Whoopi Goldberg brings the story of America’s first female stand-up comic, Jackie Moms Mabley to HBO with Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, premiering November 18. Goldberg—who put up her own money to produce and direct the documentary and went to Kickstarter for additional funds—told Showbiz 411 at the film’s Tribeca screening earlier this year:
We celebrate all the other firsts. Why haven’t we celebrated the first stand up comedian who was a woman and had been doing it since 1928?
Born Loretta Mary Aitken, Mabley began working as a stand-up in the late 1920s, and made a living on the Chitlin’ Circuit—the vaudeville clubs, speakeasies and theaters throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States where African-American performers were able to perform during segregation.
In the early days of her performances, Mabley wore androgynous clothes on stage and worked blue, performing XXX-rated routines. As she developed her act, Mabley took on the persona of granny or great auntie, wearing a floral house dress and a drooping hat. She took out her dentures for her stand-up routine—at the time dentures were common—and riffed on her character’s desire for young men and her distaste of old ones, addressing the imbalance of sexual power, as well as hitting on politics, race, war, and other social issues.
In Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, Goldberg reveals that Mabley would come off stage, take off her garish frumpy frock, change into tailored slacks and a man’s shirt and shoes, put her teeth back in, and slick back her hair, Moms becoming Mr. Jackie. And her fellow performers didn’t care. As the Advocate remarks:
That her penchant for the ladies (and for men’s clothing) didn’t matter to her male colleagues reveals just how much they respected her as a performer.
During her research for the documentary, Goldberg found a card picturing Mabley wearing in a man’s suit. It was signed “Mr. Moms,” indicating Moms was open amongst her colleagues. Goldberg points out:
If you’re gay or straight, you can do whatever is universally funny.
A regular performer at both the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, Mabley appeared in several films, recorded over twenty albums of her stand up comedy–some on her own label Poontan’–and was embraced in the late 1960s and 70s by television, appearing on Ed Sullivan Show, Merv Griffin, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Grammys and other shows. At age 75 she recorded “Abraham, Martin and John,” scoring a Top 40 hit, making her the oldest person to do so (and she still holds that record!). At the peak of her career she was making $10,000 a week, breaking the ground and laying the foundation for women comics like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to the Queens of Comedy, Kathy Griffin and Ellen DeGeneres. Moms Mabley, a businesswoman and lesbian during segregation, crossed the color barrier and kicked ass on stage and off.
At age 79, she came full circle, coming out loud and proud as a lesbian and became, according to Queers in History,
the first XXX-rated lesbian stand-up comic.
Just months before her death, “The Funniest Woman in the World” performed at the Michigan Women’s Festival.
During a question and answer session after the doc screened at Tribeca earlier this year, Whoopi Goldberg explained part of Mabley’s appeal:
She didn’t care where she was, she would pull those teeth out, and to me, this freedom to be yourself, for seventy seven years is the highlight of life to me because, you know, it’s okay to be gay, it’s okay to be individual, it’s okay to have a point of view. She made me realize that whatever you did you had to stand on your own two feet and know who you are.
Goldberg made the documentary—which features historic photos and clips of Mabley performing as well as interviews with Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poiter, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara—because, as she told the Advocate:
A lot of young people have no sense of history. No sense of history of the United States. Moms is a great magnifying glass into the past.