Before there was a Paul Mooney, a Red Foxx, or a Richard Pryor, there was a hilarious woman on the comedy scene who could probably get a shoe to giggle. If you haven’t heard of Moms Mabley or listened to some of her stand-up, you have been missing out on a beautiful piece of American cultural history and downright comedic genius. To put it simply, Moms was fly. Her artistic prowess traversed the lines of singing, acting, and comedy. Mabley’s career spanned nearly forty years and included performance on film, television, and in clubs throughout the nation and abroad. In the 1930s she performed regularly at the Apollo alongside artists such as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday. By the 1960s she had crossed over into the mainstream, making multiple appearances on shows such as The Merv Griffin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Moms not only used her voice to garner laughs but also to engage in political activism. She became famous for her rendition of “Abraham, Martin, and John,” a song about social change, which hit the top forty in 1969. Moms was also one of the boldest pre-sexual revolution celebrity voices of the 50s and 60s. Through her comedy she perfected the art of sexual innuendo. Moms was feminist. She was funny. And she said what was on her mind for the good of us all.
Check out a few of my favorite pieces of Moms Mabley feminist advice below.
Get it in at any age:
Moms Mabley was famous for her jokes about her disdain for old men and her desire for younger ones. Mabley’s old men jokes tell us a lot. Through these jokes she provides a splendid rearticulation of female desire. She advised women not to accept the status quo by buying into antiquated stories about female sexuality. Moms Mabley performed in loose-fitting house clothes and without her dentures. Not the prototypical voice of “female sexy,” to say the least. Her jokes challenge us to think about how age and appearance have played a role in how we imagine sexual desire. Moms throws us a slick inversion when she takes the familiar story of the older man who leaves his wife for a younger woman and transforms it into a comedic persona with her as an older woman who wants to leave her man for a younger one. Old men are the butt of many of her jokes, a fresh move away from our culture’s obsession with female bodies as the singular site of sexual expression and perfection. The message is clear—ALL women, regardless of age, are sexual beings.
Check out this excerpt:
You know how I said a old man couldn’t do nothin’ for me but bring me a message from a young man? Well, he brought it—he brought the message. He say, “Stay with the old man.” But I ain’t goin’ do it because I found out when he said, “I do,” he couldn’t. And I’m not going through this world looking for memories. Oh, that man was too old for Mom at that time. He was older than white bread. And you know that’s gettin’ old.
—from African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy From Slavery to Today by Mel Watkins
Tell the truth and shame the devil:
Through her comedy, Moms warns us about the reproduction of cute-little-unrealistic narratives. We’ve all been told these stories about how people relate to each other in worlds both real and imagined. Think Dr. Seuss, Disney, or Full House (the list goes on and on). The retelling of stories shapes culture and consciousness, and not all of these stories are here for our progress. If we ignore the rawness of the human experience in favor of neat and respectable tales of existence, Moms warns us that the results can be disastrous.
Check out the joke below:
A child is born with a brain, but not a mind. And your words, the first words you speak, it’s like you putting a needle on a record. The minute you [do] that, it starts to register. That’s the way a child’s mind is, and it’s very important . . . the first words you say to that child. Instead of you telling the baby the truth, you go put your big old hands in front of his face saying, “This little piggy went to market; this little piggy. . . .” That baby don’t want to know nothing about no damn pig. You teach it about the dirtiest thing in the world—a pig. When it gets big enough to go to school, you throw it out in the street and talk about, “Go ahead to school, Baby, and be careful, watch the lights.” Damn the lights; watch the cars; the lights ain’t never killed nobody. (laughter) Get a little bigger, what’s the first book you give it? Instead of giving the baby a book about life, you go out and buy some dern old Mother Goose book. If I had my way, I would burn every one of ‘em up. Ain’t nothing but a bunch of lies: Mother Hubbard ain’t had no dog in her cupboard; Mother Hubbard had her Scotch in her cupboard and didn’t want them squares to drink it all up. Jack and Jill didn’t go up no hill for no water; ain’t no water running uphill. You know better than that! Mary ain’t had no little lamb; Mary had a little sheep; she put it in her bed to sleep, and the sheep turned out to be a ram. Now Mary has a little lamb. (applause, laughter)
—from Live at the Greek Theater (1971)
Don’t let nostalgia overshadow advancements of the present:
In the 1974 article “Moms Mabley: She Finally Makes the Movies” that appeared in Ebony magazine, Mabley is quoted as saying, “I tell them (young people) ‘Don’t let the old folks tell you about the good old days.’ What good old days? I was there. The best time is now when you can go out with who you want, love who you want and marry who you want. It wasn’t like that when Moms was coming up.” I see this as Moms’ way of acknowledging the relative improvement in social conditions for women and for the queer community. Here, she urges us not to let nostalgia cloud our memory. Moms Mabley had this clever way of bridging the generational divide. She understood the queer and feminist struggles for rights and recognition in a wider context, one that demanded an honest engagement with the advancements of the present as well as the pains of the past. In this light, Moms advises us not to romanticize history as we grow in age. While we continue to fight the good fight, Mom’s reminds us of her ever relevant mantra: always tell the truth.
Have a listen to Moms dropping some wisdom:
For access to a more comprehensive collection of Moms Mabley’s fumerist (feminist humorist) wisdom, check out the compilations of her work available on Spotify and on iTunes. There’s also the documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. I hope you enjoy Moms as much as I do. After all, what’s better than old-school feminist humor?