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Paul Mooney, Comedy’s Maestro of White America
Like his collaborator Richard Pryor, Mooney used the N-word as a form of comic expression. But it was whiteness that he made devastatingly easy to understand.
May 22, 2021
Paul Mooney died on Wednesday, of a heart attack, at the age of seventy-nine.Photograph from Michael Ochs Archives / Getty
“White” is an unsensual word. Where other terms that begin with the same consonants sound whimsical—“whiff” or “whiskers” or, well, “whimsical”—“white” coldly whistles. Even without the distinctly regional pronunciation that makes the “h” known, the word’s imperious breathiness is there in wait, a coiled but uncracked whip. “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 still sends its own referents running scared. Really, who can blame them? Unlike other, perhaps less civil, monikers—“buckra,” “ofay,” “honkey”—“white” is abrupt, without music. And yet Paul Mooney made it sing.
This is probably not the racial term that most people associate with the comedy of Mooney, who died on Wednesday, of a heart attack, at the age of seventy-nine. The more expected one would be “nigger,” that utterance with which so many comics (not all of them Black) form a special relationship. But take one well-known joke of Mooney’s, in which he claims that he says “ ‘nigger’ a hundred times every morning; makes my teeth white.” The poet Tyehimba Jess riffs on this idea in his poem “100 Times,” in which the speaker does just as Mooney prescribes, and records the dental benefits. (“Week eight saw a 2/3 increase in brightening, with a luminousness approaching diamond quality, particularly in the lower incisors.”) The humor lies not in the N-word’s bombast but in the joke’s gleaming final word, “white.”
Mooney (who was born Paul Gladney) grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, before moving with his family to Oakland, then Berkeley, the site of what he describes in his memoir “Black Is the New White
” as his “watershed ‘nigger’ moment.” Compared with Shreveport, where he was cocooned by immediate family, integrated Northern California made him feel the color line—not that Mooney much respected it. During typing class one day in high school, he recalls, he accidentally knocked the bag of a white classmate onto the floor. He was stooping to retrieve it when the classmate ordered him to pick it up—
“Like a command,” Mooney writes. He was sure at first that he hadn’t heard her correctly, but, oh, he had. “Pick up my purse, nigger!” she repeated, and slapped him. He managed to drag her by her “blond stringy hair” before the teacher spotted him: “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 records royalty, invented the word—white people did that, Mooney consistently reminded us. Yet those elder comedians, whose blistering humor augmented the nineteen-fifties and sixties bustle of civil rights, revolutionized its usage in standup. (Mooney writes, of Gregory, “He says that 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, latched on to “nigger” at a mutually formative period in their comedy. They’d first met—where else?—at a party, in 1968, and Pryor wanted some of Mooney’s stuff. Mooney worked on Pryor’s material, becoming something more than a muse; he co-wrote “Live on the Sunset Strip” and other comedy albums, along with Pryor’s works in film and television. It’s possible that Pryor would have achieved greatness without him, but it sure wouldn’t’ve sounded the same.
In those earlier days, Mooney had only recently returned from Army service in Germany. He was spared Vietnam, but was invested in fighting it—he performed alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in an antiwar improv show called “FTA” (Fuck the Army). He was working back-to-back gigs for rent money. He began working out his voice in Beverly Hills, at Ye Little Club, Joan Rivers
’s little jazz lounge, where comics tested their stuff. It became Mooney’s lab. He liked his sets to unsettle the white constitution, especially regarding that two-syllable word. “It’s forbidden to them, but allowed to us. Ain’t too many things like that. It’s liberating,” he wrote in the memoir. “Black people laugh out of their recognition of street language, but white folks laugh out of sheer anxiety.”
