Over the weekend the world lost not one but two comedy greats, with over a century of combined work between them. First, legendary civil rights activist, author, satirist and stand-up comedian Dick Gregory passed at the age of 84.
Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who broke barriers in the 1960s and became one of the first African-Americans to perform at white clubs, died Saturday.
He was 84.
Gregory recently rescheduled an event in Atlanta because he was hospitalized. He died in Washington, his son posted on social media without giving details.
"The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love, and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time," Christian Gregory said. "More details will be released over the next few days."
Gregory satirized segregation and racial injustice in his acts, and was arrested several times in the 1960s for joining civil rights rallies.
Dick Gregory paved the way for pretty much every black comedian in America these days, from Cosby to Chappelle, from Pryor to Rock and everyone in between. He was also a prolific author and activist and spoke out on injustice up until his death. Comedy, sometimes biting and savage, sometimes subtle and thought-provoking, was his weapon of choice to change American hearts and minds. If you can make a person laugh, you can make them understand a lot of things. Dick Gregory will sorely be missed.
The other comedic legend that left us this weekend was none other than the legendary Jerry Lewis, who I had more than a few issues with.
Jerry Lewis, the brash slapstick comic who became a pop culture sensation in his partnership with Dean Martin and then transformed himself into an auteur filmmaker of such comedic classics as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy,” has died in Las Vegas. He was 91.
Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas at about 9:15 a.m. Sunday morning, his agent confirmed.
For most of his career, Lewis was a complicated and sometimes polarizing figure. An undeniable comedic genius, he pursued a singular vision and commanded a rare amount of creative control over his work with Paramount Pictures and other studios. He legacy also includes more than $2.5 billion raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through the annual Labor Day telethon that he made an end-of-summer ritual for decades until he was relieved of the hosting job in 2011.
But Lewis’ brand of humor did not always wear well as times and attitudes changed. Over the last 10 years of his life, his reputation soured slightly as he was forced to apologize for making a gay slur on camera during the 2007 telethon, continued to make racist and misogynistic jokes, and didn’t hesitate to share his right-wing political views.
Lewis too paved the way for a lot of comics, and there's no doubt his work and his charity left a huge mark on the world, but it also left a darker stain because of his problems. He was definitely a product of his age, and a world with President Obama didn't exactly sit well with him and he made damn sure everyone knew it.
In a way, Gregory and Lewis were opposites. Sometimes humor can change minds for the better, and sometimes it can be hurtful. That they both passed on the same day is about as American as coincidences get.