Over the course of her career, Whoopi Goldberg has worked in comedy and drama on stage, in film, and on television; has served as a talk show host; and even written a series of children’s books, but until recently she’d never stepped behind the camera and directed a project. That changed when she decided to put together Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, a documentary on the influential, but often unheralded comedian. Goldberg spoke to The A.V. Club in conjunction with the HBO premiere of the film, discussing the importance of overcoming her short attention span, her desire to further spotlight other forgotten figures from black entertainment, and why Kathy Griffin was her favorite contributor to the documentary.
The A.V. Club: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were first introduced to Moms Mabley as a kid, but what was the impetus for you to do this documentary?
Whoopi Goldberg: I used to do Moms on stage when I lived in Berkeley, California. People kept saying, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I’ll do Moms.” And I realized it’d been a while since I’d talked about it, and people didn’t actually remember her, and I needed to get the information out there. So I said, “Well, maybe I’ll do a documentary!” Because I’m crazy. [Laughs.] And, boy, what an experience it was.
AVC: You’ve noted that one of the reasons you hadn’t directed before this is that your attention span is nothing to write home about.
WG: [Laughs.] That’s true.
AVC: Having done it now, how did you find the experience?
WG: Um… the attention span’s the same. [Laughs.] But when you’re the director, you can’t go off and do other stuff, so you have to say, “I’m here, I’m doing it.” But I loved it, and I feel like at some point I’m going to have to do a bigger version, because I’d like to get information out there about some of the other performers who should be acknowledged.
AVC: Yeah, you said in the past that you would like to delve into the lives and careers of Pigmeat Markham and Peg Leg Bates.
AVC: Is that actually moving forward? You were talking at one point about pitching the idea to American Express for possible financial backing.
WG: Yes. That’s the next step.
AVC: For this one, though, you worked with Kickstarter. How did that work out for you?
WG: It was great—once people sort of got over the fact that I was asking for help. We got a couple of negative things, to which I responded. I said, “Look, you think I’d actually put myself out there for you, some stranger, to talk to me the way you’re talking to me because that’s fun?” I said, “I work every day. If I go to work every day and I’m still putting myself out there, doesn’t it stand to reason that maybe I really could use some help?” Once they said, “Yeah, why would you put yourself out there like that?”—and once I said, “Duh!”—these were my biggest donors. [Laughs.] It suddenly became true to people that not everything you read and not all of your assumptions are correct.
AVC: What proved to be your greatest resources for the documentary?
WG: Well, all the information that I’d always had—the pictures, the material—but then, as it turns out, there were also the people who said yes to being part of the documentary, like Sidney Poitier or Kathy Griffin. To talk to [Jerry] Stiller and [Anne] Meara, to talk to Eddie Murphy and Arsenio [Hall], to talk to people who had something to say about the impact that Moms had on them—that’s what it was about. There are lots of stories about her, many stories, but I couldn’t prove any of them and I didn’t want to perpetuate lies, so I talked about impact, which was a lot easier for people.
AVC: How did you find people to talk to? Was it a combination of reaching out to people you’d known were fans and finding people along the way who said, “Hey, I’m a fan, too”?
WG: Well, it was a couple of things. We have a friend, George Schlatter, who’s one of our producers as well, and I said, “What do you know? Tell me what you know.” And he said, “Well, this is what I remember, but I bet I know someone else who’d know.” So he went to his friends, I went to my friends, and we all went to people we thought would be great—Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby. But for me, one of the best was actually Kathy Griffin, because think about it, I’m older than Kathy, but she and I were watching the same program on television, being affected by this woman, while she’s in Chicago and I’m in New York. There are people that you find, who are brought in, and then you realize, “Okay, that’s how good she was: She wasn’t just talking to me, she was talking to all of these people like me, who also got it.”
AVC: Was there anyone you wanted to get for the documentary but couldn’t get, either because of scheduling or simply because they didn’t want to participate?
