News Column

Whoopi honors trailblazing comic Moms Mabley

November 16, 2013


Nov. 16--Accomplished actress, comedian and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg didn't have a lot of role models growing up who looked like her.

Fortunately, there was Jackie "Moms" Mabley, a ground-breaking black female comic whose career spanned a half century until her death in 1975.

Goldberg is honoring Mabley with an HBO special Monday night "Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You."

"She was a woman telling great stories," Goldberg told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That was something I thought I might like to do."

It took Goldberg a little while to figure out how to wend her way through the arts and entertainment world. In the early 1980s, performing a one-woman show like Mabley "was a great way to start it for me."

Mabley survived and thrived in her early years by working the "chitlin circuit," the performance venues for black musicians, entertainers and audiences during the years of segregation. In New York City, she appeared at the Apollo Theatre and Carnegie Hall. During the 1960s, she crossed over with appearances on talk shows such as "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The documentary chronicles her rise to fame and how she influenced other comedians such as Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers and Sammy Davis Jr., who is seen with Mabley in the documentary in a vintage Playboy After Dark inteview from the 1970s.

Mabley is also a woman who made the fact she wore dentures a joke. Often, she made TV appearances toothless.

"I have not heard anyone since then doing such a thing," Goldberg said. "That takes guts to take your teeth out like that."

Goldberg funded most of the project, spending nearly a half million dollars with a boost from nearly 900 Kickstarter backers offering up $73,764.

"I didn't realize how expensive these documentaries can be," she said. But she wanted to keep the editorial control over the content.

Though Mabley was a well-known stage persona to whites and blacks by the time of her death, there is only a glimpse of what Mabley was like behind the scenes. Goldberg had trouble finding first-hand accounts of Mabley's private life, including the fact she was openly gay at a time when that was not common.

"What you see is what there was," Goldberg said. "Black performers weren't chronicled the way white performers were. I didn't want to spread rumors. I only put in the film things I could corroborate. If three people didn't tell me something, I didn't put it in."

For Goldberg, what's more valuable is Mabley's work on stage, which was ahead of its time, a style of personal and political storytelling that is the template for what many comedians do today. "What you discover by the end of this, is her material still works. Great comedy stands the test of time," Goldberg said.

Goldberg herself used to pay homage to Mabley on stage and is thinking about doing it again on Broadway, possibly after her contract with "The View" is up in 18 months. She has been a host on the television talk show since 2007.

"Anything can happen," she said, addressing her future with the show. "But as it stand now, I'll probably do something else."


TV preview

"Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' To Tell You," 9 p.m. Monday, HBO


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