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An exclusive interview with Whoopi Goldberg about the ribald Moms Mabley

Whoopi at the film's premiere
Whoopi at the film's premiere
Author's collection

Whoopi Goldberg is calling me, and she wants to talk about Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley now on DVD.
That's okay with me. This time 'round, she won't even mention her other DVD (but I will): A Day Late and a Dollar Short, opening July 15, in which Whoopi plays irascible matriarch Viola Price.
I have always loved Moms, and used to regularly visit her grave at Ferncliff. My Mom reminded me of Moms; she never wore her dentures, candidly cussed in front of any and everyone and dressed in a house dress and floppy hat. And Mom's jokes were just as naughty as Moms.
I make a note to tell this to Whoopi.
It's an interesting documentary, released by HBO after Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, and Whoopi went back and forth about the direction the film should take. Whoopi raised the money on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, and she and HBO finally shook hands.
Die-hard fans know that Jackie "Moms" Mabley (born Loretta Mary Aiken; she died at 81 in 1975) was a veteran of the African-American vaudeville, known the chitlin' circuit. At the height of her career, the triple-X rated comedian earned $10,000 a week. Other generations became hooked from Moms' (cleaner) appearances on TV, especially The Ed Sullivan Show and the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Whoopi, 58, wanted to do such a documentary for more than two decades, but "was too busy, honey. I had planned to do a Broadway show about Moms. I kept putting it off and the next thing I knew, 25 years had passed by." Whoopi did other things that she felt she "had" to do instead, such as movies to make, Hollywood Squares to resurrect. She was probably flying too high in her career; Whoopi admits having been a "high functioning" drug addict years ago, being so terrified she refused to leave her bed to go use the toilet. Not a ghost of a chance Whoopi is still that wacky, though there's the view she smoked marijuana before accepting the Best Supporting Actress award for Ghost in 1991.
The phone rings.
The chat begins.

You hosted the 2001 documentary about the 50th anniversary of I Love Lucy. How do you compare Lucy and Moms?
If you were to break down and analyze their work, each woman tells stories in the same voice. If the material is good and they have the mechanisms to work, then they both succeed. Both Lucy and Moms worked so well because their timing was great. They knew just how to tell a story, a joke. They are both spectacular.

But Moms told jokes that were much more risque than Lucy ever told.
Moms' work was double-entendres. Her humor was ribald, a bit blue. Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Anna Russell had that same kind of blue humor. Great jokes can be ribald and not offensive. Joan Rivers sticks a mini chihuahua under her armpit and says one word: "Madonna." It's brash and funny. A good joke has great construction. One of my favorite Moms jokes: Two women are walking down the street. One says to the other: "I smell hair burning." The second woman says: "Let's slow down." If you get that shit, it's funny.

You raised a lot of money from the public. Why not just ask Oprah to finance it?
I am not Oprah. If she wanted to tell Moms' story, she would have. She obviously wanted to tell other stories. I needed to fucking roll the way I wanted to roll. Kickstart asked me why I was asking for money. I told them the truth: I needed it. I didn’t have enough money to do it and run our company and take care of all the other things. I’m the only one working.

What was the smallest and largest donation?
I got a check for $15,000. One little girl sent me $1, with a note that she thought Moms sounded like a good story. That was fantastic; everyone got a shot. Each person will get a T-shirt as a thank you.

You glossed over her lesbianism; she announced she was gay when she was 27.
Everything Moms said or claimed has to be taken with a grain of salt. There are four or five different stories; Moms says she was raped several times as a child but I cannot prove that. She liked women, but she was married and had kids, yet she dressed as a man and was called "Mr. Moms." I found a Christmas card in an archive which she signed "Mr. Moms." When making the film, we talked to the dancer Norma Miller, who performed with Moms at the Apollo Theater. She said."We never called Moms a homosexual. We never called her gay. We called her Mr. Moms." So: Was Moms a lesbian? Maybe. A trailblazer? Yes.

Moms said that every comedian stole from her except Jack Benny and Redd Foxx. What think?
(Pause) I think everyone stole from her. Maybe not Fanny Brice.

Your documentary contains the wonderful clip with Sammy Davis Jr. asking Moms to perform her hit, "Abraham, Martin and John." I cry every time I hear it. At 75 years old, Moms became the oldest person ever to have a U.S. Top 40 hit.
Yes. She's not singer, but the song worked because Moms knew John Kennedy. She knew Martin Luther King Jr. She knew Bobby Kennedy. She connected with the song, and that's why her recording was so fucking good.

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