Remembering the funniest woman in the world
by Megan Smith
In mismatched clothes, a floppy hat, and with a toothless smile, Jackie “Moms” Mabley made audiences slide out of their seats from laughter. Known as simply “Moms” to most, she was way ahead of her time—as a black, female stand-up comedian who started performing in the 1920s, she was one-of-a-kind. It was this uniqueness and her tell-it-like-it-is style that had many deeming her “the funniest woman in the world.”
But who was this fascinating woman, and where did she come from? That’s exactly the story that actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg set out to tell with her recent HBO documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. Goldberg herself cites Mabley as one of the inspirations behind her own success.
Mabley was born as Loretta Mary Aiken in 1897. Although much speculation exists, very little is known about her life before comedy. As Goldberg says, Mabley’s story—like the stories of many black folks in America—is not fully known. She initially broke into “the chitlin’ circuit”—a network of stages around the country that would host black entertainers during the time of segregation—but was soon deemed “too good” for these venues and moved on to perform in New York at the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall as both sites’ first black female headliner. “Moms opened a door for women to stand up and be funny,” Goldberg says. “To talk about things as they saw them and to encourage people to be thoughtful.”
She didn’t hold back in her routines, either, and hit on all of the taboo subjects. Called “the original cougar,” Mabley talked about female sexuality in a way no one dared to at that time. “Moms gave a release to women in a way nobody did,” actress and dancer Debbie Allen says during an interview for the film.
Mabley may have talked about dating men in her stand-up, but when her Moms stage costume was shed, women were the ones who caught her eye. She was even known to wear men’s clothing—a daring move at the time. “She liked women,” Goldberg says in a November 2013 interview with the New York Times. “We had heard that Moms was gay. This is a rumor that had been around forever. And then when we started talking to folks, we talked to the dancer Norma Miller.”
“We never called Moms a homosexual,” Miller says in the film. “We never called her gay. We called her Mr. Moms.”
She included politics, and especially civil rights issues, in her routines as well—but in a subtle way that got her message across while still keeping audiences laughing. “Moms was in the forefront of making political change,” theater director Ellen Sebastian Chang says in the film. “Not only as a black person, but as a female. She was Moms, but she was not a ‘mammy’ character. She wore her cap. but she never wore a rag.”
But some things you just can’t laugh about. After the tragic assassinations of John F. Kenne.dy and Martin Luther King—both personal friends of Mabley—she recorded a version of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” that hit number 35 on the U.S. Top 40 in 1969. At age 75, she was the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit—a record she still holds today.
“What you remember about her are those moments,” producer and director George Schlatter says in the film. “Here was this woman who was famous for being funny and saying outrageous things, and here she took three minutes and made you cry. And you went, ‘This is powerful communication.’ It went way beyond humor.”
Although white audiences only became aware of her in the early 1960s, Mabley’s career spanned 50 years before her death in 1975. Goldberg’s documentary takes you on a journey through all five of those decades by using what little footage of Mabley is available and pairing it with creative animation and beautifully executed celebrity interviews. Kathy Griffin, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, and others all paint a full picture of Mabley’s groundbreaking art and her immense influence on future generations of comedians. “She was a trailblazer, and she wasn’t trying to be a trailblazer—she was just trying to say her stuff, you know,” actress and comedian Anne Meara says in the film. “Trying to get her shit out.”
Available May 20 from HBO Home Entertainment (hbo.com).
Be sure to check out our June issue for an interview with Whoopi Goldberg.