She had played Carnegie Hall, headlined the Apollo with Cab Calloway for decades, but in 1967, Dick Smothers introduced her to a whole new audience, saying: “Some of you may not have heard of her yet. She’s only started recently doing television.”
She was Jackie “Moms” Mabley.
“She’s been lost somewhere in history,” said Joan Rivers, “somewhere in comedic history. Nobody looks at female comedians as groundbreakers or as commentators on what’s going on in the world, because we do it with comedy. All comedy is and all she was was a lady standing up there, telling the truth.”
What once was lost, now may be found by us once more, in Whoopi Goldberg presents Mom Mabley, a 71-minute documentary that premieres tonight on HBO.
Smothers, Rivers, Goldberg, Kathy Griffin, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Anne Meara all weigh in within the first four minutes to testify to Mabley’s influence and greatness. Roll the clip.
Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Jerry Stiller, Robert Klein and Dick Cavett also are on board with their remembrances of Mabley in this documentary.
Goldberg acknowledges the depth of Mabley’s influence on her — one of her early one-woman shows was a tribute to Mabley, inhabiting her character in “Moms.” Murphy, too noted that one of his many caricatures in his Nutty Professor movie was his Moms Mabley impersonation, telling Goldberg: “The grandmother in The Nutty Professor is just straight, ripped-off. I just got her rhythms down. She’s a feisty old lady that be talking shit…that’s all straight Moms Mabley, her voice, everything.”
Goldberg put Mabley right up there with Nichols and May, Lord Buckley and Richard Pryor. Moms was spinning the cold, dark truth about nursery rhymes long before Andrew “Dice” Clay ever became famous for it. But her look, her age, and her way of storytelling came across as harmless — no matter how naughty or risque the punchlines hit — from the 1920s through to 1975.
Goldberg is quick to point out, though, that she still didn’t know Mabley’s complete backstory. There’s a quick reference to “lots of rumors,” including the notion that in her youth, Mabley had been raped twice, became pregnant both times and put the kids up for adoption. “All of the information is not there,” Goldberg said. “I realized I was not in the position to do a biography.”
Born Loretta Mary Aiken in either 1897 (according to Goldberg) or 1894 (according to others), the woman who became Jackie Mabley and later “Moms” grew up in Brevard, N.C. She caught her break opening for the comedy team of Butterbeans and Susie and worked the T.O.B.A. (chitlin circuit) all the way across America and up to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Moms became a headliner by the 1930 and performed with the jazz greats, up to five shows a day, six days a week. Onstage, she liked to open with a line such as: “Moms don’t know no jokes. But I can tell you some facts!” Fact was, offstage, she ditched the gaudy dress, wigs and caps for a suit and fedora, with young women on her arm and friends calling her “Mr. Moms.” Still, through the years, she’d joke about preferring younger men to old men. One academic calls her “the original Cougar.”
And she recorded upward of 20 albums.
Even Bill Cosby was an early admirer. “The records, you laughed because it was naughty. And you even put the sound down so that your parents, ‘Why are you all laughing down there?'” said Cosby.
After a 1967 appearance in an ABC TV-movie, offers started coming to appear on talk shows with Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, David Frost and the Smothers Brothers.
In 1969, Mabley became the oldest performer with a Top 40 hit with her cover of “Abraham, Martin and John,” a song about the assassinations of Lincoln, Dr. King, and JFK.
As the credits note, this documentary was made possible via Kickstarter. In her Kickstarter appeal last summer, Whoopi Goldberg told potential donors that Moms Mabley was a pioneer for women and men alike in comedy. “Moms was the first and without her there probably would not have been a Totie, a Joan, a Kathy, a Wanda, or any of the others who may follow. Without Moms there certainly would not have been a Whoopi. With her boundary pushing stand-up she was able to get past the obstacles of all the “isms”; racism, sexism, ageism. Moms helped shape the idea that comedy could make a political and social statement and still be hilarious. She’s one of my role models and her comedy is still poignant today.”
For all of the talk about Pryor or Carlin breaking down barriers onstage, someone had to kickstart that conversation. That someone was Jackie Mabley. But you can call her Moms.