WASHINGTON, November 18, 2013 — Jackie “Moms” Mabley was a groundbreaker and tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” provides viewers an inside look at the comedian once billed as the funniest woman in the world.
Being the first person to do anything garners a place in history, but imagine being the very first female standup comedian. Now add to that an openly gay African American woman with a penchant for dirty jokes and racial anecdotes and the result is Jackie “Moms” Mabley,
Born in 1894 in Brevard, North Carolina, details of Mabley’s early life are sketchy at best. We do know that she had been raped twice by age 14 and had two children who were given up for adoption. At age 14 she ran away to Cleveland, Ohio and joined a traveling minstrel show and the rest as they say, is history.
By the time she was 20 Mabley had adopted her raunchy old lady stage persona, an act that was well received on the “Chitlin Circuit” and Vaudeville for decades. When white America finally discovered her in the 60s, Mabley had polished her act to a fine sheen of comedic brilliance.
Her thrift store wardrobe, raspy voice and toothless grin presented Mabley as a harmless but sassy old lady, but beneath the housecoat and floppy hat was a woman with something important to say. Mabley told her share of jokes, but she was first and foremost a storyteller.
As a storyteller she could cloak social commentary within her dialogue and get away with it. She presented a view of the world through the eyes of a sarcastic and wise old woman who had seen a lot in her lifetime. Mabley shared a glimpse of what it was like to be a black woman in America in the 60s without sounding preachy or alienating her audiences.
Her ability to navigate the issue of racial equality with comedy was adept enough to make her a favorite guest on shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Mabley became so popular that she played Carnegie Hall in 1962 and met both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
In 1969 her cover of the song “Abraham, Martin and John” reached #35 on the Hot 100 list, making her the oldest person ever to have a US Top 40 hit. A glimpse of her comedic brilliance and her tear inducing rendition of the song on The Merv Griffin Show.
Tonight we will watch comedians like Eddie Murphy, Kathy Griffin, Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers acknowledge Mabley’s role as an entertainment pioneer. We will also learn more about Mabley’s life and wonder why she has been overlooked for so long.
But for those of us who have never seen her perform, the real treasure within “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley” will be a glimpse of her stand up act. And that glimpse will leave us all starving for more
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got” – Jackie “Moms” Mabley
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