“She was a female queer comedian and nobody knew she was queer but she was funny so it doesn’t matter,” Goldberg told me Saturday night after the screening of the world premiere of her directing debut, “Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You,” at the Tribeca Film Festival. “If you’re gay or straight, you can do whatever is universally funny. And I think to me, many, many of her jokes about old men not having anything for her is pretty clear, especially after making this picture. Oh, I get it now.”
Goldberg financed the film starting with $75,000 on Kickstarter. The hardest part of making the documentary she said, besides raising the money, was finding the material. There are recordings but “very little of her performances except on the TV shows that we remember from the 60’s and a couple of movie things that she did, but there’s not a lot.”
Goldberg’s biggest gift in the documentary is to remind audiences just how hysterically funny Mabley was. Mabley was known as “Moms.” She wore a frumpy dress and had a gravelly, deep voice and an elastic face. She was a toothless woman whose comedy had a real satiric bite and a subtle if resounding political message.
Moms began as a vaudeville star on the Chitlin’ Circuit and travelled with other iconic performers. She worked for nearly half a century and at the height of her career earned $10,000 a week. The documentary, which has already been snapped up by HBO, provides some rare footage of Mabley’s performances. Mabley’s story is told through rare photographs, documents and interviews with comedians and entertainers, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poiter, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
On the red carpet before the screening, Goldberg said, “We celebrate all the other firsts. Why haven’t we celebrated the first stand up comedian who was a woman and had been doing it since 1928?”
Goldberg told an African-American female reporter on the red carpet, “More than anything she was the first female, the first stand-up comic. And look at you! You’re why Moms did what she did, so you could be doing what you do.”
Whoopi told me: “I needed to refresh people about who she was before I did a one-woman show. Then I discovered there was more that needed to be done and eventually someone will do a biopic. It won’t be me but somebody will do it.”
Early in her career, Goldberg did a one-woman show about Mabley. “I was going to do Moms again for the stage,” she said. “This was about 10 years ago, and I didn’t do it and I kept saying I was going to do it until I got to the point where I realized most people wouldn’t know who she was now. And I thought if I could reintroduce her to people maybe that would facilitate me getting on stage to do it.”
So she’s bringing the show to Broadway? “Eventually I’ll do it yeah.”
The premiere brought out an interesting crowd, including Mira Sorvino, Ali Wentworth and husband George Stephanopoulos, comedian Caroline Rhea, Billy Mitchell (Mr. Apollo), and Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO documentary films.
The image in the film that will knock your socks off is the photograph of Mabley dressed as a man. After Moms finished her performance as an elderly, dowdy woman, she took off her costume and changed into a silk shirt, tailored slacks and Italian shoes and slicked back her hair and had teeth. Jackie “Moms” Mabley became Mr. Jackie.
During the Q&A, Rhea asked if there was more documentation of Mabley as a gay woman.
“What we have there is everything. That’s it, and the fact that we even found this information that we could prove that she was a gay woman. It’s like we couldn’t make this a bio because there’s just not enough information. They were not filming or doing any of those archiving,” back then. “These were black comics and nobody gave a shit, but the fact that there’s that photograph that says season’s greetings,” the photograph of Mabley dressed as man.
“She wasn’t hiding anything and nobody talked about it,” Goldberg said. “When you read about Moms, they say it is reported that she might have been (gay), because nobody knows about this, nobody’s seen this stuff, so that was the thing that sort of knocked me out. That’s why there’s not more. You don’t get a lot of information. It’s just not there, so we were able to piece it together.”
As for Whoopi’s favorite Mabley joke, Whoopi did a spot on imitation of the famous Mabley voice and joke, “Two Old Women walking down the street. One turns to the other one and says, “I smell hair burning.” The Other one says, “You walkin too fast.”
Goldberg was asked about the clip that spoke to her from the moment she saw it and without hesitating she said, “The one that I loved, love, love, is she and Kris Kristofferson because he’s in love with her.” He’s walking her out on the stage as a presenter at the 1974 Grammy Awards. “ She didn’t’ care where she was she would pull those teeth out, and to me, this freedom to be yourself, for seventy seven years is the highlight of life to me because, you know, it’s okay to be gay, it’s okay to be individual, it’s okay to have a point of view. She made me realize that whatever you did you had to stand on your own two feet and know who you are.”
What was the most surprising thing Goldberg learned about Mabley, someone asked.
“Hello?” The audience laughed. “ No, No, that was the most surprising thing I learned. Did you see how she was dressed? We’re talking about a time when this did not happen. Gay folks have been with us since the beginning of time, not always out and about. Moms was clearly out and about and didn’t give a shit, and no one else did either. That was the thing that knocked me out.”