Laughing to keep from crying. Telling the truth and shaming the devil. That’s how Jackie “Moms” Mabley got us to laugh back in the day, and that’s what makes us laugh now. Granted, some of those guffaws are uneasy. Her brand of funny used physical Big Momma humor, mismatched clothing and underhanded sexual jabs to get at inequities in the world, particularly gutsy stuff when she first took the stage doing the Chitlin’ Circuit in the 1920s. And that’s why fellow comedian Whoopi Goldberg created a documentary—the first—about Mabley. Both a labor of love and a work of art, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, now on HBO, delves deeply into the archives of The Merv Griffin Show, JET magazine and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to tell us a bit more about a trailblazer most of us know far too little about. Mabley, for example, didn’t have many contemporaries and was a lone star.
“They have all kinds of awards. How come they don’t have a Moms Mabley Award, and why isn’t she in the Comedy Hall of Fame?” asks Goldberg. She points this out while explaining why she paid for most of the film out-of-pocket, then finished it off by raising at least a half million in funding via Kickstarter.com. “Just imagine the [veteran comics] looking at her from across the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater,” says Goldberg reverently, “and knowing that she had a foot in both [Black and White] worlds; it’s pretty remarkable.”
Like the other comedians featured in the documentary—Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Bill Cosby—Goldberg got to know Mabley via watching TV. Sure, she cracked jokes, but she also made in-your-face social commentary, especially when it came to civil rights issues. “What we can learn from her is to pay attention and to figure out what the issue really is,” says the multiple-award-winning actress, “Stop telling kids to pick up their pants, because that’s not important. What is important is that you know how to read an amendment that affects your ability to vote. You just have to pay attention.”