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Despite Different Styles, Dick Gregory And Jerry Lewis Inspired Generations Of Comics


Two giants of comedy died this weekend, Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis. Both were funny, and that's about where the similarities end. Lewis was orchestrated goofiness. Gregory was more cerebral satire. NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at how their comedic legacies intersect.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: They were from opposite worlds, Dick Gregory an African-American from St. Louis with an understated delivery who also fought for civil rights. Jerry Lewis was a Jew from New York, a clown rooted in the Borscht Belt. One used humor to fight injustice. The other used it to get laughs.


JERRY LEWIS: (As Herbert H. Heebert) Jeronimo. Was that too loud?

BLAIR: Dick Gregory's style was quieter and more reflective. He could joke about memories that had to have been painful.


DICK GREGORY: And there we were, 1951. They integrated the swimming pools, and all our parents made us get out there whether you could swim or not. Just go. Get wet. Go. I look at my people. Damn it - you want to be with them people? You go. Get me out that - all that water. They don't like me anyway. And I can't swim.


BLAIR: Gregory had audiences in stitches while talking about serious issues like integration. Jerry Lewis was all wild silliness, and so you might not think there were comedians out there influenced by both of them.

LEWIS BLACK: There's a craft to it that you admire and - you know, the craft of the joke.

BLAIR: Lewis Black is a comedian known for biting political commentary that's delivered with lots of hand gestures and eye rolling. To develop his style, he watched lots of comedians, including Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory. Here's Black ranting about the weather.


BLACK: I'm going to tell you someone. When you're lying in bed and you hear thunder outside and you get up and there's snow with lightning behind it, that is completely insane.


BLACK: But I'm yelling about it as if it's - you know, that the universe is going to collapse because of it. That's - kind of has to come from Jerry Lewis' type of comedy, of realizing - you think you've gone far. You can go further.

BLAIR: But Black says that same routine also takes something from Dick Gregory - that a joke is not just a joke.

BLACK: It's deeper than that. There's more to it than that. There's something else further.


BLACK: I realized that the environment in this country was totally out of control.

BLAIR: Lewis Black believes overall, he's more in the Dick Gregory camp of comedy. Gregory is credited with making it OK to joke about serious issues like race.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mean if it wasn't for Dick Gregory, you don't get Dave Chappelle. You don't get...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...Richard Pryor. You don't get Bill Cosby.

BLAIR: Keith and Kenny Lucas are identical twins, African-American comedians who perform as a duo.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've been unemployed. And I - you run out of things to do in employment, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Like, we watch Deion Sanders hip-hop videos. That's what we do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it's pretty bizarre.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's called "Must Be The Money."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And Deion was dropping some crazy lines.

BLAIR: They say that while Dick Gregory paved the way for black comedians, their style is more in the Jerry Lewis camp, specifically Lewis and his comedy partner Dean Martin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When we were coming up as comedians, we always sort of looked at which two-man act would have, like, an impact on us. They were just fundamental - I mean just their banter, their timing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, they were able to strip the two-man act away from just, like - I mean obviously Jerry Lewis was very silly. But the fact that it was their banter and their back-and-forth that sort of made the comedy...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Is something that influenced us deeply.

BLAIR: Here's Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the movie "Sailor Beware."


DEAN MARTIN: (As Al Crowthers) Well, who was your toughest fight?

LEWIS: (As Melvin Jones) The toughest was Gene Tierney. That was the toughest fight.

MARTIN: (As Al Crowthers) Gene Tierney - you mean Gene Tunney.

LEWIS: (As Melvin Jones) You fight who you want. I fight who I want.

BLAIR: When Lewis Black learned the news that these two giants of comedy had died, he tweeted, first Dick Gregory and then Jerry Lewis, the yin and the yang of comedy. I guess after this week, even God was desperate for a laugh. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states that Jerry Lewis was from New York. He was from New Jersey.]

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 22, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story incorrectly states that Jerry Lewis was from New York. He was from New Jersey.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.