Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley performing in about 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives / HBO)

"Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley," the HBO documentary that premiered this week, follows the life of Moms Mabley, the pioneering black comedian who rose to fame for her folksy, sometimes off-color humor. In chronicling her career, the documentary also shines a light on the chitlin' circuit -- the informal collection of live-performance venues where black entertainers could find work during segregation.

The chitlin' circuit -- named after chitterlings, the soul-food staple of cooked pig intestines -- was a safe haven for black performers of all genres, allowing them to work at a time when many venues refused to employ people of color. The theaters were located mainly on the East Coast -- they included the Apollo Theater in Harlem and Royal Peacock in Atlanta -- and they drew largely black audiences.

Musicians were a primary staple of the chitlin' circuit, but comic and vaudeville entertainers like Mabley and Flip Wilson were also prominent. The HBO documentary shows how Mabley got started in the chitlin' circuit and eventually crossed over to a wider audience on television and venues such as Carnegie Hall.

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The documentary was spearheaded by Goldberg, who served as executive producer and also an interview subject. "There was something about her that knocked me out, and knocked me out as a kid," Goldberg says in the documentary. The program also includes interviews with other prominent female comedians including Joan Rivers and Anne Meara.

At one point, the documentary points out that Mabley earned $10,000 a week while performing at the Apollo. She was the first black female comedian to perform at that historic venue and at Carnegie Hall.

The term chitlin's circuit fell out of the common vernacular decades ago and is considered by some to be a derogatory phrase. But actor-director Tyler Perry gave new currency to the expression -- and raised some eyebrows in the process -- during a 2010 interview on CBS' "60 Minutes."

Perry described his own brand of touring theater as being part of the chitlin' circuit tradition. "Tyler Perry, superstar of the chitlin' circuit?" asked then-CBS correspondent Byron Pitts. "Yeah. Superstar of the chitlin' circuit, I'll take that," Perry replied.

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