Jackie "Moms" Mabley
Today is the birthday of the great comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley. I wonder if there isn't a case for her being not just the first African-American female standup comic, but, extra-racially, the first of the breed ever. After scuffling on the black chittlin' vaudeville circuit for a couple of decades beginning in the 1920s, by the time the '50s rolled around, Moms had become a major draw at famous black venues like the Apollo in New York and the Howard Theater in DC.
Shambling on stage, behatted, clad in thrift shop attire, and devoid of her dentures, Moms had the audience won over before she even opened her mouth. Then when she spoke, the sound that came out resembled nothing so much as a foghorn in heat. Like a slightly more butch Lionel Stander.
Here's a typical Moms riff; the setup up is a white man sentenced to be hung for murder.
"I don't want to be hung. I don't want to be hung," he moans.
"They gonna hang you, so why don't you face it like a man," Moms admonishes him.
To which the white man replies:
"That's easy for you to say, you're used to it."
Naturally, her mostly all-black audience goes completely bananas. As rough as any bit that Lenny Bruce ever spoke, but because of her warm and fuzzy protective coloration (so to speak) Moms got away with just as much if not more than Dirty Lenny.
Mabley eventually become a crossover star, appearing on TV variety shows like the Smothers Brothers, scored a top forty singles hit in 1969, and saw thirteen of her comedy albums end up on Billboard magazine charts. She was even well enough known to have been the subject of a Second City TV comedy sketch, "Moms Dearest," a sendup of Mommie Dearest. For a while, Whoopee Goldberg was toying with the idea of doing a one-woman show based on Moms' material. She might have even performed it a few times, but as I seem to recall, the project went into turnaround, not to mention litigation limbo.
I loved one saying of Mabley's so much that I used it as the prefatory quote for my book Hot from Harlem: Profiles in Classic African-American Entertainment: "You don't get started in show business. . .you just start." A subtle Jesuitical distinction elusive to but a few. She died in 1975 at age 81.
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