Queen of Comedy Moms Mabley: Cougar on Stage, Lion in Life

BlogHer Original Post

The recent appearance of Terry McMillan and her ex Jonathan on the Oprah Show, as well as the break-up of the marriage of Courteney Cox and David Arquette, got me remembering an original "cougar" -- at least in her comedy routine: Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894-1975).

For those of you too young to remember Moms Mabley, she was once the most successful female standup comic in America and “remains the highest-charting comedienne in Billboard history according to AOL Music. She influenced a lot of comics who came after: I also started to think about Moms Mabley after seeing the recent documentary on Joan Rivers (Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work).

I remember seeing Moms on various variety and talk shows -- Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Flip Wilson and the Tonight Show -- and hearing her signature line:

“Ain't nothin' an ol' man can do but bring me a message from a young one.”

Moms' strong opinions on the efficacy of younger men were included on one of her many comedy albums, "Young Men, Sí, Old Men, No" from 1963.

The talk show hosts would interview Moms, performing by then in a frumpy (and comfortable) housedress with a floppy hat and her famously wide toothless grin. She would pontificate about how useless old men were, also commenting about all sorts of things, including the volatile social and political times, and sex. Moms talked a lot about sex using double-entendres, some of which I, being pretty dense and protected in those days, had to figure out with the help of my older cousins.

You couldn’t watch one of her routines without laughing out loud -- and also going, "hmmmm." Her “harmless old woman" persona was a great foil for her biting humor and sly social commentary.

She was given the name nickname Moms because she mothered other performers on the “Chitlin Circuit,” a series of rowdy and raggedy stages where black, vaudeville and minstrel performers appeared until they could break through to better venues.

Moms Mabley did break through.

She was the first female comedian to appear at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater where she became a regular, “appearing more often than any other act there.” It is also said that her character that most people remember from her appearances on national TV was an homage to her grandmother, who’d been a slave.

Moms Mabley also broke through from being a success in the black entertainment realm to being successful to a national audience. Her career had longevity and breadth: She appeared in the film The Emperor Jones (starring Paul Robeson), collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston on the Broadway production Fast & Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes, and had her last film appearance in Amazing Grace (1974), in which she was the protagonist and star. That film debuted a year before she died.

Like many comics, Moms Mabley’s laughter belied her private grief. Her life is a lesson in resilency. She was born one of 16 children to a poor family in North Carolina. She was raped twice -- once at age 11 by a black man, and again at age 13 by the white sheriff in her home town. The two children born of those rapes were given away for adoption. Her parents each died separately in tragic accidents. She ran away at age 14 and joined a minstrel show.

She also came out as a lesbian early in her life, hiding living in plain view.

The actress Clarice Taylor, known best for her role as Bill Cosby’s mother on The Cosby Show, did research on Moms that was later turned into a play with music, Moms, that was performed to sold out crowds at theatres in New York. Whoopi Goldberg co-wrote a one-woman show about her and performed it in San Francisco at the start of her career.

More on Moms Mabley:

(Sources for biographical information when not linked above are Mabley's AOL Music biography and biography.com.)

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