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The Mother of All Documentaries

Whoopi Goldberg’s directorial debut celebrates the first lady of standup comedy

Author Jacqueline Detwiler


It’s not until almost the end of Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, the Academy Award winner’s new HBO documentary on the midcentury comic, that you get a real sense of Mabley’s achievements. In the segment, Mabley performs a cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” a civil rights–themed anthem, at the Playboy Mansion, with everyone from Hugh Hefner to Sammy Davis Jr. looking on in rapt attention.

Born in the 1890s, Mabley started as a singer, comedian and dancer on the all-black “Chitlin’ Circuit” during an era when black stars were often imitated but rarely celebrated. Later, she became a regular at the Apollo in Harlem, performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in her floppy hat and patterned muumuus, inspiring a generation of performers, Whoopi Goldberg included.

“She had a huge impact on me,” Goldberg says. “The kind of work that I do, the kind of stories I tell, they’re based on the Moms Mabley tradition.” By that she means anecdotal but subversive—the kind of gags that lull you for a moment before whapping you in the backside with a punchline.

Goldberg has long planned to honor her mentor-in-absentia, but life got in the way. “You suddenly wake up and go, ‘Geez, I’m old. I’d better do this,’” Goldberg says. “And so that’s what I did.”

Because there was little biographical material to go on—and only one surviving family member to interview—Goldberg relied mostly on clips of Mabley’s act and rallied friends (Eddie Murphy, Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall) to talk about the ways Mabley influenced them. The result is a sort of paean that nonetheless had audiences at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in stitches.

“That’s kind of a great testament,” Goldberg says. “I mean, these jokes are more than 50 years old. And they’re still funny.” NOV. 18

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The Good Stuff
A few gems from the late, great Moms Mabley

“Didja hear about the two old maids walkin’ down the street?  One of them said to the other one, ‘I smell ham burnin’.’ The other one said, ‘Maybe we walkin’ too fast.’”
[While hugging the host of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”:] “Ah, I love to put my arms around you, son, young and all. You know mamma don’t like old men. No. Anytime you see me with my arms around an old man, I’m holdin’ him for the police.”

“They was looking for the oldest man in the world. They went all over the world, went down to Mexico, and they seen a little man up on the mountain all drawed up. They said, ‘This has got to be the oldest man in the world. This has GOT to be him.’ They said, ‘Listen, pops, will you tell us, what is the reason for your long life?’ He says, ‘Yes. I run around with women. When I was younger, young girls. Drink plenty whiskey. Smoked.’ They said, ‘You done all that and lived to be this old?’ They said, ‘How old are you?’ He said, ‘35.’”

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Also out this month

MOVIES Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has DiCaprio playing a horrid stockbroker // Preteen fisticuffs in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire TV The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination sees PBS’s “NOVA” applying forensic techniques to the killing in “Cold Case” BOOKS With season four of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” just out, the obsession with zombies lives on with the release of Vol. 19 of the original graphic novel  //  Patricia Cornwell forensatrix Kay Scarpetta tackles yet another case in Dust THEATER Ethan Hawke plays Macbeth (“Is this a Tony which I see before me?”) at Lincoln Center Theater

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