When Whoopi Goldberg turned to Kickstarter for cash to produce a documentary about legendary comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, it felt as altruistic as Zach Braff panhandling on the social media funding site for $2 million to make a sequel to “Garden State.”
“The View” host exceeded her $65,000 goal, but the happy ending is that “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” airing Monday night on HBO, is not a vanity project. Her Kickstarter backers helped Goldberg create a compelling analysis of the barrier-busting Mabley, who, in wild housecoats, ill-fitting hats, and oversized shoes, brought a piece of black perspective into middle-class white living rooms in the 1960s and 1970s (Mabley passed away in 1975 at the age of 81).
“She’s been lost somewhere in comedic history,” said Joan Rivers, one of the parade of celebrities who sings Moms’s praises, and who is a graduate of Mabley’s school of satire.
When Mabley told her jokes, she did it in the most disarming way possible: She took out her teeth and hammed it up like a sassy old lady sitting on the neighborhood stoop. Behind the toothless grin and the gravel voice that sounded uncannily like Louis Armstrong lurked a savvy woman who used sarcasm and jokes to couch social commentary.
Goldberg unearths fantastic archival footage of Mabley’s sly storytelling technique. In a clip from “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1969, Mabley, attired in a painfully psychedelic housecoat, told a story about the special name she was called in the South.
“What’s that man got that horse in pictures . . . that Western man?” Mabley asked Griffin.
“Roy Rogers?” he replied.
“They name me Roy Rogers’s horse. . .”
“Trigger?” Griffin suggests.
“Yeah, everywhere I go, they’re, ‘Hello, Trigger. What you saying, Trigger?’ At least I think that’s what they say.”
Griffin blanched when he realized he was set up as straight man.
Mabley found a second life in television as a guest on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” but long before that she was a sensation in Harlem. Coming up on the chitlin’ circuit in the 1930s and 1940s, Moms became the only headlining female comedian at the Apollo Theater. She sang, danced, told her stories, and released dozens of comedy albums
Even as a young woman, she was working her Moms act. But Moms was purely a persona. Behind the housecoat, Mabley was a lesbian who made no secret of her sexuality. In the documentary we see private photos of Mabley looking natty in men’s suits and slicked-down hair. On stage she joked about fancying younger men, but she usually had a young gal on her arm.
“We never called Mom homosexual,” said Norma Miller, a dancer on the circuit with Mabley. “The word never fit her. We never called her gay. We called her Mr. Mom.”
This is one of the rare bits of Mabley’s private life that Goldberg shares. If comedy is rooted in pain, then what we’re missing is the inspiration behind the invention of Moms. An Internet search tells stories of teenage rape and forced marriage, but Goldberg avoids it altogether.
Instead, we can only glean some of this when Moms jokes, “Don’t let my looks deceive you. I’ve been where the wild goose went.”
It was during the civil rights movement of the 1960s that Mabley broke into the mainstream, thanks to her ability to turn debate about racial equality into comedy. She played Carnigie Hall and she met with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It made it that much more poignant when she sang the song “Abraham, Martin and John.” Her tear-jerking rendition hit the US top 40, making Mabley, then 75, the oldest performer to have a top 40 hit.
Goldberg’s interviews reveal Mabley’s influence, but true-to-form, it’s Mabley’s comedy routines that steal the show.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com.