Moms Mabley isn’t a widely remembered comedian. Do you think she was forgotten? Was that part of your reason for making this documentary?
The real impetus came from the fact that I had planned to do Moms on Broadway as a one-woman show. I kept putting it off and putting it off and the next thing I knew, 25 years had gone by. So when I started to talk to people about her, they’d say, “I don’t really know who she is.” I thought, I’ll make a documentary ’cause that’ll be a great way to get the information out there. Little did I know what goes into making a documentary.
I tried to find all kinds of great stuff; I’d always heard that she was gay, but there were lots of things that I couldn’t prove. But then along comes this card that says, “Season’s Greetings from Mr. Mom,” with her dressed as a man. Then I discovered other people saying, “Yeah, she was the first woman I ever saw dressed as a man.” To hear, “On stage she was always after [fellow comedian] Cab Calloway, but in real life, she always had women on her arm,” was kind of great. Nobody talked about it -- it’s just what it was.
The documentary explains that we don’t even know for sure what year Moms was born. Why doesn’t basic information about her exist?
This is the case with so many artists of color -- nobody was chronicling them, nobody cared. The cameras weren’t really pointing in their direction. People didn’t really get to her until the ’60s, when suddenly you’d see Moms on ‘The Merv Griffin Show,’ or ‘The Mike Douglas Show,’ or any of the TV shows. People fell madly in love with her because she’s funny! She had great material.
Moms is often described as an “X-rated comedian,” but the material presented in the documentary doesn’t seem too risqué by today’s standards. Should she be slugged as “X-rated”?
She's lumped in with the comics known as “blue.” Moms was talking about things, but she wasn’t talking about them blatantly. She was into the double entendre. It’s only recently that you’ve been able to be loose, especially on network television.
So for her time, she was considered risqué?
Yes, yes. There’s a great joke she tells as two old ladies walking down the street. One turns to the other and says, “I smell hair burning.” The other one says, “Maybe we’re walking too fast.” It’s only in the last five years that they would let you tell that joke on a network. It’s a great joke! But that was considered dirty.