Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The First Queen of Comedy: Moms Mabley

The extraordinary Moms Mabley performed with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway, wrote with Zora Neale Hurston, and went on to play Harlem's Apollo more than any other entertainer.  She was the first female comedian superstar, with a career spanning more than sixty years. 

Mabley has quite a background.  Orphaned by the age of eleven, and a survivor of rape, she had given birth to two children who had been put up for adoption before the age of sixteen.  She was forced by her step-father into marrying an older man.  With the encouragement of her grandmother (a former slave, whom she later based her stage persona on), Mabley ran away to Cleveland, Ohio.  Ohio is where she joined the vaudeville circuit and began her stardom. 

Featured in 24 comedy albums, she went on to produce and act in at least nine plays and seven films. By the end of her career, she was making $10,000/week for her stage appearances alone. Cited as a hero and influence by many comedians, she remarked, herself, on how often she saw white comedians sitting at her show with pen and paper in  hand.  She had no problem confronting these material thieves. 

From Moms Mabley's BookRags Biography:

Though Mabley's act may seem stereotypical to some, it was really quite a clever show business ploy. While attractive young women, particularly black women, could show little in the way of intelligence or sexuality without condemnation, "Moms" was safe—a laughable figure of fun. From behind the shabby clothes and mobile toothless grin, Mabley could offer sharp-witted insights and social commentary that would have been unacceptable from a more serious source. Beloved by African-American audiences, Mabley's whole persona was an "in" joke among blacks, and she did not hesitate to focus her scathing humor on whites and their ill treatment of other races. She also demonstrated glimmers of an early feminism with her jokes about old men and their illusions of authority. One of her trademark jokes was, "Ain't nothing an old man can do for me, but me a message from a young man."

I could find just one video clip of Moms Mabley comedy online.  It's not the most biting social commentary, but you do get to see her perform:

 There's some question over whether or not Moms was gay.  Besides "Moms," a hit play in '87, blog posts and a few academic papers, relatively little has been written about her.  What a shame.


  1. I prefer "Please Don't Untie My Shoes", but a good post nonetheless.

  2. I'd be curious to read your take on living legends Elaine May and Phyllis Diller. I think Nichols and May must be the only comedy duo where BOTH partners went on to become important film directors. They were a seminal (sorry if that is a sexist word, but I can't think of the female equivalent) improv-style team, quite popular in the late 50's and early 60's, especially among the liberal intelligentsia of the day.