Iconic black lesbian comic Moms Mabley finally gets her due

Whoopi Goldberg is behind one of the most groundbreaking documentaries of the year, and it’s all about a woman you may or may not have heard of. Moms Mabley was a stand-up comic and Vaudeville performer. She was also black and an out lesbian, which means she was the unlikeliest of stage stars between her heyday of the 1920s through 1960s.

Whoopi directed I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, a film about Moms’ career, and premiered it at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, where she also spoke about it on a post-screening panel. She said she was inspired to make the movie after realizing no one knew who Moms was.

I used to do Moms on stage with my friend Ellen, who is also in the film, she’s a director. She and I wrote a wonderful one-person show together a hundred and fifty thousand years ago in Berkeley, California and I always said eventually I wanted to do it again. Every year I would say ‘Oh I’m going to do it, I’ll do it’ then I didn’t do it and then time just flew. And a couple years ago I said “I’m gonna do Moms on stage” and I realized people didn’t know who she was any more. Twenty years ago it would’ve been fresher. So I thought why don’t I do a documentary — schmuck! — maybe I should do a documentary and bring her back.

Moms grew famous for her stage act at the Apollo Theater and later appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She was quite explicit in her act, something Whoopi found exciting and inspiring. During the panel, Whoopi spoke about Moms’ sexuality:

She was a great comic and being gay had nothing to do with it. The first time I came across that postcard of “Seasons Greetings From Mr. Moms” and she’s dressed as a man, it was pretty clear! I was like “What the! How come nobody talked about this?” They didn’t talk about it because it didn’t matter, it had nothing to do with her comedy and no one was interested in her personal life. They were talking about how funny she was, always. I kind of like that, that people got to have their life.

Moms with Lily Tomlin on “The Music Scene”

Moms appeared in five films, including The Emperor Jones, in which she dressed in drag. Before she died in 1975 at the age of 81, she performed at one of the first incarnations of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.

So why haven’t we heard of her? Whoopi has a theory:

It wasn’t a race or gender thing, it was just time. Unless someone is talking about you you’re dead. People die when you don’t remember them. Now she’s been a little bit resurrected in your minds and maybe other people’s. This is a black woman, rolling around America telling jokes. Nobody chronicled this, because you know they weren’t chronicling us [black people] then, they just didn’t do it. We know everything about Gracie Allen and George Burns and they were magnificent comics, but we know nothing about Moms because the material is not there.

Whoopi’s documentary has commentary from Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Jerry Stiller and Kathy Griffin, as well as all the material she could cultivate from Moms’ career and family.

If you’re unable to see it at Tribeca this week, I’ve got some great news for you. HBO Films has picked up the rights for I Got Something to Tell You and will air on the cable channel later this year. HBO Documentary Films president Shiela Nevins said:

What could be better than Whoopi bringing Moms to HBO? We’ve always known how special Moms was, and I can’t think of a better marriage.

It’s about time Moms got her due! Whoopi is thrilled to see Moms back on TV, too.

Moms Mabley has been a huge inspiration to me and so many others, but not a lot of folks outside of the comedy world know about her legacy. There are a lot of us who wouldn’t be working today without pioneers like her. HBO gave me my first break on TV, so it’s only fitting that Moms has a home there now.

We’ll keep you posted on when I Got Something to Tell You will air, because we’re just as excited as you are.