Moms Mabley was the first.
She was the first black woman to headline major clubs. She was the first stand-up comedian who told stories, not one-liners, and influenced generations of comics. Yet mention her to anyone for whom the 1960s is history, not a memory, and you get a blank stare.
Whoopi Goldberg aims to correct that with “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley” Monday, Nov. 18, on HBO.
“I would challenge anyone to find a stand-up comic that precedes her — male or female,” Goldberg tells Zap2it.
Acknowledging there were vaudeville acts before Mabley, Goldberg says, “She was a single.”
And while blacks were playing the Chitlin Circuit, Mabley did that and then broke through. In 1939, Mabley became the first woman to play the Apollo Theater for $10,000 a week, an amazing achievement and salary for the time.
“I hope it imparts a little bit of info that there was someone named Moms Mabley, who really shook the world up, dressed as a little old lady that she grew into,” Goldberg says of the film. “And, baby, she took out her teeth, and she did not care, and she was funny, and the jokes still work.”
Footage shows Mabley dancing, which she did well, and telling stories. Why and how she adapted this character and played it from 1929 to 1975 is not clear, and the film makes no suppositions.
The documentary marks Goldberg’s foray into directing, though she quickly says it is not as if she is directing a scripted movie. She is also quick to add that she wanted to make a traditional biography of Mabley, but the information was not there.
Goldberg took flak when she financed some of this film through Kickstarter. Obtaining the rights to photos was far more expensive than anticipated, and simply because she’s an actress does not mean she has unlimited funds, Goldberg says.
Instead, there is a little of Mabley’s life in some wonderful, previously unseen photos, clips mingled with odd bits of animation, and interviews with comedians.
Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Bill Cosby, Robert Klein and Kaye Ballard are among those who credit Mabley for her astute observations and fearlessness. Eddie Murphy says the grandmother in “The Nutty Professor” is his version of Mabley.
Everyone in the film credits Mabley with being different, a trailblazer and, above all, funny. Footage shows that her stories are still pointed and still work. She had an attitude that was decades ahead of the country’s.
She was also out and gay in the 1930s. Offstage, she wore men’s clothes. Onstage, she took out her dentures to perform, giving her the look of a very old woman long before she reached that stage. She wore print dresses and floral housecoats or jackets over them. Her accessories were a simple hat and flat shoes. She was aggressively frumpy.
“It was almost like she was hiding how smart she was and sneaking her message in the back door,” Arsenio Hall says in the film.
“It’s brilliant, it’s subtle, it’s smart, and you know exactly what she is saying,” Goldberg says. “I want people to see the art of stand-up as performed by old school, by a woman who performed history in the middle of change for people of color, and for women.
“This documentary turned out to be a really great piece of Americana because you see the beginning of interracial partygoing, and you see that Hugh Hefner was not just always about twins and girls,” Goldberg continues. “And he was the No. 1 guy who fought the hardest to integrate television with just having ‘Playboy After Dark.’ And you see there is an integrated party going on, and everyone is just in the groove, and you see Harry Belafonte saying, ‘I needed to convince folks to just be part of this.’ And Sidney Poitier talking about it is freaking people out. And it is still freaking people out.”
Mabley influenced Goldberg, as she did so many others. Decades ago, Goldberg performed a play, impersonating Mabley. Goldberg had always wanted to tackle another project about Mabley.
One of the few EGOTs (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners), Goldberg recalls watching Mabley on TV when she was growing up.
“Because she was a storyteller, she made it OK to tell the story without having to be funny all the way through,” Goldberg says. “Moms gave me the ability to not have to do that, so I lucked out. It wasn’t joke after joke after joke.”
And when Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, N.C., in 1894, was not performing, she was working for justice. She met with presidents, urging equality, and marched in the streets to protest. Her plangent rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John” made her the oldest person to have a top 40 hit when she was 75.
“This is one of those shows that reminds you why people fought so hard for the right to vote,” Goldberg says, “and to be heard, and why it took a united effort for all of us to see each other as equal, and she was at the forefront of that.”