Before comediennes like Mo’Nique, Sommore, Miss Laura Hayes or Adele Givens (even Tina Fay, Ellen DeGeneres and Joan Rivers), the original queen of comedy was Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Gracing the stage with her signature housedresses, floppy shoes, knit hats and a raspy, deep voice, Moms broke down barriers. The late comedienne’s groundbreaking career sparked the Oscar-winning Whoopi Goldberg to direct an HBO documentary based on Moms’s life and the contributions she made that helped to shape what Black comedy is today.
While Moms’s success and impact are undeniable, Goldberg’s encouragement to create this documentary came from her realizations that few people outside the comedy world knew about her legacy.
“There are a lot of us who wouldn’t be working today without pioneers like her,” said Goldberg at a recent exclusive preview at the Apollo Theater. The documentary, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, is set to premiere on HBO next Monday, November 18. “HBO gave me my first break on TV, so it’s only fitting that Moms has a home there now,” said Goldberg.
Goldbergy tells Moms’s story through rare live footage of some of her performances, photographs and interviews with actors and comedians including Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Kathy Griffin, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, Anne Meara, Eddie Murphy, Sidney Poitier, Joan Rivers and Jerry Stiller.
Born in Brevard, North Carolina as Loretta Mary Aiken on March 19, 1897 (some sources say 1894), Mabley pursued her career as a vaudeville performer on the chitlin’ circuit as a teenager.
Beginning in the 1880s throughout the 1920s, vaudeville—consisting of several acts that ranged from singers, dancers and musicians to comedians, magicians and jugglers—was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America. The chitlin’ circuit was a network of music venues, diners and theaters where Black artists were able to perform in the segregated United States. The only option for Black entertainers throughout the eastern and southern US, this touring circuit provided employment for hundreds of Black musicians like James Brown, Billie Holiday, Etta James and, eventually, Moms Mabley.
She danced, sang and told jokes much like the other performers, but her ability to create her own original material separated her from the rest. Once she reached New York City, she took the Harlem Renaissance by storm and began making her mark.
While working for the popular vaudeville couple Butterbeans and Susie, Moms eventually became a main attraction at the Cotton Club. Soon, she was opening for an orchestra of big names including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. Making major strides to get her voice heard, Moms became the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo in 1939.
Moms would perform five shows a day, six days a week. She pushed the boundaries of comedy by joking about gender and sex—something only men were doing at the time. Her ability to talk about women’s wants, needs and even flaws was a dynamic that drew attention to Moms as authentic. One of her constant themes was her sincere disregard for old men and her fanatical adoration of young men.
“Ain’t nothing no old man can do for me, but bring me a message from a young one,” Moms would say.
There were no other Black female comedians at the time that could be outrageously funny and respected by her male counterparts as an equal. After seeing and hearing Moms filter-free performance, and her ability to command the stage so effortlessly,
Goldberg was inspired at an early age and went on to do a one-woman play reenacting Moms early in her career.
Known for being au naturel on stage, Moms had no shame—and no teeth either. “She was a real person who reminded you of someone who belonged in your family,” recalled Eddie Murphy. Her comical content appealed to every racial group and class who was going through the same problems. Moms lived up to her name and made everyone feel safe with her. Even if you were the brunt of her jokes, you still felt a lot of love coming from her.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Moms’s content changed with the sensitivity of the times. She provided a cultural relief for her audience—which by this point overlapped into other races as well—and inserted herself into the civil rights era with her own political views. President Kennedy even invited her to White House, which she joked about on her 1966 album, Moms Mabley at the White House Conference.
Moms became the first Black female to work the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1962, exposing her to a broader White audience. She appeared on mainstream TV programs like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show. Moms went from making $14 a week to making $90 a week, and after working for nearly half a century, she was eventually at the height of her career earning $10,000 a week.
For 10 consecutive years, she would visit Sing Sing Correctional Facility on Christmas Eve and perform for the inmates whom she called “Moms’s children.” Her jokes on the prison guards and warden made her a fan favorite. Needless to say, they loved and respected her for capturing their tense relationships with the authorities and turning the intensity of the atmosphere into a laughing matter.
Moms would grow to be considered the matriarch of comedy for decades to come. Until her death in 1975, Moms set the bar and opened the doors for Black women in comedy, which certainly resonated throughout generations. She attained national fame with her comedy albums. In 1969, she recorded an original song written by Dick Holler entitled “Abraham, Martin and John,” and scored a Top 40 hit, making her the oldest person to do so—a record that still stands.
Goldberg has assured that the brilliance of Jackie “Moms” Mabley will be forever chronicled in the archives of comedic history. Moms would be proud to see the road she paved being walked by so many women in the industry. She was a true legend that redefined what funny was with a feminine face.