African-american Comedian

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Dick Gregory. As a citizen of the world, an activist for human rights, and a gadfly in the media ointment, Gregory deserves our undying honor and gratitude. But it’s hard to come up with one bit, one joke, even a one-liner associated with Gregory that’s indelibly his, one that never fails to make you laugh.

As a standup comic Gregory broadened the mainstream presence and range for black comedians. But their work soon overshadowed his. By the time that happened, Gregory’s priorities had shifted toward deeper political commitment. He would have been a funny President. But not as funny as the black comics who’ve since walked the trails he helped clear.

Underrated

Godfrey Cambridge. At about the same time Gregory emerged in the early 1960s, Cambridge, a veteran off-Broadway actor, was breaking through as a standup comic on such television venues as Jack Paar’s weekly variety show. His routines were just as trenchantly up-to-the-minute as Gregory’s: “I was dropped off by a bus in Scarsdale by accident. And in the 15 minutes it took me to get another bus, property values dropped 50 percent!”

Yet as much as Cambridge attacked white racism, he could also blow the whistle on the ironic little secret of suburban integration: “What the white people don’t realize [about a black person “blockbusting” their neighborhood] is … That Negro living there? He’s not afraid of bricks and bombs and burning crosses. He’s afraid that another Negro will move into that neighborhood!”

These and other zingers can be found on Cambridge’s first and finest album, Ready or Not , a 1964 Epic release. It includes “Rent-a-Negro,” a prospectus for professional tokenism. Some of this material may be dated. But Cambridge, as those who remember his work in theater, TV, and films like The President’s Analyst (1967) and Bye Bye Braverman (1968) can attest, was a graceful and resourceful enough actor to make it sound good even today.

Cambridge died, at 43, of a heart attack in 1976 while getting ready to play Idi Amin in a made-for-TV movie. If you want to know where Chris Rock’s fierce, class-based satire has its roots, Cambridge’s relatively small, long-forgotten body of work as a comedian is a good place to look.