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Comedy legend Paul Mooney will forever be linked with longtime friends Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle, but he's racked up an impressive career outside those fruitful collaborations, both as a writer for shows like In Living Color and as an influential stand-up comedian. Mooney's early show-biz career included stints as a ringmaster for the Charles Gody Circus and a performer with the incendiary anti-Vietnam War "FTA" (Fuck The Army) troupe alongside Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and Peter Boyle. A chance meeting with Pryor irrevocably shaped Mooney's career; he began writing for Pryor, in a fruitful partnership that led to classic comedy albums, performance films, and the Pryor-directed autobiographical drama JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. As a writer on The Richard Pryor Show and In Living Color, Mooney gave big breaks to acts like Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, Sandra Bernhard, and Jim Carrey. Mooney recently experienced a surge in popularity via his prominent appearances on Chappelle's Show in the popular segments "Ask A Black Dude" and "Negrodamus." The A.V. Club recently spoke with Mooney—whose new comedy DVD is titled Know Your History: Jesus Was Black So Was Cleopatra—for a rambling, digressive conversation about misbehaving primates, Richard Pryor, the N-word, and being asked to host on the DVD Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes.
The A.V Club: You have an archetypal story, in that you ran away from home as a teenager to join the circus.
Paul Mooney: Oh yeah. I go down in black history, I was the first black ringmaster. This is way before the Black Circus and all this stuff, back in the day. It was called the Charles Gody Circus. We had all the animals from television: Gentle Ben, the cross-eyed lion, all that stuff. You're probably too young. Daktari was a hit then. The black man that starred in that, I forget his name, 'cause I'm getting old. I don't have Alzheimer's, I have "sometimer's": Sometimes I remember, sometimes I don't. They used to think I was hep, and they called me "Hollywood."
AVC: Did you run away and join the circus because you were unhappy at home?
PM: I quit my job. I was working at Joseph Magnin's in Century City. I was working with Candy, Aaron Spelling's wife Candy. Aaron used to come in all the time to see her. She had this big engagement ring, and I said to her, "Who's that ugly white man that keeps coming here to see you?" She said, "I'm going to marry that ugly white man."
AVC: Was it a big circus? Did they have a freak show?
PM: It wasn't like Barnum & Bailey, or anything like that. It was just a circus, a miniature little circus. We'd go to different places and perform.
AVC: Did you enjoy the circus life?
PM: I found out how they tortured the animals. No wonder circus animals do what they do: They tortured them. And you know the only ones they can't control? It's the chimpanzees. You can't control them. That's why you never see a gorilla in a movie, because the gorilla may decide there'll be no filming. Yeah, but the elephants and all this other stuff, they train everything else. They torture them. That's why they do the same thing, over and over night. That part, I didn't like.
AVC: What did you like about the circus?
PM: I liked the kids coming and all that. It just made the kids so happy.
AVC: Were there circus groupies?
PM: Oh, of course! They used to follow the circus around. Yeah, of course.
AVC: How did you make the transition from being a ringmaster to doing comedy?
PM: I was a ringmaster, and I was funny. I was doing comedy before. I just did that to make some money. I was a shoe salesman, I worked at Joseph Magnin's, an expensive store in Century City, and it was good money. Let me tell you something about Hollywood you may not know. Back in the day, we did everything we could to pay the rent. We didn't give a damn. There was a lot of us that did The Dating Game, we were married or we were with somebody, we still did it because it was scale, and we had to pay our phone bill and our rent. I also worked for Playboy for five years. I did Playboy After Dark.
AVC: Really? How was that?
PM: It was great. I know all the dirt. Barbi Benton, Hugh Hefner's girlfriend, she had just met me. Her daddy was a doctor. Janice Pennington, from The Price Is Right, and Lindsay Wagner, The Bionic Woman, we all come out of Playboy. Oh, it was great. We got to know everybody, we got to meet every star. Every star that there ever was came to the mansion. It was the place, it was the thing. The big thing was the Playboy Mansion and the Playboy Club, and Laugh-In, that was during that time. That was the big deal. Sinatra, everybody, came to the private clubs and to the Mansion.
