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An Appreciation of Black Comic, Moms Mabley

The first time I heard the name Moms Mabley was when Patrick Swayze’s character made a reference to the comedienne in the flamboyant comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, and Wesley Snipes looked at him with bewildered eyes and in exasperation responded: “Moms Mabley?!”

As the movie theater erupted in laughter back in 1996, including guffaws from my mother, I knew it was a real person, but I had no idea beyond that, and that maybe she was an eccentric character considering Snipes’ shock. I always remembered that name, and hers is one that’s floated in and out of pop culture reference so inconspicuously, but her legacy and admirable influence on later figures of great American comedy in the 20th century harbors nothing short of respect and inspiration.

I’ve Got Something to Tell You: Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, a recently aired HBO special, was a personal passion project for the Academy Award winner Goldberg, who herself is a celebrated comic for her juxtaposition of a dry wit and affable demeanor. In the documentary, inter-spliced with spoken memories from Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, Harry Belafonte, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy (who revealed Moms was the direct inspiration for Grandma Klump in The Nutty Professor), Jerry Stiller, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and historians of film, comedy, and the Apollo Theater, there was wonderful audio and very hard to find video included of Mabley, who originally found solace in laughter after an impoverished childhood and two sexual assaults that resulted in her giving up her two children for adoption.

Photo courtesy of JET archives

Photo courtesy of JET archives

I’ve Got Something to Tell You was also a love letter to an era despite the hardships of a segregated America still prominent at the beginnings of her unsuspecting career as an entertainer in the 1930s, Black performers were not derailed of their mission of healing and expression through the arts. Visually, it was beautifully edited that included old footage of Harlem in its heyday as an epicenter of black talent, paper-mache cartoon montages of Mabley on stage, and Mabley herself as the earliest known clip of her in good viewing condition is from her “Killer Diller” skit. The docu was curated in a sentimental way that was so aware of the importance these materials’ existence, the footage is incredibly priceless of how black comedy all began and how those maltreated got over so societal humps.

The timing of this inspiring film is also highly apt as with the noticeable deficit of black comediennes on prominent platforms like Saturday Night Live gaining national outcry, Goldberg’s re-introduction to an icon is a necessary reminder of why their presence in the spotlight is sorely missed when not appropriately executed. The multi- JET magazine cover star during her time was the first Black woman comic to perform at Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater, and her humor was spiced with outre perspectives on discrimination, politics, sexism, generation gaps, and the oddities of being an individual. Within her journey, other misbegotten notables of comedy such as “Pigmeat,” “Butterbeans & Susie” were her mentors, and her notoriety earned her financial stability in taking home $10,000 a week and appearances on American pie TV programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smother Brothers. She broke barriers through her funky manner and later in her career, and what she’s most remembered for, her slurred speech courtesy of being toothless and regular ensemble of “grandma chic”such as floppy hats, and over-sized skirts and blouses.

Rising from her start in Vaudeville, her impression on audiences during the turbulent ‘60s especially meant the world to a new generation that desired change and tolerance. Affectionately nicknamed “Moms” after first being Jackie Mabley, because of her tough love aura, in time she became a beloved figure of American culture who in the film was described as an unintended trailblazer. Her sheer will to just continue her path of comedic dreams and in being herself, even if on stage a slightly more over the top version, seemed to be most appreciated about Mabley. She encapsulated feminism, civil rights and integration, individuality, and pure irreverence. She couldn’t have been more quirky and honest, just like our own mothers. After having entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1969 for her somber  cover of “Abraham, Martin and John,” a tribute to the passing of other leaders of freedom, she passed away years later as a legend in May 1975 at the age of 81.

With a special thanks to Goldberg and HBO for making this documentary come to light, as we re-live snippets of a bygone era on our HD televisions in 2013, Moms Mabley will not be forgotten for those that seek the originators of truth in comedy.