“He said, ‘Now what would you do if I died?’ And I said ‘Laugh.’”
If you have the opportunity to see the 2014 HBO documentary Whoopi Goldberg presents Moms Mabley, don’t pass it up. Clearly a labor of love, Goldberg recreated Mabley’s act as a young performer at Berkeley in the ‘80s and was obviously very inspired by her work. The doc was originally called Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ To Tell You and was supported by Kickstarter donations. Then HBO bought it and no doubt asked for a title change to include Goldberg’s household name due to the relative obscurity of its eponymous subject some forty years after her death in 1975.
“What’s she got that I ain’t had thirty years longer?”
Unless you’re a real comedy nerd or over the age of, say, 55-60, you probably have little direct experience of Jackie “Moms” Mabley or remember seeing her on television. She could be seen mostly on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, maybe Laugh-In and various talk shows doing a toned-down version of her “blue” stage act. She was billed as “the funniest woman in the world” and was one of the first female stand-up comics, black or white, if not the very first. (Even Phyllis Diller claimed to be indebted to Moms Mabley.) I only really knew of her via seeing her albums in the comedy album cut-out bins of the late 1970s or hearing snippets of her stand-up on a long-running radio show called The Comedy Hour that used to air after The Dr. Demento Show back then. Her act was that of a straight-talking, dirty-minded, toothless old black lady who made jokes about chasing young men around. I had but a vague awareness of her at best, so I can be forgiven for assuming that her comic persona was something akin to the way she might be in real life, but exaggerated a bit, like say Minnie Pearl.
“Did you know I was on President Nixon’s enemies list? Yes darlin’, I told Tricia that if the Pilgrims had shot bobcats instead of turkeys for food, we’d be eating pussy for Thanksgiving.”
Nothing apparently could be further from the truth: The mismatched old lady clothes and the Gilligan hat merely clothed a character that Jackie Mabley had developed—and aged into—from the late 1920s onwards on the black vaudeville touring circuit, or the “Chitlin circuit” as it was called, including the big rooms of Harlem, like the Apollo Theater. “Moms” had a costume, the character’s “look” completed when she took her false teeth out. In real life Jackie Mabley was a proud and defiantly out butch black lesbian woman, at a time when the very concept of such a person would probably not have computed even to people who worked with her on a day-to-day basis. Offstage the dresses she claimed to buy from the S&H green stamps catalog were exchanged for the sort of smartly cut men’s suit that Janelle Monáe might favor. (She can be seen in a man’s suit in 1933’s Emperor Jones.)
Moms Mabley was one of the great 20th-century comedians, up there with any of them, although she’s little recalled today. She’s also someone who figures into the civil rights movement and the nascent gay liberation movement, too. (Even if few actually knew it at the time. It’s not like she was trying to hide her sexuality from the world, because she obviously wasn’t.)
“That man so old… he’s older than his birthday.”
As Goldberg states at the beginning of the doc, the reality is that not all that much is truly and factually known about Moms Mabley’s life. One can surmise certain things, or know what sort of money she made ($10,000 a week, which was a fortune then and not too bad by today’s standards either) or find posters of her on a bill at the Apollo and YouTube clips of her TV performances, but the details of her life are quite scarce and ephemeral at this point. Most people who would have known her or worked with her in her heyday would be long dead. Goldberg deserves thanks for rescuing this fascinating woman’s life story and helping restore her rightful place in comedy history, not to mention her role in helping white TV viewers and nightclub audiences of the 1960s to understand the POV of a wise old dirty-minded black woman. Had she been a few years younger, it’s easy to imagine Moms Mabley in a Norman Lear-produced sitcom of the ‘70s and as well-remembered today as say, Redd Foxx is, another risque black comic who was lucky enough, for posterity’s sake, to be born 26 years later.
Continues after the jump…