Often called the Godfather of modern black comedy, Paul Mooney is a controversial, over-the-edge comedian, and his routines are definitely not for the easily offended. Yet Mooney’s artistry is the result of years of patient effort. Indeed, for many years, Mooney worked behind-the-scenes, writing material for other comedians before emerging as a solo performer. While he has received considerable critical acclaim for his work, Mooney has willingly remained underground and out the of spot light, defining himself as a person who merely says what most people think.
Mooney prefers to be known as a comedian who speaks the truth. He has stated that “society and life” write his material, and clearly his reaction to societal norms is fundamentally critical. Thus, as the cultural climate in America grew increasingly politically correct, Mooney’s material became more politically incorrect. Describing his visceral approach to comedy, Mooney told People Weekly’s Eric Levin, “I have more nerve than a toothache. ” Richard Harris, senior producer for Nightline Upclose concurred, describing Mooney as: “Raw. Edgy. Irreverent. Controversial. There’s really no word that adequately sums up Paul Mooney. I’m not even sure what to call him, except the funniest person you may not have heard of. He’s not quite a stand-up comedian, social satirist or racial comic. He’s all of the above and none of the above.”
Mooney Found Pryor and His Career
Mooney, who admits to being younger than Richard Pryor but older than Eddie Murphy, was born in Louisiana and grew up in Oakland, California. He ran away from home and joined the Charles Gody Circus, becoming the first African American ringmaster. In a handout circulated at one of his comedy shows at Caroline’s on Broadway, Mooney was quoted as saying, “When I was ringmaster, I was doing jokes. I think funny.” Mooney’s “big break” is attributed to his meeting and working with Richard Pryor. Mooney first became acquainted with Pryor in 1969 at his half-sister’s apartment. Interestingly, Pryor’s outrageous behavior prompted Mooney to ask Pryor to leave.
Some time later however, when Mooney ran into Pryor at a club in Los Angeles, the two comedians sat down and talked, finding much in common. After a while, Mooney and Pryor were working together as writers for the hit television show, Sanford & Son, starring Redd Foxx. When Pryor went on to develop a solo career, Mooney stayed with him as one of his principal writers, contributing to Pryor’s live comedy routines and concerts, albums, and movies. In fact, Mooney was head writer for Pryor’s NBC comedy series in 1977, providing comedy material not only for Pryor, but for various new up-and-coming comedians, including Robin Williams, Marsha Witfield, Sandra Bernhard, Tim Reid, and John Witherspoon. For a number of political reasons, the series was cancelled during its first season. Nevertheless Mooney remained one of Pryor’s key writers for many years, cowriting for Pryor’s hit albums, Live On Sunset, Bicentennial Nigger, and Is It Something I Said. Mooney also wrote the screen play for Pryor’s autobiographical film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, (1988).
Despite their familiarity with the hit television series Good Times, Saturday Night Live, and In Living Color, American audiences do not know that Paul Mooney is the acerbic wit behind many of the most popular episodes and skits. For example, Mooney was the master mind behind the famous Saturday Night Live skit in which Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase play a word association game that ends in biting racial epithets. In addition, Mooney was head writer for In Living Color, creating such outrageous and memorable characters as Homey the Clown and the brothers Tom and Tom. Mooney later worked with Eddie Murphy during Murphy’s SNL years, writing comedy material. For a while, Mooney was the opening act for one of Murphy’s concert tours.
Mooney’s multifaceted career has also included several movie roles. He played Sam Cooke in The Buddy Holly Story, and the NAACP president in Hollywood Shuffle. In Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, where Mooney plays the antihero’s father, Junebug, viewers were treated with one of Mooney’s characteristic routines. In an interview for salon.com, Lee said, “Well, to me, Paul Mooney is really playing himself…. He’s a great talent who could’ve had a much bigger career, but just wouldn’t play along. He wouldn’t play the Hollywood game. And that’s who Junebug was.” Mooney also wrote the screen story of Call Me Claus (2001), starring Whoopi Goldberg, and provided vocals on Revolverlution, an album by Public Enemy (2002).