AVC: Did you do stand-up comedy at Playboy After Dark?
PM: No, I wasn't doing comedy. I was one of the pretty people.
AVC: You were there just to stand around and look good?
PM: Yeah. We were there just for the party, to dance and all that stuff. We were like atmosphere. Hang out with Hef and go on the private jet with all the bunnies. That was back in the day. But I was still doing stand-up when I wasn't on the show. And I was writing for Richard.
AVC: What was your early stand-up like?
PM: I found myself at the clubs. What's the little Jewish lady's name? What's her name? I just saw her again, she's so funny, she was so funny back in the day. I'll think of her name in a minute, I'm getting old. It was at Ye Little Club, where we all used to go and perform. That's how I met Sandra Bernhard when she was 18 years old. And I told her she was a cigarette come to life. And that's before full lips were in. They used to call her "nigger lips." She had those big lips, and they were just jealous of her. That's why they used to put lipstick on those little tiny lips of theirs. I told her, before it's all said and done, big lips would be in. And my prediction came true. Joan Rivers! It was Joan Rivers. She used to come in all the time at the Ye Little Club. That's where she got her start. We all used to go in there and work out.
AVC: Richard Pryor's early stand-up was a lot more conventional, a lot more in the Bill Cosby mode. And then he moved into a different direction. Were you, basically, the same kind of comedian back then that you are today?
PM: No. I learned all my tricks at Ye Little Club. I found myself working there because I wouldn't have my friends come in. I'd just do what I found myself. I worked it out there. It was always there. It was always a nuclear bomb, I just wasn't in control of it. And from working in that club, and working by myself, and taking all the yes and nos, all the "We like you, we don't like you," I found out who I was.
AVC: You learned how to harness your gift?
PM: Yeah. Then I held onto who I was. When you know who you are, you know who you are. That's the real dangerous thing in Hollywood, because they all want to create you and mold you. They have Frankenstein syndrome here. But as in the Frankenstein story, the monster always hates the doctor.
Did you ever see the black-and-white original Frankenstein? Okay, the doctor has all the dialogue, you know: "You think I'm crazy? I'll show you crazy. I created it with my own hands!" He talks throughout the whole movie, am I right or wrong? Frankenstein said one thing—less is more. "Aaaah!" And all you remember is the monster.
AVC: In the early '70s, you toured with FTA, which stood for Fuck The Army.
PM: With Jane Fonda, Peter Boyle, and Donald Sutherland. That was my second time around, because I came out of Second City with Peter Boyle. We toured all over the United States. Avery Schreiber was our director. And before that, I was with the improvisational group in San Francisco, the first black improvisational group. It was called the Yankee Doodle Bedbugs.
AVC: What was it like touring the country with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland?
PM: It was the best. She was very smart, and very pretty. I loved being with Jane.
AVC: Was she as divisive of a figure back then as she would become? Were people angry about her message and her politics?
PM: She was right. She was right. Since then, she's been saying she was used, but she wasn't. She was used by God. Because her daddy being a movie star, and all this other stuff, they wanted to kill her. They wanted to murder Jane Fonda. I was right there with her. They did not like it, they didn't like that white woman that had everything, talking up against that war, which she should've. That war, we shouldn't have been there, just like we shouldn't be in the one we're in now. People don't want to hear the truth, they never do. They wanna live in some kind of fantasy. And then when they get caught up in it, they start being in denial because they don't want to be wrong. She was right in doing what she did. She was right in bringing all the attention and all the controversy to it, because we needed that. America does not like losers. Look how we treated those soldiers who came back from Vietnam. Because they lost. America likes winners.
AVC: Because you were a part of something radical and overtly anti-war, were you subject to a lot of harassment?
PM: Not really. I only did that because I believed in it. So, majority doesn't rule. One person can change the history of the world. It wasn't Harriet Tubman and her cousins, it was Harriet Tubman. And people just have to have the chutzpah to make that stand. If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for everything. Everyone doesn't have that in them. It's pretty sad, but that's the way it is. People do many things for many reasons. Sometimes, what you do you have no control over, because it's predestined. It's gonna happen in spite of you. There's nothing you can do about it.
