Born Loretta Mary Aiken in North Carolina in 1897, Jackie “Moms” Mabley (her name was taken from an early boyfriend and the nickname “Moms” added as she gained a reputation as a mentor to younger performers) joined the black vaudeville circuit as a teen. Her career stretched from the second decade of the 20th century up until her death in 1975.
Mabley first achieved mainstream success by appearing on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” In the 1960s she played Carnegie Hall and appeared on the popular “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” She was the first female comedian to perform at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, at the height of her fame making $10,000 a week there. Mabley appeared in several films throughout her career and recorded more than 20 albums of her stand-up routines.
Moms Mabley was sometimes billed as “the funniest woman in the world;” her humor was unusually frank for the time and focused on taboo subjects of race and sex. Though Mabley was essentially an “out” lesbian from her 20s on, her routines often featured her as an aged, toothless woman in a housecoat, lusting after younger men. She honed the “randy old lady character” as a young comedian; according to Mabley, the character was base on her grandmother, whom she once claimed had lived to be 118 years old.
The grandmother character allowed Mabley to get away with blunt observations on segregation, racism and sexuality that probably would have been shocking (and threatening) if they weren’t coming from the mouth of a harmless little old lady.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley features a number of comedians and actors discussing Mabley’s influence. Besides Goldberg herself, whose comedy style was inspired a great deal by Mabley, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Sidney Poitier, Kathy Griffin, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Arsenio Hall, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara are interviewed about the impact that she had on their careers and on comedy.