we had breakfast for about two hours while he blew my head off with the most dazzling information I’d ever heard. Gregory was like that – these little asides that would make me stop and say “what?”
At a certain point he said OK and sat down where we needed him to sit. “I’ll take that water now,” he said.
We shot a couple of hours with Greg. At first, I started with some formal questions, but pretty soon it became a pretty loose conversation. He knew so much about so many different things that it was fun trying to keep up. I had a yellow notebook with me that I filled up with little notes about what he was saying.
“Uh, well there’s John, and I read…”
“No. When’s your birthday?”
I told him. He asked for a couple more bits of information.
“Mmm-hmm,” he said. “Astrology is bullshit. When you meet the richest people in the world, you learn that they use numerology.”
He paused and said “You got more than you just like to read.”
“Thank you,” I said, because what else was I going to say?
An amazing experience, and he gave us great stuff for the film.
Regarding the 1916 American election and the Socialist party:
“To avoid the clear and present danger of all-out war, the Socialists offered a mind-expanding vision of peace, totally the opposite of the muscle-flexing proposals of the Democrats and Republicans. They called for checks on the power of the President to involve the nation in war, a halt to military build-ups, and a world congress to rationally arbitrate disputes among the belligerents.” (116)
On the buying of elections:
“Of course, if a kid is born with enough money, he can let his dreams run wild…Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York is a good example. He reported that he spent $5.2 million in 1966 to get reelected to a $50,000-a-year job…With that kind of money, I could run for God – and win!” (149-150)
On Spiro Agnew:
“I tried to convince Lyndon Johnson that if he was really smart, he would have picked me as his Vice Presidential running mate in 1964. That way, he would never have to worry about someone being crazy enough to assassinate him. It begins to look like President Nixon adopted my idea.” (203)
“Cats, on the other hand, do not seem to be a political asset in this country, though they are the favorite pets of kings and queens. And it is understandable, since cats do not evoke the same sentiment in the minds of the American public that dogs do. Dogs are loyal, obedient, and faithful. They are much like Boy Scouts in that respect. But although a person may be ‘playful as a kitten,’ anyone being particularly vicious or slanderous is ‘catty,’ and many a politician has been described as ‘ornery as a polecat.’” (226)
“Government research on food is usually handled by the breakfast-food industry, so you can readily see how ‘objective’ such research findings would be. The breakfast-food industry has been deceiving the American public for years concerning the nutritional value of their products…If Wheaties was really the “Breakfast of champions,” the American government would have fed some Wheaties to the South Vietnamese army and sent them back into Laos!” (264)
Rest in peace, Mr. Gregory.