Before we get too far into September, I want to note the August passing of two Americans who gave testimony to the essential nature of American diversity. Black humorist Dick Gregory used newspaper headlines back in the 1960s and '70s to spin trenchant commentary about race relations and the health of our body politic and made a generation of Americans think. Comedian, filmmaker and humanitarian Jerry Lewis used pratfalls and sight gags to make generations of Americans laugh. Both men overcame societal barriers and deep-seated prejudice to rise to the top of their profession.
It seems ridiculous to note this, but Dick Gregory was the first black comedian who didn't have to play the minstrel by singing and dancing before telling jokes. He could just appear in night clubs or on "The Tonight Show" and sit next to Jack Paar and crack wise, paving the way for the likes of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Gregory was a forceful voice against racism and police brutality, sins that still plague our nation; marched with Martin Luther King Jr.; and famously protested the Vietnam War by fasting from solid food for months on end.
He claimed to never have learned "hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that." He also said, "Segregation's not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?" But Gregory was also both hopeful and candid when he claimed, "never before in the history of this planet has anybody made the progress that African-Americans have made in a 30-year period, in spite of many black folks and white folks lying to one another." Unfortunately, the lies continue as the black leadership refrains from addressing the many self-induced problems that plague minority communities, and whites choose to ignore their own pathologies that contribute to these problems.
As for Jerry Lewis, I was privileged to meet and spend more than an hour with him when I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1971. He was in Washington and took time out of his busy schedule to talk to 15 aspiring TV producers about the movies he wrote, directed and starred in. He also discussed his innovative use of video technology. Lewis is credited with being one of the first, if not the first, director to use video-assisted shooting. That meant he hooked up a TV camera and recorder to the massive 35mm cameras Hollywood uses so he could get instant replay of how a scene went, instead of waiting to screen the dailies the next day after the film had been developed — an established practice since the birth of cinema. Seems simple today, but it took a person with on-screen TV experience to pioneer the technique.
Lewis' antics, first as a member of a duo with singer Dean Martin, then as the star of such movies as "The Bellboy" and "The Nutty Professor," made me laugh out loud when I was a kid. He often guest hosted on "The Tonight Show" and once stole the spotlight from a ponderous guest by putting a full pack of cigarettes into his mouth and lighting them. Silly, I know, but still epically funny. The French shared my appreciation by awarding Lewis the Legion of Honor, but American critics found his humor too juvenile. I must admit that I've outgrown my childhood tastes when I now see his films on TCM, but he is still a cherished memory. He is also acknowledged as paving the way for antic comics like Jim Carey and Robin Williams, and those comics turned filmmakers, like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.
What hit me hardest when learning of the passing of Gregory and Lewis was that these men, a black man from St. Louis and a Jew from Newark, New Jersey, exactly represented the demographic that neo-Nazis and white supremacists protested against when they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. They would prefer an America sanitized of these ethnic groups, thus discounting the myriad contributions they've made to American business, medicine, science, the arts and humanities. Sure, western Europe has bequeathed a rich cultural heritage to us, but I can't imagine life without the novel accents infused by jazz, rock 'n' roll, rap, stand-up comedy, movie and TV production, and so many other endeavors that reflect black and Jewish contributions.
Diversity is like a stout rope. The more strands it has, the stronger it will be.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.