Legendary comic Dick Gregory passed away on Saturday. Gregory was scheduled to appear at the 2017 Bentzen Ball. We asked fellow performer Haywood Turnipseed Jr. to share his thoughts on what Gregory meant to him and their first meeting.
When I decided to become a stand-op comic, I found a place to get on stage. When I decided that I wanted to make comedy a career, one of the first people to encourage me was Dick Gregory.
Comedy can be hard. It can be trying; daunting and leave you raw and exposed. It was during one of these low moments that I met The Master and found new energy.
When I met him, I was at my day job, doing my ‘Clark Kent’ thing keeping my head down and studying comedy when and where I could. I would seek out comics like Padawans seek out Jedi Masters, hoping to glean whatever knowledge I could. One of the books I read was Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger. I know that the title unnerves people but as The Master himself explained, “Dear Momma — Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.” How badass is that?
The book was published in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he’s taking the power of the word away from the opposition? “Oh this is my man!” That’s what I’m thinking as I’m sitting in my work truck reading up on his early life experiences that would turn in him into the man whom would become not only a comedian but a humanitarian and a force of change. I’m wondering how did he do all this and in that moment, I look up and see Mr. Gregory walking right across my path. I do a double take and realize that it’s him, jump out of the truck and approach him, book in hand, ask him for an autograph and any advice for a young man hoping to become a good stand-up comic. He pauses, looks at the book, signs it. Asks about my family as if he knows them personally and then asks me if I have time to take a walk.
This is 2008 and we’re on the corner of 17th and I St NW, Washington, D.C. We’re standing near Farragut Square and all I’m thinking is, “Of course I take the walk!” (Side note: I also met Chris Rock in that park and was featured during a segment on The Chris Rock Show. I say that to say, that park has some magic!)
We walk in silence for about a block and then he asks my name, “Haywood Turnipseed Jr.”
He says, “That’s a funny name, is that your real name?”
I say yes, laugh a lil, then he gives me the secret to being a good stand-up. “What you should do is go get Milton Berle’s book of jokes and rewrite it.” Then he walked off into the sunset, Master Yoda style.
I immediately run to a book store, find that book, realize that it’s 600 pages of life that I haven’t lived, but can learn how to structure my own material. Countless encounters later Mr. Gregory would recognize me as the kid with the funny name, who just might rewrite Milton Berles joke book,.
Comedy would not be what it is if there were no Dick Gregory. There would be no Richard Pryor, no Eddie Murphy, no Def Comedy Jam, no Dave Chappelle, no Lenny Bruce, and no Negroes reclaiming ‘the N Word’ which actually is a term meaning royalty in the original context.
And maybe there would be no Haywood Turnipseed Jr, who just happens to be a ‘Good Stand-Up’ Comic’.
Thanks Mr. Gregory for all your service. We’ll do our best to maintain your legacy and keep the flame lit, carrying the torch from here.