Nov. 16--Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley: Documentary. 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.
It may be difficult for contemporary audiences to understand the importance of the career of Jackie "Moms" Mabley. Look at any YouTube clip of her working shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and for a white audience, she may seem like an odd throwback to the way African Americans used to be portrayed in Hollywood films.
But, as you'll quickly see in "Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley," airing Monday on HBO, absolutely no one got the better of Moms, onstage or off. She was one of the greatest entertainers of any race of the 20th century and remains an inspiration to modern-day comedians.
Goldberg makes her directorial film debut with "Mabley," and she couldn't have chosen a better subject. Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, N.C., in 1894. By the time she was 15, she'd been raped twice and had two children. She ran away and joined a minstrel show, launching her on what would be a highly successful show business career. Taking the name Jackie Mabley, she became a megastar on vaudeville's "chitlin circuit" and in 1939 became the first female comic to play Harlem's Apollo Theater.
In spite of her immense popularity with African American audiences, she was barely known to the general public until she played Carnegie Hall in 1962 and began appearing on TV variety shows.
What audiences saw was a woman dressed in a baggy print house dress, with a shapeless hat on her head, a pronounced shuffle and no teeth.
She would amble indifferently onto the stage and begin her brilliantly understated routine with her trademark, "I got somethin' to tell you." Then she'd drawl out stories about men, the younger the better, and anything else that struck her. You'd be pulled into the joke without even knowing it at first, wondering where this meandering story might wind up, and then double over in laughter when she deadpanned the punch line.
Moms was funny but she was also serious. Her jokes underscored her belief that women, especially African American women, weren't secondary to any man. Her jokes also underscored her passionate commitment to civil rights. After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mabley performed a heartbreaking version of "Abraham, Martin and John" on TV and on record in 1969.
She came out as a lesbian in the late '20s and was often in the company of very pretty younger girlfriends. Mabley was also a drag fashion plate, dressed as fine as Duke Ellington himself in natty suits and silk ties.
Goldberg probably didn't have much trouble rounding up an impressive number of celebrities to attest to Moms' enduring influence and importance. Interviews with Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Sidney Poitier, Kathy Griffin, Harry Belafonte, Anne Meara, Bill Cosby and others provide ample evidence of Moms' enduring influence.
Yet, even if you remember how great she was, you may find yourself wishing there were fewer testimonials and more footage of Moms performing.
Moms onstage was all anyone needed to know there was no one like her. Yes, she was a pioneer for female comics, she was committed to the cause of equality, but she was also brilliantly funny. She did indeed have somethin' to tell us.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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