"Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley," in which the former directs a film about the latter, premieres Monday on HBO. It is an homage and a celebration, with something of a high-class homemade feel.
The first black female comic to make it in the American pop-cultural mainstream — the first black female stand-up comic, possibly — Jackie "Moms" Mabley will be unknown to many today. She died in 1975, after a career that began before the First World War but was visible only to the white audience from the 1960s, when she began appearing on network variety and talk shows.
Clad in a floral housecoat, argyle socks and big shoes, with a cap pulled down on her head and her dentures left in the dressing room, speaking (by the time I saw her) in a trademark croak, Mabley was instantly memorable, a familiar strange bird: It was as if your grandmother had suddenly stepped out onto the stage of "The Ed Sullivan Show" to say things your — well, my — grandmother would never say. Much of her humor had a risqué edge, but she had a political streak as well.
"You think you're gonna hear some jokes, don't you?" we hear her say. "Well, Moms don't know some jokes, but I can tell ya some facts."
"She was like a real person, like someone in your family," Eddie Murphy says here, admitting that, without realizing it, his portrayal of the grandmother in "The Nutty Professor" was unconsciously "just straight ripped off" from Mabley.
Finding the record scant ("When you look at Moms' history, I guess it's the history of black folks in America, 'cause all of the information is not there"), Goldberg bolsters her film with tributes and testimony from famous faces Mabley impressed or influenced — "Her impact on me was profound," she says, "and I really wanted to know if she impacted other people like that" — including Murphy, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Robert Klein, Quincy Jones, Dick Cavett, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who says of her, "She was a trailblazer, and she wasn't trying to be a trailblazer — she was just trying to say her stuff."
Nevertheless, the director has assembled (with rare clips and some fine photographs) the bones of the story of a woman who was a pioneer and model for possibility — as a woman, a comic and a lesbian (out to her friends, if not her public), who dressed in tailored suits.
"She was Moms onstage," remembers dancer Norma Miller. "She walked offstage she was Mr. Moms."
She was "born in 1897, we think," says Goldberg, in Brevard, N.C. ("That we know for sure.") Twice raped and made pregnant, Mabley left home young and found her way into minstrel shows, vaudeville and the Harlem Renaissance. She collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston on the 1931 Broadway show "Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes" and appeared with Paul Robeson in the 1933 film of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones."
She was the first black female comic to play the Apollo, where she made as much as $10,000 a week, and later the first to play Carnegie Hall. She appeared on bills with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Miles Davis and gave yearly concerts at Sing Sing prison; she visited the White House; had a top 40 record in 1969 with her version of "Abraham, Martin and John."
She was something of a national treasure by the time she died.
Goldberg, who has expressed a desire to take a "Moms" show to Broadway, has made an appealing quilt in the image of her heroine, homely and lovely, ragbag and dignified.
'Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley'
When: 9 p.m. Monday.
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for viewers younger than 14)