Dick Gregory was a very funny man — a comic who broke out just before Bill Cosby, and turned his attention toward social issues as the decades passed. A fairly thorough summary of his life and work is in this Hollywood Reporter obituary.
I got to chat with him the ’90s when I was working in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was having a laugh about coming to the Heartland of Big Tobacco for a show, I think connected to the National Black Theater Festival. Cigarettes had become one of his favorite objects of satire and mockery. I mentioned to him that RJ Reynolds had just gotten in trouble for poisoning the pigeons that roosted all over their HQ in town. He laughed, and said “There’s gotta be a joke in THAT.” Yeah, I says, “I guess the Camel Unfiltereds weren’t working FAST enough.” He roared, and I says, “You can USE that,” and he says, “Oh I WILL.”
Biting, incisive, generations of comics — especially African-American ones — could look to him as the font, the guy who made comedy and social commentary work together in one act. Hannibal Burress, Larry Wilmore, they may talk up Richard Pryor. But Gregory opened the door for Pryor. He will be missed and remembered.
Jerry Lewis did pratfalls and funny voices, made childish hit comedies for the big screen and insisted on crooning on TV when he had a show — or a telethon — to star in. He took on Broadway and took himself and his craft awfully seriously for such a silly man.
But to generations of kids, he was the definition of “hilarious.”
About a dozen years ago, Jerry Lewis did a tour on behalf of this medical supply/medicine pump company, Medtronic, that brought him through Orlando. He was checked into the Westin Grand Bohemian, where I went to pay my respects. As in, “You know, the newspaper has had me write and update your obituary two or three times the last couple of years.” His comeback? “Me, too.” And then, “You weren’t the ONLY one,” and then “That’s the best YA GOT?”
Lewis said that Medtronic had a pain pump that gave him a pain-free back, and gave him full use of his legs back from the decades of back pain he’d suffered since a TV pratfall, sliding off a piano, in the mid-1960s. He was puffy, comically gruff, in a wheelchair, making a big show of punching the son that was to keep him on schedule. HARD.
But funny. In his bones. One of those obit drafts I wrote I gathered Chris Walken (made his showbiz debut on an early Lewis TV show) and Oliver Platt quotes. Walken — “I was a kid…and in AWE.” Platt played Jerry’s son in the under-rated British comedy “Funny Bones.” I think I was interviewing Platt at about the time Peter Hedges’ “Pieces of April” was coming out. And Platt graciously stopped, gave a moment’s thought to a question off topic, “a Jerry Lewis obituary remembrance.” And he said, “The whole damn movie was about Jerry Lewis. That’s what ‘funny, in your BONES’ means. Him.”
A controversial man, famously unpleasant at times, loved holding forth on topics he could be politically-incorrect about, loved holding a grudge.
But funny. In his bones.