Select Video Clip...
Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
Career: Early Development
BOND: What I read said that you began your career in comedy in the Army.
GREGORY: Now, well see, remember that's somebody who edited this story and say it.
BOND: But --
GREGORY: By the time I got to the Army I had perfected it so that thugs, gang members would see me coming and cross on the other side of the street. Girls? I never had a date, man. Girls were scared of me because of this swift mouth.
GREGORY: So now once I get into the military -- this is -- I mean, I'd gone through -- I had no control over me then. And so I wore -- I would take white bucks [shoes] -- that was the thing -- and I painted them powder blue. I'd take a pair of long drawers and take a military canteen and a helmet-- a Section Eight meant you was crazy. And I had a guy make me a sign called Section Eight and I walked around the post all day like that because I was the -- I'd be Gil Lapierre in the All Military Cross-Country Meet and there was nothing anybody could do to me. But they told me that they was having a problem with the white folks on the base complaining. And he covered me up by saying, "Oh, he just an entertainer." So [he said], "You better go down to the Red Cross tonight and do that show and you better be funny or you going to jail."
BOND: And you had enough material to do a show?
GREGORY: No, no, no --
BOND: To come out of here --
GREGORY: The preacher don't have no material. Nobody wrote no preacher no jokes and I got up on the stage and I said, "You know? I got arrested today for impersonating an officer -- I slept ‘til twelve noon." That type of -- you know, corny stuff. If you read that stuff I wouldn't even admit I was doing it. But it was that type of stuff. Then I went to All Army -- went to Fifth District Division first, then the All-Army, and then the winner of the All Military -- I forget what they called it-- went to The Ed Sullivan Show, and God saved my life. I won it but I was so political they gave it to somebody else. And it's one of the few times back then I could truly say if I was white, they'd have gave it to somebody else because nobody had just heard of that type of politics, and those type of jokes.
Had I gone to The Ed Sullivan Show I never would have made it ‘cause I would have thought that I had arrived, and I didn't know comedy. I had to go back to a black nightclub in Chicago and learn the basic roots --
BOND: When you're learning this, do you have models? Do you have figures that you say I want to be like --
GREGORY: Yeah, let's go back.
BOND: -- this -- this person?
GREGORY: Let's go back what you just said.
GREGORY: Bob Hope. Remember now you said you and people out there see all these Negro comics, black comics -- they did exist and the ones that did, like Redd Foxx and them, man, that was blue [profane] stuff.
BOND: Yes, you never had -- you never worked blue.
BOND: Never worked blue.
GREGORY: No, my second language is profanity. But I learned something a long time ago in this game and I'll say it like I learned it today. I'm seventy-three years old, and they ain't had a new cuss word since I've been born. So if I want to deal with that, I'm limited, I'm limited. And so you got -- and that's the trick being used with black comics today -- you can only get on Def Jam, man, if you talking about some real nasty, filthy stuff that you never see white boys or white women talking about. And as a master comic -- which I am -- I know white boys is more filthy than black because they've been comics longer. But you never see them on TV. So it do two things. It says to the white folks out there, this is black family. And it also keeps you out of white nightclubs because white profanity and black profanity is two different things.
BOND: Now were there comics that you wanted to look up to, or took tips from, or wanted to be like?
GREGORY: Go back, go back, wait, wait.
GREGORY: I was the first Negro to work a white nightclub, so there were no national comics. You was national on the black circuit but being an athlete, I never went to nightclubs. I never wanted to go to nightclubs. That was sporting life.
BOND: Did you know about people like Pigmeat Markham?
GREGORY: No way would I know about him in St. Louis. Huh? I'd never been to New York!
GREGORY: Was Pigmeat Markham on radio?
GREGORY: Was he in the movies?
GREGORY: Okay, so where would I know about him?
GREGORY: I only start hearing about Pigmeat Markham -- once I decided in Chicago that I would be a comic, and then you start hearing about ‘em. But black nightclub didn't pay no big money. So if you was Julian Bond a comic in Atlanta, you had an audience there, "Man, boy, nobody's as funny as him." But you can't draw in Chicago. And so every now and then Redd Foxx and Slappy White and Moms Mabley and them, you heard about them, but that was on what they called the Chitlin' Circuit --
GREGORY: -- and when they would come to the black theater. But they would come with Miles Davis, so on, and they was never the headliner. And so consequently growing up there was no TV. So all I heard was Fibber McGee and Molly, and that whole white thing, of which I didn't care about. I thought it was silly. I thought it was corny. The woman was always the butt of the joke. Bob Hope -- you could always tell when Bob Hope was going to get into his racist thing. He didn't say Negro, he said, "I saw them two bee-boppers coming down -- " "Here we go again." And so there was nobody there for me to model after, and so I didn't hear profanity so I never had to use it on the stage, emulating somebody. And then what saved my life as a comic was Billy Eckstine.
GREGORY: Some days, I just have to go and sit --