WG: Not really, no. Oh no, wait, we couldn’t work [with] Chris Rock’s schedule. I think he’s the only one, though.
AVC: As far as Moms’ influence on you as a performer, you’ve performed as her, but when you first started out, did you actually try to emulate her, or did you just one day realize, “I think I might have a little Moms going on”?
WG: Well, I could always do her voice, even when I was a kid. I don’t know why. She had no teeth. I had teeth, but I could still do her voice. [Laughs.] With the show [1984’s stage show Moms], my friend Ellen [Sebastian Chang], who’s part of the film, and I were sitting around saying, “Let’s write a show, let’s do something.” She said, “I want to direct something interesting,” and I said, “Well, let’s talk about this. You ever heard of this lady? ’Cause I can do her.” And she was like, “Oh, my God!” We were both in our 20s, and she was so prominent in our sphere, that we were off and running.
AVC: Moms Mabley’s profile hasn’t been terribly high, yet she cuts a figure that’s almost impossible to forget once you’ve seen her.
WG: That’s the truth. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think the reason she’s not better known is because it was relatively late in her life when she started making TV appearances?
WG: No, I think it’s because there’s no remembrance. You know, in vaudeville, after a while, you’d have someone like, say, Burns And Allen, who were thought to be funny and were entertainers and were kind of Hollywood figures, but they were never really thought of as shaping the world. But if you go back and listen to some of what they were doing, there is a lot of that. There’s some great stuff going on, but people didn’t see the artistry in it at the time. Performers and comedians and people who worked on stage were not particularly well-respected at the time, so people never really took their work as a serious piece of art, and if you were a black performer on top of that… Well, you had a whole other set of issues going on. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were there any scenes that didn’t make the cut for the film, either because they ran too long or just didn’t match the tone, that’ll turn up on the DVD?
WG: Yeah, there’ll probably be some stuff that we had to cut down. But more than anything, once you get past whatever additions are on the DVD, the big thing to do is to go searching. There’s more out there. There’s more Moms, and there are more performers out there that you should know about. I talked to someone earlier today who said, “You know, I spent four years in Black History classes, and I never heard of this lady.” And I said, “It’s because your professors didn’t grow up with variety shows.” They don’t know what a variety show is. They don’t know the significance.
Everyone wants to start in the middle, not at the beginning, but if you go all the way back and ask, “What was happening in comedy then? What was happening in music?” You had Miriam Makeba coming over from South Africa in the ’60s to talk about what was happening in her country. You had Harry Belafonte putting this whole other thing together for television and getting a lot of grief for holding hands with Petula Clark in a song. [Laughs.] All of that part is missing. You hear about the struggles, but there’s so much information that I think isn’t taught that it’s as though we just sort of got the vote, got pissy, and then boom! There’s no understanding, really, of what the struggle was. You get it in the U.S. in bits and pieces. You get something amazing like Roots or, now, thank God, you have something fabulous like 12 Years A Slave or The Butler, which fill in pieces of history. But it’s so slow! Roots was 30 years ago, and with the impact it had on people, you’d think we would’ve been able to broaden it out and have caught up. But we have not. We are still so very far behind.
AVC: Are there any other documentaries, along the lines of this one, about entertainment figures who are unheralded that you’d recommend?
WG: No, because they don’t exist. Or if they do, I haven’t seen them. And that’s why I’m going to be in talks with American Express and a couple of other people, because I think we need to have a history of black entertainment that covers writers and dancers and cinematographers and actors and choreographers, and then do a whole new series that covers scientists and… [Laughs.] Because they don’t exist anywhere! You know George Washington Carver. We know he had something to do with the peanut, right? That’s what we know, but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff. Black astronomers! I mean, there’s no history of us here, and I know it’s a big order, but I feel like if I don’t at least keep talking about it, or try to get somebody to help do it, it’s just not going to happen. It’s just not.