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Moms the Word

Whoopi Goldberg on the black woman comic who started it all
Robert Faires, 4:00pm, Fri. May. 17, 2013
"Moms is in my body. All is well."

Moms Mabley is inside Whoopi Goldberg. You can see for yourself when the multitalented, what-hasn't-she-done comedian/Oscar-winning actress/co-host of The View/drinkslinger on the starship Enterprise takes the Dell Hall stage at the Long Center on Saturday night.

Behind Goldberg's affable, casual style, cozy as a favorite sweater, behind her gleaming smile and sultry voice and crisp diction, is that toothless old woman in the flowered housedress and floppy hat, her raspy voice piercing your ear like a rusty nail, her speech so slurred that words just slip and slide into one another. Whoopi may not look or sound like Moms, but she's absorbed the elder woman's way of telling stories, the pace and patience in spinning a tale, the connection to the audience, the effortless manner in bringing the crowd along with her and making them laugh.

Now, if you don't know Moms, Whoopi is happy to introduce you. Indeed, she's made a documentary – her first ever – to ensure that Moms Mabley's pioneering work isn't lost to time. I Got Somethin' to Tell You tracks the performer's 60-year career from vaudeville staple in the Teens and Twenties to star attraction at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theatre in the Fifties to mainstream American comedian through a string of million-selling comedy albums and regular appearances on variety and talk shows in the Sixties and Seventies. Even before the film's recent premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, HBO snapped up the broadcast rights.

Goldberg comes to Austin this week to make her own comic observations about life onstage, but we couldn't resist asking her about Moms and the influence she's had on Goldberg as a comedian.

Austin Chronicle: When was the last time you were in Austin?

Whoopi Goldberg: The last time I was there, I was there to see Lady Bird Johnson, [spend] a little bit of time with her. I adored her.

AC: Wow.

WG: I know. It's kinda crazy.

AC: She was an incredibly gracious woman of the kind you don't meet very often.

WG: No, you don't. And who understood graciousness. And grace under fire. No one was better at it than the Bird. The way she found out about me was, I used to talk about in one of my shows how she talked Lyndon into the beautification of America. You know, these highways were nasty. And she said, "Lyndon, what I want is I want to make that beautiful and that beautiful, and you're going to let me." And he looked at her and looked in those eyes and said, "Yes, Bird. Yes, I will." And that's how we got the beautification. He pissed her off, and she laid it on him. She laid it on him. So I love Austin, because it was really wonderful to be there and particularly to be there with her.

AC: Let's talk about Moms Mabley. Did you come across her through her comedy albums or on television?

WG: Through her albums, 'cause my mom had them. So my brother and I used to listen to them, and then she became a staple on the television shows, you know, when you had afternoon chat shows and were lucky enough to see some of the great entertainers of the time, I'd be able to watch that. And for years after I grew up, I used to perform her material, just as a one-person show. And then I started doing different stuff, and I stopped doing it, and a couple years ago I decided, "Well, I might want to reawaken that." Then I thought, "Well, if I had done it 20 years ago, probably more people would have remembered who she was, so I should do something different." And you always have these great ideas, and I thought, "I'll do a documentary," not knowing at all what goes into making a documentary. But I did it and discovered that black entertainers were not chronicled, so it's really hard to find stuff on them. Found some amazing things about Moms – discovered that she was the first and only female stand-up in the United States or anywhere else in the world from probably 1928 to 1950. [She] went all up and down the Chitlin' Circuit and became the highest paid female comic in the Apollo and she made a musical with Zora Neale Hurston and she played Carnegie Hall and she did all these amazing things. She was the first cougar, you know, talkin' about the fact that she didn't want anything to do with an old man. She wants those young men.

AC: What was her line? "The only thing an old man can do for me is bring me a message from a young man."

WG: Right. My all-time favorite Moms joke: Two old ladies are walkin' down the street, and one turns to the other and says, "I smell hair burning." The other one says, "Maybe we're walkin' too fast." [Laughter] You can't tell that joke today because everyone is waxed.

The material stands up, which was the greatest thing for me to discover. Her material is still funny as hell.

AC: She created that Moms persona back when she was still very young, didn't she?

WG: Yeah. She created it when she was 20.

AC: Wow. I was a kid of that talk-show generation – Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson – and time of variety shows like Flip Wilson, where Moms would show up a lot, and I saw her in her later years, when she was in her 70s, and it's hard for me to imagine her coming to that old-woman persona that young.

