"I knew it was a game. And I let him use me. Because I knew that by the end of the program, people would get the message."
That's how Midge Constanza, then a special assistant to President Carter, described her 1979 appearance on the television show Petey Greene's Washington. Her message was domestic violence awareness. Host Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, Jr. corrected himself after introducing her as "this broad."
Greene really did care about domestic violence. He knew it well. "I used to watch my daddy whoop my mother until one day she took an ax out and put 32 stitches across him. He didn't hit my mother no more." But when people like Constanza came on his show, he exaggerated his perspective. He talked about justifying hitting his wife. Constanza saw through it.
In 1977, Senator Hubert Humphrey told Petey Greene, "I want to thank you for the way that you speak up for the people of this city. ... You're really a great help. A fine not only commentator, but journalist in the best sense of the word."
If you've only come across isolated clips Petey Greene's Washington online, it might not be immediately apparent how Greene worked, or how immensely important he was. Take the now-iconic segment "Be Yourself," which is described on YouTube (where its been viewed 1.6 million times) as simply "surreal," wherein he reminded people how to eat watermelon:
Petey Greene has a fascinating story, though. The title of his autobiography seems to encapsulate his perspective well: Laugh if You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny. The PBS documentaries Washington in the 70s and Adjust Your Color also put these enduring, free-floating YouTube segments into context. Greene was the voice of the city's civil unrest in the latter half of the decade. Which needed a big voice.
Reading about him you come across the term "shock jock." He did shock, but he wasn't just trying to shock; he was getting people to think and speak frankly about what really mattered to the community. In the language that people really used.
Greene hosted a local public access show from 1976 to 1982 that became enormously popular. Toward the end it got picked up by BET. His reach became so wide that he attracted national celebrities and politicians as guests. Howard Stern, who had been a long-time fan and later called him a "broadcasting genius" once came on the show in blackface, and Greene seemed to love it.
The show won an Emmy. Greene subsequently kept it on the table in front of him on set. As Sugar Ray Leonard remembers him, Greene was open (as with everything) about the fact that appearances and money were very important to him. In his autobiography, Greene tracks an origin of that proclivity: “I spoke at Harvard. Here’s a n----r with a eighth grade education speaking at Harvard. ... I just put all kinds of clothes on because I’m the one that had cardboard in his shoes. My grandmother made me wear some girl shoes to school one time, and I was the leader of the gang. I said, ‘Grandma, them is girl’s shoes.’ She say, ‘They anybody’s shoes that wear ‘em, boy. Just put ‘em on and go on to school.’ They had big ol’ buckles on ‘em, like Little Abner’s mother used to wear."
Such was the constant tension and energy we still see in him. He was equal parts intimidating and loved. His classic intro to the show set the tone, somehow both inviting and cautioning: "Sit back now. Adjust the color of your television. Go get yourself a sandwich and get ready to groove with Petey Greene's Washington." As actor James Brown remembers it, "Don't come weak with Petey Greene. If anybody came weak with Petey Greene, they left there scathed."
Greene was an activist on race, drug abuse, education ("We're losing the babies; if they can't go to school, where are they going?), domestic violence, sexually transmitted infections, addiction ("Let's face it, people like drugs because drug is good."), even childhood obesity ("You can't keep eating six donuts and drinking a quart of milk if you want to be a model. You want to be a fat model?")
The tension, the humor, and the earnestness came from a hard life that went well beyond occasionally having to wear girls' shoes.
Greene was raised by his grandmother. His mother was incarcerated in a case involving manslaughter. He dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Army, and fought in Korea until he was discharged in 1953 for heroin possession. He returned home to D.C. an addict and alcoholic. He did ten years for armed robbery. In prison he got popular for his personality and humor, so much that he convinced the guards to let him get on the PA system for two hours every day. He would just talk, joke, and rant; "Live from cell block five."
Greene's influence within the prison became such that he was able to convince another inmate to threaten suicide by climbing on top of a water tower just so Greene could talk him down and "save his life." He got parole shortly after. It was 1965. He'd later say, "It took me 18 minutes to talk that man down, but it took me six months to convince him to get up there."
Once out of prison, a fellow inmate vouched for his radio potential and got him a job on a D.C. radio station. Greene gained momentum rapidly. Then April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. There were riots. Greene became a clear-headed voice in a mob, trying to make sense of it. And then everyone knew him. TV was the next step.
Then in 1982, according to his producer Dewey Hughes, Greene disappeared for a while. The show went off the air. He went back to heavy drinking. After years of trying to get Greene onto Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, which Hughes thought would be his springboard to the national eye, he finally booked a spot. But Greene didn't show up.
In 1984, Greene died of liver cancer. Ten thousand people gathered to pay their respects.
His regular sign-off: "I'll tell it to the hot, I'll tell it to the cold. I'll tell it to the young, I'll tell it to the old. I don't want no laughin', I don't want no cryin', and most of all, no signifyin'. This is Petey Greene's Washington."