Two giants in the world of comedy died last weekend, following long lives of both making people laugh, and inspiring others with their activism.
Dick Gregory, who died Saturday at age 84, made his name as a truth-telling stand-up comedian in the early 1960s. The African-American comic spoke blunty, and often uproariously, about race relations – in an era where black comedians who addressed those issues either did so largely for black audiences (like Redd Foxx) or had to work “color-blind” to achieve crossover success (like Bill Cosby). Gregory played white rooms in hip areas like New York’s Greenwich Village, appeared on The Tonight Show, released a series of hit comedy albums, and published several books, including his best-selling memoir, controversially titled Nigger. In its memorable dedication, he wrote, “Dear Momma: Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Gregory’s blunt talk about race and class paved the way for comedians from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle, but as the 1960s continued, Gregory was increasingly less interested in performing and more interested in protesting. He attended anti-war and civil rights rallies, worked as a peacemaker at riots (he was shot in the leg during the 1965 Watts riots), and became famous for his protest hunger strikes – and the interest in nutrition they necessitated. His appetite for activism never wavered, though his interest in conspiracy theories made him an increasingly fringe figure in his later years. Yet he occasionally returned to the stage, spinning his trademark blend of wit and uncomfortable truth.
Jerry Lewis died Sunday at 91. He first came to fame as a nightclub comic, teaming with crooner Dean Martin for a wild, energetic music-and-comedy act that sold out showrooms in Vegas before moving to television and movies. The act split up in 1956, with Martin pursuing a musical career (with frequent film, television, and club appearances) and Lewis focusing on solo films, first as an actor, then as a writer, director, and producer. He eventually put together a body of work that included such comedy classics as The Bellboy, The Ladies’ Man, and The Nutty Professor. In order to better direct his own performances, he developed a method of using video technology to immediately review takes on set – and “video assist” is now a standby of film production.
His brand of broad comedy fell out of public favor in the 1970s, though he remained well-regarded around the world (particularly, yes, in France). In the 1980s, he segued into more dramatic, character-based acting, with acclaimed performances in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Peter Chesolm’s Funny Bones, and the television series Wiseguy. His final acting role, in last year’s independent film Max Rose, was met with warm reviews.
While still working with Martin, Lewis began raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, eventually becoming the organization’s spokesman. In 1966, he began hosting a Labor Day weekend telethon for the MDA, which would become an annual television tradition, raising millions of dollars for MD patients, who were affectionately dubbed “Jerry’s kids.” In his later years, Lewis’s cantankerous persona and out-of-step views (particularly relating to the place of women in comedy) would make him an even more divisive figure, but his contributions to comedy and filmmaking are undeniable.