AVC: How did the soldiers respond to your performances?
PM: Oh, some loved it. Some didn't. Because they were caught up in it. They were part of the war. Some people hated it, they hated us. They could have killed us. And I understand that, too, because you don't want to feel like you're doing something wrong, that you're risking your life for nothing. You don't want that feeling. Look at the Vietnamese. What a hell of an audition for a manicure and pedicure. That war, what a hell of an audition.
AVC: What was your first impression of Richard Pryor? When did you first meet him, and what were you thinking?
PM: I was living with my half-sister, who was the first black diva on the cover of Vogue, French Vogue. She was the first black woman that was ever put on the cover of any white magazine. You can go to the library, you can look her up. We were living in a cheap hotel on Sunset, and it was during the Motown days. Tammi Terrell was a good friend of my sister's back in the day. Gladys Knight and The Pips, everyone came because they had had no money. They all stayed at our cheap place, slept on the floor, wherever. Richard was dating a girl that was working at the telephone company. She was moonlighting, what they called it at night, dancing go-go at the Whisky with my sister. And Richard came by. I'd heard about Richard Pryor. It was during the mid-'60s and that hippie shit, he said "Let's all get in the bed and have a freak thing." It was like Bob, Ted, Alice, and Lassie in those days, where everyone got in the bed together. And I threw him out of the room. And in his book, he says, "I didn't know that was Paul's sister, I never would've said that." Then two weeks or two and a half weeks later, I went to a Trini López concert in West Hollywood, and Richard was there. We met, had a drink, and the rest is history. And also his first white wife, Shelley, the first one he married because he had a child already, she was working at a theater as a ticket girl where I was assistant manager, the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard. We just hooked up, and the rest was history.
AVC: What was your working relationship with him like? Did you write together? Would you bounce ideas off each other?
PM: It was like Lone Ranger and Tonto, Lucy and Ethel, any group that you can think of. Bonnie and Clyde, that was us. We were the perfect marriage, because I was Richard's biggest fan. When you listen to all Richard's old albums, you'll hear me laughing.
AVC: So how would you work together in terms of writing?
PM: It's so funny. When I met Richard, he was probably 28, 27, somewhere around there. He once stood in front of a TV set and said to me, "Do you think I can act? I want to be an actor." I said he was the best actor that I know, I said, "You're an Academy Award performer." He said, "What makes you say that?" I said, "You've convinced everybody you're not crazy." And he started laughing. Shelley Winters gave him his first movie role. He played a hippie. Wild In The Streets.
AVC: What was it like writing for Richard Pryor during his first appearance on Saturday Night Live?
PM: I was Richard's black writer. Richard took me everywhere. We went there and we wrote that. All of that stuff, all that stuff that's classic. That's what they call it, "classic." Yeah, but it's interesting, isn't it, that they call it a classic? I find it so interesting, because there was no such thing as a black comedy writer. They flew me into Miami and cross-examined me like I was trying to get over the border.
AVC: Who cross-examined you?
PM: Lorne Michaels and all the little big shots.
AVC: Is it true that Richard Pryor didn't get along very well with Chevy Chase?
PM: Oh no. Chevy Chase, he wanted to knock his teeth out. He was the golden boy.
AVC: It seems like everyone kind of hated Chevy Chase at that point in his career.
PM: Yeah. It was all crazy. First of all, Richard was on the drugs. He was getting high. Everybody on that show was high. They were all addicts. I should have turned them all in, because I don't do drugs. I was slow. I should have turned them all in.
AVC: Was it pot, mainly? Was it cocaine?
PM: Coke. Coke. You're naïve. It was really cocaine. Weed too. It was secondary. It's like smoking cigarettes. But they were into that coke.
AVC: So why didn't you do drugs? That's relatively unique in the comedy field.
PM: I've been around a lot of drug addicts. Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, all of 'em. I don't do drugs. Because my grandmother raised me. I think like an old, black, Southern woman. If I'd have done coke, I'd probably be cooking pancakes.
AVC: Do you think Richard Pryor was satisfied with the way his film career went?