WG: Well, when you see the documentary, we have a little footage of her [from earlier in her career]. You know, who discovered her were a vaudevillian pair called Butterbeans and Susie. Butterbeans and Susie sang one of the all-time great songs, "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll." [Laughter] And when you hear it, you can't do anything but laugh. It's quite wonderful.

[Moms] talked about all kinds of things that other people couldn't really get away with talking about because she was thought to be this little old lady, talking about segregation and the Kennedys and making the world better. She tells a great joke, I think she's sitting at Mike Douglas' table or something, and he says, "Do people really recognize you?" And she says, "Oh yeah, as a matter of fact, I was down in the South, and what's that guy's name, the cowboy who has the horse, the famous one?" And he says, "Roy Rogers and Trigger?" "Yeah, yeah, " she says, "everywhere I went, people would wave and say, 'Hey, Trigger. Are ya hungry, Trigger?'" And she stops, and she looks up, and she goes, "At least that's what I think they said." It's phenomenal. And her timing: spectacular. Just spectacular.

AC: So when you're young and listening to the albums, what in her comedy are you responding to? Is it any particular kind of material – the cougar material, the political material – or is it all of it?

WG: It's all about the stories. The great thing about Moms is that she could talk to adults and kids at the same time. She'd say, "Why do you tell these young people these fairy stories when you know they're not true? You tell 'em, 'Old Mother Hubbard went to her cupboard to get the dog a bone.' I tell 'em, 'She went to the cupboard to get her gin.' You tell 'em, 'Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch some water.' I tell 'em, 'Water doesn't run uphill.' You tell 'em, 'Mary had a little lamb.' I say, 'Wasn't the doctor surprised/'" [Laughter]

There are two kinds of humor coming at you as a little kid, which makes you laugh. Yes, the idea that "Mary had a little lamb. Wasn't the doctor surprised" is funny as a little kid. And it's funny to the parent, who's goin', "Mmm-hmm." [Laughter] So that is what I got from Moms. She was a comic for me. She made me laugh with her stories. Some things went over my head, but that's what happens when you're a kid. Some of it you get, some of it you don't. But I liked the idea that she could take her teeth out. That just made me giggle.

AC: Were you one of those kids who would listen to the records over and over to memorize the material and then try to imitate her?

WG: No. It just was. It lived in there. And years later, when I started to try to do her, suddenly it was like, "What am I gonna do?" And then suddenly I said [one of her lines], and said, "Moms is in my body. All is well."

AC: When you were doing your own material, were there aspects of Moms that had absorbed, like her timing? Like she just takes things at her own pace, and the audience goes along.

WG: Yes.

AC: And that's often hard for younger performers, who worry that the audience won't stay with them if they don't move quickly.

WG: I think oftentimes the thing with performers is that they don't know their audience; they don't give themselves time to [do that]. You want to know who's there. When you come in, you want to talk to the guys or the women that run your theatre and say, "Who's the audience? Who comes? Do they know what they're coming to see?"

I learn about my audience in the first couple of lines, because I come out and say, "Now, you know what this is not, right? This is not The View. This is not Sister Act. This is not" – and I'll name some other movie I did – "and I use language that I like." And I explain why I use the language that I use and how it affects things. Because to me parents allow their children to say all kinds of horrible words – words that to me are horrible and offensive – but are not offensive to them. You can't say some of the words that kids say, that they are allowed to say, with a smile. But you can say all the words that I say with a smile. So I say, "If this is not your cup of tea, now's the time to get out. I won't be mad." And then I go on and talk about getting older and trying to keep it together and trying to stay hip and young, you know. I talk about the things that mean something, sometimes there's a little politics, sometimes there's a lot of sex, 'cause those who are not getting any are those who talk about it the most. So it's a show for grownups, though I have had people bring their children, which I am respectful of, but they have to know, if they're going to do that, there are some risqué aspects to what I do and [they have] to be prepared for it. And I try not to be mean or nasty about anyone, and I try not to talk about very many people outside of myself, because I'm the one I can make the most fun of.

AC: And is that still as satisfying for you, to be out in front of an audience and tell those stories, as it was when you started?

WG: Well, yeah, because the stories have evolved, like me. They've gotten older. You know, the experiences I've had have been sort of wider, and I make myself laugh about more things. I think I was a terribly serious person, but I'm not as serious as I was, and I'm pretty silly. And I'm not vulgar, but I'm fresh.

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