Use of the “N” Word Caused Controversy
In the early 1990s, Mooney recorded two comedy albums, Master Piece and Race, for which he earned a Grammy nomination. Much of the material on Race, which was recorded at the Punch Line in San Francisco, was taken from Mooney’s one-man show that opened off-Broadway in 1993. Audiences who happened to see Mooney’s show were treated to a two hour show with no intermission–Mooney told Levin, “People say, ‘How can you talk so long?’ I say, ‘My ancestors are being channeled through me. They were slaves, they couldn’t talk. Now that they’ve got me, they may never shut up.’” Some critics compare Mooney to Pryor because of his in-your-face style, but others agree that Mooney is best compared with the late, often-censored Lenny Bruce, who merged indecency with comedy and then turned the shocking blend into a philosophy. Essentially, Bruce paved the way for comedians who vocalize the unmentionable within a political or historical context.
While he offends and shocks some audiences, Mooney, like Bruce, defended his right to say what he needs to say. Mooney is known for his copious use of the word ‘nigger’. Critics state that he overuses the “n” word, but Mooney defends himself by citing Bruce’s practice of incessantly repeating a word in an effort to render it harmless. In an article that Michael Oricchio wrote for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, Mooney remarked, “Lenny Bruce said this: The overuse of the word diminishes the power. It’s like ‘cancer.’ Not saying it doesn’t make it go away. People still think it.” Mooney told Oricchio, “I’m an entertainer, first and foremost. And second, I don’t want to say anything stupid. I don’t want to tell a joke; I’m trying to teach something. There has to be something going on.” Indeed, Mooney feels that transforming serious matters into something laughable does not, by any means, diminish the seriousness of a situation. As he explained to Erwin D. David for the Golden Gater, “The comedy aspect allows the lesson to stay in people’s minds.” For example, Mooney declared, “Thank God Paul Revere was white. ‘Cause if he’d been black, somebody would’ve shot that n—–. They’d have said, ‘that n—– stole that horse.”
The use of the “n” word draws much discussion. While Richard Pryor stopped using the word after a trip to Africa, Mooney persisted. Many newer black comedians including Chris Rock, who was inspired by Mooney, do not agree with Pryor’s change. Criteria of acceptability change throughout generations, and word meanings change. At one time, the word was exceedingly derogatory. Now, however, many black comedians as well as rap stars use the word freely and have given the word a wider spectrum of meaning. While the jury remains out on whether it’s okay to use the word at all, the public cannot ignore the fact that use of the “n” word is on the rise, particularly by blacks. Because of his prolific use of the word, Mooney is criticized for being vulgar. However, what is vulgar is not Mooney’s material but the social facts that he is lampooning. Mooney draws the line at joking about the mistreatment of children and women. Many audiences find such jokes to be far more vulgar than the “n” word within a non-threatening or non-derogatory context.
Mooney Gave History Lessons
Mooney also uses recent history and current events as vehicles to teach lessons. On his Race album, for example, Mooney recounts the case of Charles Stuart, a Boston man who killed his pregnant wife and blamed it on a black man, in 1989. Commenting on this tragic occurrence, Mooney quipped, “I’m gonna start a new ad, 1-900-Blame-A-Nigger. So when white folk get in trouble, just call my agency.” Prophetically, soon after Race was released a similar event took place: Susan Smith, who drowned her two sons, initially blamed a black man for car jacking and kidnaping her boys. Understandably, many journalists and news programs used Mooney’s bit to illustrate the phenomenon of automatically blaming a black person for a crime.
In essence, much of Mooney’s material is designed to wake people up and Mooney uses racial tension as his alarm clock. As he explained to Oricchio, “I know the emotional cards of my people and my race. I know blacks very well, and I know white people very well. I do know white fears and take advantage of it. I take advantage of it.” The public may get the impression that Mooney harbors hostile feelings and dislikes white people, or European Americans, but that is not true. “People say to me that I don’t like white people,” Money told Oricchio, “That’s stupid! Two of my kids are half white. I have white blood in me.” What sets him apart from other black comics, Mooney explained to Levin is the fact that “… they talk to white people. I talk about them.”
After several decades of producing some of America’s most controversial humor, Mooney remains an artist who provokes much debate and some unease. Audiences either sit through his shows and offer standing ovations, or walk out. Either way, Mooney’s material is an undisputably powerful comedic statement inspired by this comedian’s profound understanding of American society.