PM: I think that Richard was an Academy Award performer. I think that he picked the wrong scripts, because he was really a good actor. But the drugs had a lot to do with it too, I think. And choices, it was unfortunate. But Richard was like a little boy, really. That's one of his plusses. He had the heart of a little boy.
AVC: Do you think genius and self-destructiveness go hand in hand?
PM: It comes with the territory. There's a yin for the yang. There's a price that people pay.
AVC: You've vowed to stop using the N-word.
PM: I won't be using that, no. That's a no-no.
AVC: What was the reasoning behind that?
PM: Well, Michael Richards, his meltdown. His nervous breakdown is what did it.
AVC: How so?
PM: Well, it was something else. I heard about it, and then I saw the video, and it freaked me. I'm not easily freaked. And the way I used the word, I was an ambassador for the word. The way I used the word, I was a part of it too. It became an equal-opportunity word. All the little white kids, all the little Latin kids, the Asians, the Mexicans, they were all using it. And it shouldn't be equal opportunity. Even though some people say "We use the n-a, not the n-e," it doesn't matter. A goat's a goat. Whether you sauté or barbeque it, it's still a goat. And there were layers to his breakdown, to Michael. I've known Michael for over 20 years. There were layers to it. This came out of Michael. Michael's a victim of America. There are a lot of white people who have this stuff inside them. It just takes the right situation to bring it out. White America should take responsibility for it like I'm taking responsibility for it. I'm not saying it. You have to say no to it. I was married to the word, I was the ambassador for the word and now I'm not saying it any more.
AVC: Didn't Richard Pryor stop using the word at some point as well?
PM: Yes, but when he said it, I couldn't see the n-word for the trees. Richard went to Africa. I hadn't been to Africa. He said he didn't see any N-words there, so when he got home, he said he wasn't going to say it any more. He was touched. Now I'm touched. You can't pick when you're touched. You can't pick the time. It just is. It's the reality. What it is, is. I can't change the past. I can only deal with the present and the future.
AVC: Why do you think the word continues to have such power?
PM: It's because of the way it came about. That's why. I understand why people don't want to give it up. It's like Richard's old joke: "Let me check my penis to make sure you haven't taken that."
AVC: Has it been difficult weaning yourself off the N-word? You used it very, very liberally in your last special.
PM: I'm backing off it now. I have to tell you a story. Whoopi Goldberg called me when all this was going on, and said, "Paul, you're the ambassador for the N-word, but I'm going to have to ask you for a week pass. I have to cuss some black folks out on Friday, but after that, I won't say it any more." That's a true story, and I gave her a pass because she asked for one. I haven't used it. I did a show with Dick Gregory in The Lincoln Theater in D.C. I've been doing shows, being onstage for two hours, two-and-a-half hours, and I haven't used it. I'm a creature of habit, and I have an N-word jones, but I've figured it out. If I ever have an N-word jones, I'll just say "Arnold Schwarzenegger." He is my governor.
AVC: You're strongly associated with Dave Chappelle, whose stand-up seems strongly influenced by your own. Would you describe yourself as a mentor to him?
PM: There are a lot of people I've influenced, a lot of people I've worked with. I've worked with the best, from Moms Mabley to Redd Foxx to Flip Wilson to Bill Cosby to Eddie Murphy to Richard Pryor to Sandra Bernhard to Robin Williams to Johnny Witherspoon Chris Rock, Chris Tucker. I've worked with them all. The king of comedy is dead. Richard Pryor was the king of comedy. The rest of them are the king of copycats.
AVC: Were you at all angry at Chappelle for ending the show so abruptly?
PM: No. That's his show. That's not my show. They asked me to host some "lost tapes" or something. I told them no, If Dave doesn't approve it, I don't want to do it. You have to have some loyalty somewhere. That was his choice and his show. I wasn't angry about that. It was a smart move. It put him on the A-list. And then he went to Africa. He did what white people have been telling me to do for years: go to Africa. So that really caused controversy. And he turned down that money. That stressed people out. Millions. People in America worship money, and a white man's face on a green piece of paper does not make me wealthy. My health makes me wealthy. I used to work at a hospital, so I know the real deal.