“I’m glad you all are laughing,” Whoopi Goldberg told the audience after the screening of the world premiere of, “Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You,” at the Tribeca Film Festival Saturday night. She added, “’Cause this chick is still funny, and that you’re laughing is really meaningful to me.”
On the red carpet, Goldberg said of the comedic pioneer who is the subject of her directing debut, “We celebrate all the other firsts. Why haven’t we celebrated the first stand up comedian who was a woman and had been doing it since 1928?”
Goldberg told a female reporter on the red carpet, “More than anything she was the first female, the first stand-up comic. And look at you! You’re why Moms did what she did, so you could be doing what you do.”
Jackie “Moms” Mabley performed in a costume, a frumpy dress and pushed-in hat. She had a gravelly, deep voice and an elastic face and no teeth. But her comedy had a satiric bite and a subtle, if resounding, political message.
She began as a vaudeville star on the Chitlin’ Circuit and traveled with other iconic performers. She worked for nearly half a century and at the height of her career earned $10,000 a week. The documentary, which is entertaining and hilarious, has already been snapped up by HBO.
Mabley’s story is told through photographs, documents and interviews with comedians and entertainers, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
On the red carpet Goldberg told me, “I needed to refresh people about who she was before I did a one-woman show. Then I discovered there was more that needed to be done and eventually, someone will do a biopic. It won’t be me, but somebody will do it.”
Early in her career, Goldberg did a one-woman show about Mabley. “I was going to do Moms again for the stage,” she said. “This was about ten years ago, and I didn’t do it, and I kept saying I was going to do it until I got to the point where I realized most people wouldn’t know who she was now. And I thought if I could reintroduce her to people, maybe that would facilitate me getting on stage to do it.”
So she’s bringing the show to Broadway?, I asked. “Eventually, I’ll do it, yeah.”
The hardest part of making the documentary, she said, besides raising the money – she got $75,000 on Kickstarter.com – was finding the material. There are recordings but “very little of her performances except on the TV shows that we remember from the 60’s and a couple of movie things that she did, but there’s not a lot.”
The premiere brought out an interesting crowd, including Mira Sorvino, Ali Wentworth and husband George Stephanopoulos, comedian Caroline Rhea, Billy Mitchell (Mr. Apollo), and Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films.
One image in the film that’s sure to surprise is the photograph of Mabley dressed as a man. After Mabley finished her performance as an elderly, dowdy woman, she took off her costume and changed into a silk shirt, tailored slacks and Italian shoes and slicked back her hair. Jackie “Moms” Mabley became Mr. Jackie.
During the Q&A, Rhea asked if there was more documentation of Mabley as a gay woman.
“What we have there is everything,” said Goldberg. “That’s it, and the fact that we even found this information that we could prove that she was a gay woman. It’s like we couldn’t make this a bio because there’s just not enough information. [Back then], they were not filming or doing any of those archiving. These were black comics and nobody [cared].”
Goldberg added, “She wasn’t hiding anything, and nobody talked about it.”
As for Whoopi’s favorite Mabley joke, she did a spot on imitation of the famous Mabley voice and joke, “Two Old Women walking down the street. One turns to the other one and says, ‘I smell hair burning.’ The Other one says, ‘You walkin too fast.'”
Goldberg was asked about the clip that spoke to her from the moment she saw it. Without hesitating, she said, “The one that I loved, love, love, is she and Kris Kristofferson, because he’s in love with her. He’s walking her out on the stage as a presenter at the 1974 Grammy Awards. She didn’t’ care where she was, she would pull those teeth out, and to me, this freedom to be yourself, for 77 years, is the highlight of life, because, you know, it’s okay to be gay, it’s okay to be individual, it’s okay to have a point of view. She made me realize that whatever you did you had to stand on your own two feet and know who you are.”
Also, Goldberg added, “The audio clip of her talking about going on this trip with Jackie, because you know she was down there and they loved her, the Kennedys loved her. I had no idea,” she said. “I thought it was bullshit and then I realized she did know them,” Goldberg laughed.
Someone asked, what was the most surprising thing Goldberg learned about Mabley?
“Hello?” The audience laughed. “ No, no, that was the most surprising thing I learned. Did you see how she was dressed? We’re talking about a time when this did not happen. Gay folks have been with us since the beginning of time, not always out and about. Moms was clearly out and about and didn’t give a shit, and no one else did either. That was the thing that knocked me out.”
She added, “”She was a female queer comedian and nobody knew she was queer, but she was funny so it doesn’t matter. If you’re gay or straight, you can do whatever is universally funny. And I think to me, many, many of her jokes about old men not having anything for her is pretty clear, especially after making this picture. Oh, I get it now.”
As to how blue she went, Goldberg responded, “[Mabley] went very blue,” but she decided not to include that in the film. “I wanted people to be able to see it with their kids. I wanted people to experience Moms the way I was able to experience Moms, which is in a family environment.”
One of the few performance sequences of Mabley is of her performing at the Playboy mansion in the TV show “Playboy After Dark.” Sammy Davis Jr. asks her to sing “Abraham, Martin and John,” the 1968 song that was a tribute to the assassinated leaders. There are tears in Davis’s eyes.
“People went nuts because she meant it,” Goldberg said, adding that it’s her favorite part of the film, “because it’s been such a long time since we’ve seen Sammy and not the Sammy that’s with Dean and the boys, but Sammy who does what he does. And Hugh looks like a baby and he’s cute! Everybody looks good in this clip. Did you see the guy with the Afro? He’s fly as hell. I wanted to marry him at once. Those moments remind us of what we are, what we can be.”
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