To be sure, comedy is how Gregory first came to the world’s attention, in a 1961 appearance on Jack Paar’s talk show. (He was the first Black comic to be invited to sit down with the host and chat after his routine.) That recognition followed an appearance at the Chicago Playboy Club earlier that year, in front of an audience of White Southerners, as Gregory recalls in an archival interview, that caught the eye of Hugh Hefner on account of Gregory’s ability to make audiences laugh and squirm at the same time with wry references to bigotry and the burgeoning civil rights struggle, all delivered with an urbane cool, a razor-sharp tongue and an ever-present cigarette. During an appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show,” Gregory uses the base of his microphone stand as a steering wheel, pantomiming how a Black bus driver might be forced use it to operate the vehicle — from the back of the bus.
Not long thereafter, as the film makes clear, in a mix of talk-show appearances, stand-up routines and talking-head interviews with the likes of Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes, W. Kamau Bell and Dave Chappelle, the civil rights struggle itself became a consuming focus of his offstage attention as well. In a matter of a few years, following his 1959 debut in a comedy club, Gregory went from just scraping by to great wealth and success — only for that success to be followed by dire financial straits once his involvement with activism forced him to cancel comedy appearances. He was never a great businessman, as the film, directed by Andre Gaines, making his feature debut, drives home.
That point is reinforced by discussion of Gregory’s involvement with the Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet supplement, a popular weight-loss powder of Gregory’s own devising that he became a well-known (and sometimes mocked) pitchman for in the 1980s and 1990s. Intercompany lawsuits would eventually drain his profits. At times, Gregory was near poverty, losing his health insurance and his house, and diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, as one of his sons recalls. (Gregory had 11 children, and was more or less an absent father, as he admits, because of his constant activism and performing.)
The film’s title is apt: Gregory was one of a kind. But despite the film’s argument that its subject’s activism was part and parcel of his comedy, and not an afterthought, it’s the jokes that are given short shrift here. One wishes there might have been room for a few more of them. Still “The One and Only” is a worth a look, especially for anyone too young to remember Gregory as anything but the cranky old man he seemed to have turned into in his later years, as Lena Waithe, one of the film’s producers, puts it. Beneath his comedy, there was always anger, but also so much more.
TV-MA. Available on Showtime. Contains strong language and smoking. 113 minutes.