James Gregory, popular Atlanta standup comic, has died at age 78

James Gregory on one of the final days at the old Punchline Comedy Club in Sandy Springs before it moved to Buckhead in 2015. STEVE MITCHELL



James Gregory on one of the final days at the old Punchline Comedy Club in Sandy Springs before it moved to Buckhead in 2015. STEVE MITCHELL

James Gregory, a veteran Atlanta stand-up comic, died of cardiac complications this past Thursday at age 78, according to his family posting on his public Facebook page.

“He brought laughter and joy to countless lives, leaving an indelible mark on the world of comedy and those who loved him,” the post said. “James’ three nieces who referred to him as ‘Uncle Bubba,’ Martha Anne, Mary Jane, and Candie, along with their families, were instrumental in caring for him through his last days and weeks. The family asks for privacy at this time.”

Gregory dubbed himself the “Funniest Man in America” and even owned the website www.funniestman.com. He still had outstanding tour dates this month and next month in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky.

He was the first comic to step on the stage when the Punchline Comedy Club opened in Sandy Springs in 1982. He and J. Anthony Brown had a coin flip to see who would be go on first, which was considered less prestigious. Gregory lost so he made the very first jokes on the mic there.

“He was Southern through and through and certainly relatable,” said Ron DiNunzio, one of the original owners of the Punchline. He penciled in Gregory as a reliable weekend headliner for many years.

George Wallace, the legendary stand-up comic who is also from Atlanta, worked with Gregory many times. “Extremely nice man,” he wrote in a text. He called him smart and wealthy.

Gregory was raised in Lithonia and became the first member of his family to graduate high school, according to his obituary. He entered sales as an adult, living well on commission. But he was restless.

“It was a turning point in my life,” he said. “I would never again be anybody’s full-time employee.”

In 1981, at age 36, he decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy and quickly made it his full-time job. He dubbed his style “down home, common sense” humor. And he approached comedy with a businessman’s mentality, which wasn’t all that common among traveling stand-up comics.

As he wrote in his forthcoming autobiography, “The way I see it, you’re not just my audience. You’re my customers.”

Gregory drew his biggest audiences in the Southeast, mostly clubs and small theaters, especially in smaller towns. He used morning radio as a promotional tool on syndicated shows such as John Boy & Billy, Rick & Bubba, and Bob & Tom. He performed frequently overseas for U.S. troops in places like Bahrain, Spain, Italy and Germany as well as the Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Just before his passing, he completed his autobiography, “A Bushel of Beans and a Peck of Tomatoes: The Life and Times of ‘The Funniest Man in America.’” It is due out in November.

His generosity is well known in the comedy community and he’d hold lavish Christmas parties at his home every year packed with comics like Jeff Foxworthy, Carrot Top and lesser known talents. Jerry Farber, an 86-year-old Atlanta comic, recalled being in a financial bind 25 years ago and quietly asked Gregory for $500. Gregory wrote him a check, which Farber stuck in his back pocket. When he tried to cash it, he noticed Gregory had written $2,500.

Farber called Gregory, who told him that it was on purpose. “Anybody your age asking for $500 probably needs $50,000,” he told Farber. “I’ve been there. And I don’t loan money to anybody. I give it. If you want to give it back, fine, but I don’t expect it.”

Services are going to be held on Thursday, May 16 at 2 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Lithonia.