Early Black Comedians
Dick Gregory performs on the Ed Sullivan Show. Courtesy of Photofest.
The rise of Dick Gregory in the late 1950s marked a significant development in American comedy. Prior to
Gregory, a stinging, political raconteur, it was rare for any American comedian to examine racism in his routine
(explicitly racist caricatures portrayed by Bert Williams and other minstrel stars notwithstanding). Godfrey
Cambridge, a contemporary of Gregory, often made lighthearted—though brilliant—asides on racial
differences, but from the start of his career Gregory was unapologetic about his views on American race relations.
In a representative jest, in 1965 he remarked about football that "[it's] a fair sport for my people.
Only sport in the world a Negro can chase a white man and 40,000 people stand up and cheer him." Interestingly,
at the same time Gregory was shocking American audiences, another famous Philadelphia comedian, Bill Cosby, was
doing precisely the opposite. Cosby, who by the 1980s would eclipse Gregory in popularity, shied away from racial
topics almost entirely. Though close friends, the two came to represent the opposite poles of the comedy
spectrum: pure entertainment versus social critique.