by Preacher Moss
In a 2014 commercial for Kevin Durant’s Nike KD 7 shoes, an old man kicks off the commercial by saying, “The best?! I don’t want to talk about who’s the best. I want to talk about who’s the baddest!” That old man was Dick Gregory. In the world of comedy, or at least in my world of comedy, Dick Gregory was the baddest.
His passing on Saturday, August 19, while personally sad, is a celebration for the spirit of a man who had lived many lives through his humor, and his unrelenting pursuit for the ideological good in the humanity he served. He was a friend, a mentor, and my Comedy Father. When I say comedy father, I mean that in the demonstrative way he inspired me, and countless others to look at the world around us and want to do something about it. In Islam, you can change it with your hand, your speech or let it register on your heart. Dick Gregory did all three and more on the regular. He asked me to perform at his 80th birthday party several years ago at the now-defunct Riot Act Comedy Theater in Washington, DC. It was a pleasure and an honor, as well as, an opportunity to repay him for all the sage advice and patience he had showered on me as a Muslim comedian throughout my career.
In the early 90’s, I was a struggling Muslim comedian. I say Muslim comedian because back then, I didn’t hide my faith and would wear a kufi onstage and talk about society, faith, Black liberation, racism or whatever I was feeling. In short, I foolishly thought I could follow in the footsteps of my mentor, my comedy father Dick Gregory. To be brief, it didn’t work out too well. I scared white people by being direct, and Black comedy audiences were swept up in the HBO Def Jam era. I was a comic without an audience for my cause. Dare I say I was invisible and feeling irrelevant. Contemplating quitting stand-up comedy, my mom asked me to speak to someone she knew, and then make my final decision. The person she referred me to was Dick Gregory. She gave me his number and I called Plymouth, Mass. He picked up.
I was speechless, and then I lowered my voice. “I’m looking for Mr. Dick Gregory. Is he available?”
He said, “Let me check with the warden. Yep, I’m free.”
I laughed, and he laughed because he knew I was troubled. Mom had already reached out.
I poured my heart out to him about wanting to be a “social warrior,” but the world seemed like such a lost place. I likened my situation to people “sitting on the TV watching the sofa”. I had gotten fired from a Chicago nightclub featuring “Black comics” and that wound was still fresh. I told him I’m a Muslim comedian, and I died on stage.
He remarked, “You’re in good company. I know another Muslim comedian that died on stage.”
There was a silence telling me to stop right there. I asked, “Who was that?”
He responded, “Malcolm X.”
I wasn’t amused, but he wasn’t being amusing. He went on to tell me that God got me fired from that place and would continue to do so until I understood that my comedy would never be about me, like his comedy was never about him. At that moment, I knew why I respected this man. I would grow to love him because he held my feet to the fire about serving the people. He told me that being Muslim means that my destiny was already written. The language to find out my mission was humor. He shared funny and revealing stories about my fellow Muslims like Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Joe Tex and a cadre of other Islamic alumni. At the end of our conversation, Mr. Gregory reassured me that I was in the right place, at the right time and for Allah’s purpose. I live by those words to this day. My comedy father had spoken.
In 2004, I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Gregory at Kansas State University. We were guest speakers for the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government. As the opening speaker, I was uneven, and could have been better. No excuses. I was unfocused as I was preoccupied with launching an all-Muslim comedy tour called, Allah Made Me Funny. I asked Mr. Gregory about my tour.
He laughingly said, “It’s about time you did something. What you waiting for Christianity?”
He departed for the stage. I introduced him since the audience was half attentive. Mr. Gregory walked to the stage and dispensed with some pleasantries. I’ll never forget what happened next.
He said, “The Greatest Revolution that ever happened in the world, outside of Jesus was the Civil Rights movement. We changed the world without violent revolution or a gun, and you niggers don’t know nothin’ about it!!” It was on!
Our last meeting was strangely different. In 2011, I was doing a weekend run of Allah Made Me Funny at the Riot Comedy Theater. The owner, and friend of both Mr. Gregory and I, informed me that Mr. Gregory would be dropping by to see the show. All of a sudden, doing my comedy show felt like I’d be defending my comedic dissertation. Fortunately, he came, he laughed and he approved.
I asked, “I’ve been doing this tour since 2004, how come you’re just seeing it now. What you waiting on Christianity?”
Ever the teacher, my comedy father held me hostage in a corner. He reviewed my set, shared insights and reminded me about the potential of purpose. I still remain grateful. This was a strong Black man showing me strength through his love for the good in this world.
As he ascended the steps for the club, I was reminded that he was a marathon runner, vegetarian, politician, comedian, activist, philosopher, pioneer, Malcolm’s friend, Martin’s Friend, Civil Right’s comedic conscience, father, husband, son, a comic’s comic and a man’s man.
“The best”?! I don’t want to talk about who’s the best. I want to talk about who’s the baddest!”
You’re the baddest Mr. Gregory, and the best.
I love you, and I miss you Mr. Gregory.
Your comedy son,
Preacher Moss is clearly the new prototype for the comedian of these times and the times to come. A former writer for Damon Wayans and Darrell Hammond on Saturday Night Live, his comedy stylings are distinguished for being sculptured out of the everyday relevance of life and the rare glimpses of truth we value as reality. He is intellectual, yet humble. He is charismatic and dynamic, but does not have to demand great attention or time because his audiences come to cooperatively listen, laugh, and in “special” moments, reflect. Truly this is a rare combination. He is more than a comedian, priding himself on being just a man. Viewed, respected and revered as a man of the people, his words carry life and just as importantly, they carry laughter. Visit his website at PreacherMoss.com.