Paul Mooney, Comedy Maestro of White America
“White” is a misnomer. Where other terms that start with the same consonants sound fancy – “odor” or “mustaches” or, well, “fanciful” – “white” hisses coldly. Even without the distinctly regional pronunciation which makes known the “h”, the imperious breath of the word is there, a whip coiled but not cracked. “White” and its associated terms pepper the English lexicon with euphemism: whitewash, white elephant, white lie. And, of course, “white”, as in white people, is a modifier that always sends its own scared referrers. Really, who can blame them? Unlike other nicknames, perhaps less civil – “buckra”, “ofay”, “honkey” – “white” is blunt, without music. And yet Paul Mooney blackmailed him.
It’s probably not the racial term most people associate with the comedy of Mooney, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of seventy-nine. The most anticipated would be “nigger”, this statement with which so many comics (not all black) form a special relationship. But take a well-known Mooney’s joke, in which he claims he says “nigger” a hundred times a morning; make my teeth white. Poet Tyehimba Jess riffs on this idea in his poem “100 Times”, in which the speaker does exactly what Mooney prescribed, and records the dental benefits. (“The eighth week saw a 2/3 increase in brightening, with brightness approaching diamond quality, especially in the lower incisors.”) The humor is not in the bombast of the N word, but in the last brilliant word of the joke, “white”.
Mooney (who was born Paul Gladney) grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, before moving with his family to Oakland and then to Berkeley, the site of what he describes in his memoir “Black Is the New White” as his ” decisive moment for the negro ”. Compared to Shreveport, where he was cocooned by his immediate family, the integration of Northern California made him feel the color line – not that Mooney respected it much. During a typing class one day in high school, he recalls, he accidentally spilled a white classmate’s bag on the floor. He was bending down to retrieve it when the classmate ordered him to to pick up-“Like an order,” writes Mooney. He was sure at first he hadn’t heard it right, but, oh, he had. “Take my purse, nigger!” she repeated and slapped him. He managed to drag her by her “stringy blond hair” before the professor saw her: “Then it’s the principal’s office, followed by the police station.
Neither Dick Gregory, the author of “Nigger: An Autobiography” (1964), nor Redd Foxx, of party record royalty, coined the word – whites did, Mooney has constantly reminded us of. Yet these older comedians, whose scorching humor augmented the civil rights turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionized its use in stand-up. (Mooney writes, of Gregory, “He says every time he hears the word it’s like an advertisement for his book.”) Following their precedent, Mooney and Richard Pryor, the latter tired of his Cosby cosplay, clung to “nigger” at a period of mutual training in their comedy. They first met – where else? – at a party, in 1968, and Pryor wanted Mooney stuff. Mooney got it worked on Pryor’s material, becoming something more than a muse, he co-wrote “Live on the Sunset Strip” and other comedy albums, as well as Pryor’s work in film and television. It’s possible that Pryor would have achieved greatness without him, but it certainly wouldn’t have sounded the same.
In those early days, Mooney had only recently returned from military service in Germany. He was spared Vietnam, but was invested in combat – he performed alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in an anti-war improvisation show called “FTA” (Fuck the Army). He did consecutive concerts for rent. He started working his voice in Beverly Hills, at the Ye Little Club, Joan Rivers’ little jazz lounge, where the comics tested their stuff. It became Mooney’s lab. He liked his sets to disrupt the white constitution, especially when it came to that two-syllable word. “It is forbidden to them, but it is allowed to us. There aren’t too many things like that. It’s liberating, ”he wrote in the memories. “Blacks laugh at their recognition of street language, but whites laugh out of sheer anxiety.”
The Mooney issue that introduced me to his stand-up is “Analyzing White America,” his 2002 special, although I realize that’s dated me. In it, between his usual sassy tunes, Mooney plays a placid – but not innocent – speech therapist, easing the latent racism of white patients as he dressed, oddly, in a red and blue ensemble reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau. . Mooney kept an eye on style, never doubting her good looks. During the standing parts of “Analyzing White America,” he sits and comfy in a loose all-black, black beanie atop his bald head. An echo of his superfly days – a large photo of a young Mooney in a black-brimmed hat, looking over round glasses – hangs in the corner behind him. It was a fitting staging for a special that included commentary on the new 9/11 tragedy alongside versions of old Mooney staples. Like most good comedians, Mooney was constantly revising. One bit, which also appears on his 1993 comedy album “Race,” describes the divergent responses that a white serial killer and a black serial killer would receive in court:
In the previous version of the joke, it’s the identity of the judge that changes. “Nigga judges,” Mooney said, wouldn’t take the white killer shit. The latest version knows better.
At the time of “Analyzing White America,” Mooney was a veteran, racial comedy maestro (which we might just call “comedy” today). His jokes had filled the mouths of Foxx (“Sanford & Son”), Chevy Chase (“Saturday Night Live”) and “The Richard Pryor Show” alumni such as Robin Williams, Tim Reid and Sandra Bernhard. He had worked as a writer on “In Living Color” and played Junebug, the “nigger-club” -hopping father of Pierre (Dela) Delacroix (Damon Wayans), naïve of race, in “Bamboozled” (2000) by Spike Lee, a role that took on an ennobling, albeit parochial, vision of Mooney’s continuity with the mainstream. But it was his role in “Chappelle’s Show” that re-canonized him, placing him at the center of the image as the living, nonchalant “Godfather of Comedy”. In my favorite sketch, “Mooney in the Movies”, the actor presents a new film, inspired by “The Last Samurai”, with Tom Cruise. “Hollywood is crazy,” he says. “Maybe they’ll produce my movie, ‘The Last Nigga in the World,’ with Tom Hanks.”
Mooney’s comedic style involved quick, tight, island-like calls and responses, with him in the roles of both ventriloquist and model, a critic of his own impressions. He bent the art of mimicry to the extremes of facial stretching, and smiled at his own challenge. Blacks were frequent subjects, but whites, his other people – “I think just like whites, I’m like them,” he says at the end of “Analyzing White America” – were special prey. Whites assume they must be fascinating, scrutinized so often, but Mooney never leaves a slight amusement. Unlike so many “whiteness studies,” Mooney’s comedy claims that whites are in fact extremely easy to understand. They are grinning, whining and slaving fools and fools in their hysteria – but never harmless.