Negrodamus once ran the circus. Seriously.
“Absolutely,” caustic comic legend Paul Mooney, the most fearless comedian working today, admitted to PW in a recent phone interview, recalling his start in show biz. “I was the first black ringmaster, in fact. Now there are black ringleaders and black circuses, so people don’t know we weren’t allowed to go to the circus, let alone be in one. But I was the first.”
This odd inclusion on the veteran writer-standup don’s miles-long resume shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who’s seen him live or knows his rich history—and his work ethic—both on the stage and behind the scenes. This is a man who will do or say damn near anything, as long as it’s truthful. Mooney’s “Ask a Black Dude” and “Negrodamus” segments on classic episodes of Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central may have exposed his bluntness to a new generation of fans, but those who’ve been around a little longer fondly remember Mooney’s brilliance as a writer for the late, great Richard Pryor, In Living Color—he created the now-iconic Homey D. Clown, played by Damon Wayans—and a myriad of popular black TV programs and specials in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Whether a newcomer to the game or a long-time season ticketholder, you cannot deny the painful truths in Mooney’s particularly edgy comedic rants. Famous—or infamous—for his racial and socio-political based jokes, Mooney’s infallible righteousness, crafted with a well-honed delivery and impeccable timing, is apparent in his standup and his writing—especially when he’s creating material for himself.
Take, for instance, his 2010 special, It’s the End of the World: Poised onstage with the ease of a master, Mooney firmly holds a crowd’s attention while he lets loose with such veracity, that many people are left incredibly ill-at-ease, despite the unassailable humor. One group of seated patrons gets so uncomfortable, they stand up and leave in the middle of Mooney’s set. Unfazed, he guffaws, pointing them out as they go. “Good,” he says, laughing openly. “I thought I had lost my magic.”
The short-lived Richard Pryor Show allowed Mooney the opportunity to not only pen memorable material, but also gave him free range to push the boundaries of comedy via new talent—both black and white. Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, Sandra Bernhard and Tim Reid all got a chance to shine as young artists on the groundbreaking mix of variety-style performances and sketches, each of them chosen by Mooney.
Asked about his reputation for being controversial, Mooney swells with pride, wearing it righteously, like a badge of honor. “You know, I feel like it’s my job to tell the truth,” he says matter-of-factly. “So much of what we see today is an act. Everyone’s acting, you know. Everyone. It’s important to tell the truth.”
In Living Color‘s staff, like that of Pryor, had quite a time battling network “standards,” even with the careful deliberation and skillful observation of seasoned writers like Mooney—their raw, humorous takes on issues and struggles of the black community dubbed too envelope-pushing for mainstream viewers. Still, in spite of the attempts to quiet his honest outrageousness, Mooney’s comedic prowess has remained consistent over the years. The title of his 2007 special, Know Your History: Jesus Is Black ... So Was Cleopatra, is a perfect example.
Despite his rancor, Mooney fully acknowledges—with pride and a note of optimism—the progress black people have made across every American spectrum, even in the entertainment circles that once maddened him. Still, asked how he felt about 12 Years A Slave recently winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Mooney pauses, then laughs. “Oh, it was only 12 years? Is that what they’re saying now?”
He loosens up a bit while discussing President Obama and the first black First Family.
“I just love him. He’s got those big ol’ white-man ears,” Mooney says. “He looks like Malcolm X, speaks like Martin Luther King, and he shits apple pie. He’s exactly what we needed. We still have a lot of work to do as a country,” he adds, shifting audibly in his chair. “We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Obama can only do so much. He’s been everything from Uncle Ben to Aunt Jemima, cleaning up that mess in that White House. You know it was niggas who built the White House, by the way. Did you know that? That’s why they called it the White House—just to upset us. And that’s the truth.”
Wed., March 12 through Sat., March 15, various times. $17-$34. Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St. heliumcomedy.com