The Mooney act that introduced me to his standup is “Analyzing White America,” his special from 2002, though I realize this dates me. In it, between his usual impertinent bits, Mooney plays a placid—though not guileless—talk therapist, easing latent racism out of white patients while dressed, interestingly, in a red-and-blue ensemble reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau. Mooney kept an eye on style, never doubting his own good looks. During the standup portions of “Analyzing White America,” he is seated and cozy in loose-fitting all black, a black beanie atop his bald head. An echo of his superfly days—a large photo of a young Mooney in a black brimmed hat, peering over round-framed glasses—hangs in the corner behind him. It was an apt staging for a special that included commentary on the fresh tragedy of 9/11 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:
“Crazy white man, why did you wake up and kill everybody on your block?”
“I’m twelve different personalities.”
“Twelve different people? How unusual, we’ll have to study this.”
“Crazy nigga, why’d you wake up and kill everybody at BET or your job?”
“Because I’m twelve different personalities.”
“Oh, really, nigger? Well, pick who you want to be because some nigga’s going to jail.”
In the earlier version of the joke, it’s the identity of the judge that changes. “Nigga judges,” Mooney says, would take no shit from white killers. The later version knows better. By the time “Analyzing White America” was released, Mooney was a veteran, the maestro of race comedy (which today we might simply call “comedy”). His jokes had filled the mouths of Foxx (“Sanford & Son”), Chevy Chase (“Saturday Night Live”), and of “The Richard Pryor Show” alumni such as Robin Williams, Tim Reid, and Sandra Bernhard. He’d worked as a writer on “In Living Color” and played Junebug, the “nigger-club”-hopping father of race-naïve Pierre (Dela) Delacroix (Damon Wayans), in Spike Lee
’s “Bamboozled” (2000), a role that took an ennobling, if parochial, view of Mooney’s continuity with the mainstream. But it was his role on “Chappelle’s Show” that re-canonized him, bringing him into center frame as the living, nonchalant “Godfather of Comedy.” In my favorite sketch, “Mooney at the Movies,” the comedian pitches a new film, taking inspiration from “The Last Samurai,” starring Tom Cruise. “Hollywood is crazy,” he says. “Maybe they’ll produce my film, ‘The Last Nigga on Earth,’ starring Tom Hanks.”
Mooney’s comedic style involved swift, tight, and insular calls and responses, with him in the roles of both ventriloquist and dummy, a critic of his own impressions. He bent the art of mimicry to face-stretching extremes, and smirked at his own dare. Black people were frequent subjects, but whites, his other people—“I think just like white folks, I’m just like them,” he says at the end of “Analyzing White America”—were a special prey. White people assume they must be fascinating, to be so often scrutinized, but Mooney only ever let on a faint amusement. Contrary to so much “whiteness studies,” Mooney’s comedy asserts that white people are in fact devastatingly easy to understand. They are imbeciles and grinning simpletons, whining and slavering in their hysteria—but never harmless.
The burden of being a Black comic in Hollywood wore Pryor down
and nearly got Chappelle, but Mooney did not crack, or maybe just the once, when he briefly retired the N-word, after Michael Richards really cracked
. (Then again, Mooney was felled by a heart attack, one of the Blackest ways to die in white America.) His way of making race the joke, without any illusions about a joke’s redemptive power, has been taken up by countless comics of subsequent generations, to varying effects. In a performer like Katt Williams, it takes the form of a volatility that’s not always compatible with profitability. In an act like “Key & Peele,” it’s evidence of the new mass appeal of a certain kind of race comedy. In both cases, a debt to Mooney is owed.
It’s uncomfortable to admit that our memory of Mooney might have been fonder (if less truthful) had he passed a few years earlier. In 2019, a former bodyguard of Pryor’s named Rashon Khan alleged, in a taped interview, that Mooney had molested Pryor’s son, Richard Pryor, Jr. The next day, Pryor, Jr., confirmed that he’d been a victim of rape as a teen-ager, though he didn’t name a perpetrator. At the time, news of the allegations—which Mooney denied—flooded my Twitter timeline. Since then, they’ve faded from memory, as these things tend to do. There have been no follow-ups or further investigations. Yet there is already enough to tarnish Mooney’s legacy, and cast a different sort of pall on our loss of him. How grim to imagine that the Pryor son (like Pryor himself) lived with that variety of trauma, because of a comic whom so many younger ones unmistakably imprinted upon.
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