From the stage of the Apollo Theater Thursday night, Whoopi Goldberg introduced the screening of her documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” by exhorting the audience not to text.
“I want you to get the full impact of ‘Moms,’ because there is no Moms Mabley Award for the humanities, and there should be. I want you to see why there should be and who she was and why she’s so important to the fabric, not just of comedy, but America. Because this is a look, not just of her – this is what I discovered making this documentary- it’s not just a look at her, it’s a look at us, at the work.”
The documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and has undergone a name change from the previous “Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You,” will debut on HBO on Monday, Nov. 18. There couldn’t be a more appropriate location for the screening of this terrific documentary about the pioneering stand-up comic than the Apollo Theater.
Mabley, who was known as “Moms,” was the first female stand-up comedian to perform at the legendary theater. (The after-party was at iconic Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s where the fried chicken and mac and cheese must be the best in the world.)
On the red carpet, Goldberg talked up the film, making it clear she was not going to discuss “The View.”
One of her best responses was to the reporter of Source magazine who asked why the documentary was important to hip hop culture.
“Because everybody wants to feel like they were the first to say something deep,” said Goldberg. “I want the hip-hop culture to see what deep is. I want them to see how you can be stealth and amazing at what you do and still get the word out that change needs to me made. And I want folks to know that she was the first true female comedian in the history of the form. I think it’s important that people know that and recognize it, recognize what came before and maybe it’s not your genre, but you can sure respect it.”
Asked if Moms were alive whether she’d have wanted to do a talk show with her, Whoopi cracked, “I would not want to do a talk show with anybody. I’m having a good time and I’m gonna finish my own talk show.”
Guests at the screening included Billy Mitchell (“Mr. Apollo”), “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” producer George Schlatter, Rain Pryor, Kathy Griffin, Margo Bingham, Phylicia Rashad, Shawn Cornelius, Dick Cavett and Jerry Stiller.
Kathy Griffin, who is featured in the documentary giving her on take on “Moms,” had a lot to say about the legendary comedian who inspired her in life and comedy.
“Her act was always so out there and outrageous and funny, and that’s what I love. She just wasn’t safe. There wasn’t a safe bone in her body. And learning how strategic she was about dressing herself down to become more accessible to people and yet she packed a wallop every single time and honed her teeth as the house comedian at the Apollo, here.”
Griffin added, “Look, coming from the clubs, sometimes the audiences are drunk, sometimes they’re rolling stuff, they’re not always the Carnegie Hall audience. Then she really did it, she ended up doing Carnegie Hall and being on our televisions. She’s just so still legitimately funny. Her stuff holds up.”
She continued, “It’s essential, really, that everybody knows her story but, in particular, women, and women who want to be in comedy. First of all, she was like the first cougar, so her jokes – and unfortunately, I’m a cougar myself — about old men are hilarious,” she told me.
“The amount of work she put into being the house comedian at the Apollo to Cotton Club to Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Smothers Brothers, and then she just kept going in films and becoming more of an activist. And I mean, being an out lesbian in those days! Are you kidding me!? That’s huge! And to have great support and always doing it through humor … that’s what I love and I try to remember when I get on my high horse about women’s issues or LGBT issues. I always have to remind myself, ok, you gotta keep them laughing. That’s how the message gets through. If they’re not laughing, you’re not doing your job.”
I asked Griffin how she felt about the “Saturday Night Live” flak and the criticism of the show for its lack of black female comics. What would she say to Lorne Michaels, who has not hired a black, female comedian for “SNL” since Maya Rudolph left in 2007?
“Well, Lorne better wake up, I think. I mean, the whole country’s changing. I think Lorne is a middle-age white guy, and the country is still being run by middle-age white guys and the country isn’t middle-age why guys. So as a woman who’s been doing this for a long time, everywhere I go it’s male promoters, male managers, male theater owners. I’m just sitting here going ‘Really? Are we still doing this?’ I think the change is going to have to be forced, and that’s kind of what Moms did. She forced you to love her and she forced you to accept her and that’s how it’s gonna go but, you know, Lorne can do a little more. Actually he may not know it, but he can do a little more.”