Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Moms Mabley was a comedian who didn’t tell jokes. She told her audience a story. Sure, that’s not revolutionary in an era when most comedians don’t actually tell jokes and storytelling is an increasingly prominent component of stand-up comedy. But Mabley got her start in the 1920s, when vaudevillian bits reigned supreme. “She was a real person, not a performer,” Sidney Poitier says in Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. Though, as Mabley’s legacy unfurls, it becomes clear that Moms was a character as well.
For her directorial debut, Whoopi Goldberg turns her camera on a performer who is too rarely mentioned in the same breath as the comedy greats—even in the canon of trailblazing funny women. That amnesia surrounding Mabley’s legacy defines how Goldberg profiles her subject. The director presents an overall primer on Mabley—a performer who refused to adhere to the Mammy archetype prevalent during her time—along with a short history of segregation-era black entertainment. The best tool Goldberg has at her disposal—offsetting the praises sung by the stacked deck of comedians chatting about Mabley—is video of the woman herself. Mabley’s onstage wardrobe consisted of mismatched old-maid attire and a bucket hat, but the DNA of her character can be found in any truth-talking grandma-type with a cougar streak. She dressed like a rube, but always had the upper hand, playing with words and scenarios that turned the model of the older black woman on its head. Explaining why parents shouldn’t bring children to her shows, Mabley says, “You tell them: Mary had a little lamb. I tell them: Wasn’t the doctor surprised?” Mabley didn’t start appearing on television until the late 1960s, but she released 20 comedy albums, which are animated throughout the run of Goldberg’s documentary.
The film fails, however, when it comes to illuminating anything about Moms’ life beyond the stage. To be fair, the record is thin. Goldberg estimates that Mabley was born in 1897, but facts about her life pre- and post-fame are never expounded. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, Mabley started performing based on the encouragement of surrogate parents and vaudeville performers Butterbeans and Susie. She worked her way up the chitlin’ circuit, settling in New York and becoming a fixture at The Apollo Theater, where she shared billing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. (She even made her way to Carnegie Hall in 1962.) There is a distinct separation of the Moms character and the woman who went by Jackie Mabley offstage, but there is little to be garnered about Jackie. Arsenio Hall mentions that Mabley was raped twice, each time producing a child that eventually had to be given up for adoption. If great comedy is born of pain, Hall says, then Moms had her fair share of it. But that’s the film’s only speculation on how her life affected her comedy. Similarly, Mabley’s lesbianism and penchant for wearing men’s clothes are brought up and then never talked about again—as if neither were out of the ordinary in Mabley’s time.
What matters to Goldberg is the woman who appeared onstage, because that’s the woman who changed her life. Without Moms Mabley, there’s no Whoopi Goldberg in the most literal sense. At the beginning of Goldberg’s career, she recreated Moms’ routines. “There was something about her that knocked me out,” Goldberg says. Other comedians speak with similar reverence—and there are a lot of other comedians in Moms Mabley. Hall, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, and Eddie Murphy all speak to Mabley’s importance. Murphy, for instance, reveals that the grandmother in his remake of The Nutty Professor is Moms, down to her mannerisms and affinity for discussing her apparent wild sexual history.
The most important thing about Mabley is that she blew past color barriers, yet never muted herself. While appearing on The Merv Griffin Show, she says that in the South, people had taken to calling her the same name as Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger. At least, she thinks that’s what they’re calling her, said with just enough feigned ignorance to make Merv visibly uncomfortable. (Even now, it’s hard to believe she pulled that off.) In one of the documentary’s more poignant pieces of archival footage, Sammy Davis Jr. prompts Moms to sing the Civil Rights anthem “Abraham, Martin And John,” made all the more affecting by the fact that she knew two of the song’s subjects: Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. Goldberg whets the appetite for what Mabley can do, but it’s Mabley, not Goldberg-as-director, who delivers. In assembling a primer on the legendary performer, Goldberg does just fine—but there are still gaps in her biography that, with Goldberg opening the door, demand a more in-depth look at the comic.