Paul Mooney, Comedy’s Maestro of White America


Paul Mooney died on Wednesday, of a coronary heart assault, on the age of seventy-nine.Photograph from Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

“White” is an unsensual phrase. Where different phrases that start with the identical consonants sound whimsical—“whiff” or “whiskers” or, effectively, “whimsical”—“white” coldly whistles. Even with out the distinctly regional pronunciation that makes the “h” recognized, the phrase’s imperious breathiness is there in wait, a coiled however uncracked whip. “White” and its related phrases pepper the English lexicon with euphemism: whitewash, white elephant, white lie. And, of course, “white,” as in white folks, is a modifier that also sends its personal referents operating scared. Really, who can blame them? Unlike different, maybe much less civil, monikers—“buckra,” “ofay,” “honkey”—“white” is abrupt, with out music. And but Paul Mooney made it sing.

This might be not the racial time period that most individuals affiliate with the comedy of Mooney, who died on Wednesday, of a coronary heart assault, on the age of seventy-nine. The extra anticipated one could be “nigger,” that utterance with which so many comics (not all of them Black) kind a particular relationship. But take one well-known joke of Mooney’s, through which he claims that he says “ ‘nigger’ a hundred times every morning; makes my teeth white.” The poet Tyehimba Jess riffs on this concept in his poem “100 Times,” through which the speaker does simply as Mooney prescribes, and information the dental advantages. (“Week eight saw a 2/3 increase in brightening, with a luminousness approaching diamond quality, particularly in the lower incisors.”) The humor lies not within the N-word’s bombast however within the joke’s gleaming ultimate phrase, “white.”

Mooney (who was born Paul Gladney) grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, earlier than shifting together with his household to Oakland, then Berkeley, the location of what he describes in his memoir “Black Is the New White” as his “watershed ‘nigger’ moment.” Compared with Shreveport, the place he was cocooned by rapid household, built-in Northern California made him really feel the colour line—not that Mooney a lot revered it. During typing class in the future in highschool, he recollects, he unintentionally knocked the bag of a white classmate onto the ground. He was stooping to retrieve it when the classmate ordered him to decide it up—“Like a command,” Mooney writes. He was certain at first that he hadn’t heard her accurately, however, oh, he had. “Pick up my purse, nigger!” she repeated, and slapped him. He managed to pull her by her “blond stringy hair” earlier than the instructor noticed him: “Then it’s the principal’s office, followed by the police station.”

Neither Dick Gregory, the writer of “Nigger: An Autobiography” (1964), nor Redd Foxx, of celebration information royalty, invented the phrase—white folks did that, Mooney constantly reminded us. Yet these elder comedians, whose blistering humor augmented the nineteen-fifties and sixties bustle of civil rights, revolutionized its utilization 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 drained of his Cosby cosplay, latched on to “nigger” at a mutually formative interval of their comedy. They’d first met—the place else?—at a celebration, in 1968, and Pryor wished some of Mooney’s stuff. Mooney labored on Pryor’s materials, changing into one thing greater than a muse; he co-wrote “Live on the Sunset Strip” and different comedy albums, together with Pryor’s works in movie and tv. It’s potential that Pryor would have achieved greatness with out him, but it surely certain wouldn’t’ve sounded the identical.

In these earlier days, Mooney had solely just lately returned from Army service in Germany. He was spared Vietnam, however was invested in combating it—he carried out alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in an antiwar improv present known as “FTA” (Fuck the Army). He was working back-to-back gigs for hire cash. He started figuring out his voice in Beverly Hills, at Ye Little Club, Joan Rivers’s little jazz lounge, the place comics examined their stuff. It grew to become Mooney’s lab. He appreciated his units to unsettle the white structure, particularly concerning that two-syllable phrase. “It’s forbidden to them, but allowed to us. Ain’t too many things like that. It’s liberating,” he wrote within the memoir. “Black people laugh out of their recognition of street language, but white folks laugh out of sheer anxiety.”

The Mooney act that launched me to his standup is “Analyzing White America,” his particular from 2002, although I notice this dates me. In it, between his common impertinent bits, Mooney performs a placid—although not guileless—speak therapist, easing latent racism out of white sufferers whereas dressed, curiously, in a red-and-blue ensemble reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau. Mooney saved a watch on type, by no means doubting his personal beauty. During the standup parts of “Analyzing White America,” he’s seated and comfortable in loose-fitting all black, a black beanie atop his bald head. An echo of his superfly days—a big picture of a younger Mooney in a black brimmed hat, peering over round-framed glasses—hangs within the nook behind him. It was an apt staging for a particular that included commentary on the contemporary tragedy of 9/11 alongside variations of outdated Mooney staples. Like most good comedians, Mooney was continuously revising. One bit, which additionally seems on his 1993 comedy album “Race,” describes the divergent responses {that a} white serial killer and a Black serial killer would obtain in courtroom:

“Crazy white man, why did you get up and kill all people in your
block?”

“I’m twelve different personalities.”

“Twelve different people? How unusual, we’ll have to study this.”

“Crazy nigga, why’d you get up and kill all people 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 sooner model of the joke, it’s the identification of the choose that adjustments. “Nigga judges,” Mooney says, would take no shit from white killers. The later model is aware of higher.

By the time “Analyzing White America” was launched, Mooney was a veteran, the maestro of race comedy (which at the moment we would merely name “comedy”). His jokes had crammed the mouths of Foxx (“Sanford & Son”), Chevy Chase (“Saturday Night Live”), and of “The Richard Pryor Show” alumni similar to Robin Williams, Tim Reid, and Sandra Bernhard. He’d labored as a author on “In Living Color” and performed Junebug, the “nigger-club”-hopping father of race-naïve Pierre (Dela) Delacroix (Damon Wayans), in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000), a task that took an ennobling, if parochial, view of Mooney’s continuity with the mainstream. But it was his position on “Chappelle’s Show” that re-canonized him, bringing him into middle body because the dwelling, nonchalant “Godfather of Comedy.” In my favourite sketch, “Mooney at the Movies,” the comic pitches a brand new movie, 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 type concerned swift, tight, and insular calls and responses, with him within the roles of each ventriloquist and dummy, a critic of his personal impressions. He bent the artwork of mimicry to face-stretching extremes, and smirked at his personal dare. Black folks have been frequent topics, however whites, his different folks—“I think just like white folks, I’m just like them,” he says on the finish of “Analyzing White America”—have been a particular prey. White folks assume they have to be fascinating, to be so typically scrutinized, however Mooney solely ever let on a faint amusement. Contrary to a lot “whiteness studies,” Mooney’s comedy asserts that white individuals are the truth is devastatingly straightforward to know. They are imbeciles and grinning simpletons, whining and slavering of their hysteria—however by no means innocent.



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