The standup comedy that Dick Gregory helped pioneer way back when has changed considerably more than the satirist himself during the 23 years Gregory’s been offstage. For better or worse — and “Dick Gregory Live!” is an argument for both — the topical comedian holds fast to a style that has moved from the front lines to the sidelines.
Renowned for his trenchant and controversial observations on subjects as diverse as race relations, the Kennedy assassinations and America’s dietary habits, Gregory now turns his gaze to the morning headlines, from Bosnia to Michael Jackson’s recent collapse. While so many of today’s standup comics apply an aggressive manner to inconsequential material, Gregory does the reverse, taking on weighty subjects with a demeanor that’s almost grandfatherly in its gentleness.
The realization that Gregory, known for his bite, now seems almost pleasantly engaging is disconcerting only during the early portions of his act. He charms, even when the material, or his observations, to be more exact, don’t impress, a situation that recurs more than a bit too often during the course of this (overlong) two-hour show. For every comment that seems genuinely insightful, there are several others that seem either negligible or belabored. His punchline to a brief bit about gays in the military is not so much offensive as irrelevant.
But nowhere is Gregory more disappointing than on a subject that would seem ideal grist for his particular mill: the O.J. Simpson trial. Sad to say, any number of latenight hacks have mined more wit and sting from the Trial of the Century than does Gregory. Completely dismissing (without ever really explaining why) the notion that the not-guilty decision divided America along racial lines, Gregory plays both sides of the verdict, at times coming off vaguely pro-Simpson but skittishly avoiding any real stand. Low point comes with a juvenile mocking of Christopher Darden’s physical appearance.
Gregory moves on to a more assured approach post-intermission, although even clever bits about cultural differences among the races occasionally veer close to the strained. His best turns arrive when he deflates two of America’s great fears — crime and financial debt — in a way that rings both true and wise. Such moments reaffirm Gregory’s considerable talent, even while prompting the wish that he’d pushed it further.