Paul Mooney succeeded in having a legendary career as a comedian, writer, actor, and social commentator without selling his soul. With searing wit, Mooney — who passed away from a heart attack on Wednesday morning at the age of 79 — was a griot of Black America by analyzing the cultural production of whiteness through the lens of comedy. Mooney was a “race man” and was unapologetic about it. His unwavering devotion to Black culture and Black people bequeaths to us a legacy that must be protected and upheld.
Born Paul Gladney on August 4, 1941, in Shreveport, Louisiana, Mooney cultivated his comedic stylings from the wisdom of the women who raised him, namely his maternal grandmother, Aimay Ealy, who gave him his stage name “Mooney.” Although he would relocate to Oakland at the age of seven, his roots in the Deep South left an indelible impression. Regarding his childhood, Mooney said, “I don’t do drugs. Because my grandmother raised me. I think like an old, Black, Southern woman. If I’d have done coke, I’d probably be cooking pancakes.” As a teenager, Mooney was a dancer and appeared on the TV show Dance Party. But after seeing Lenny Bruce perform during the early ’60s, he found his calling.
In 1968, as he was emerging as an up-and-coming comedian, Mooney met another comic named Richard Pryor. Recalling his first encounter with Pryor, in an interview with Pop Matters, Mooney remembered, “I was having a party, and a friend of my sister’s who was dancing at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go had dated Richard and brought him to the apartment. This was during the era of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice when everybody was sleeping with everybody. So Richard came in and said, ‘Let’s all get into the bed and have an orgy.’ And I threw him out.”
Mooney and Pryor would forge one of the most fruitful partnerships in the history of comedy. During a time when it was a rarity to see Black television writers, Mooney and Pryor were penning episodes of Sanford and Son and Good Times. Mooney and Pryor continued their collaborations on Pryor’s classic stand-up albums including …Is It Something I Said?, Bicentennial Nigger, and Live on the Sunset Strip, as well as Pryor’s semi-autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.
Pryor was tapped to host Saturday Night Live during its inaugural season in 1975. Much to Lorne Michaels’ chagrin, he insisted that Mooney come aboard as a writer. Mooney wrote “Word Association,” one of the best skits in the history of the show, for Pryor and Chevy Chase. In the skit, Chevy is interviewing Richard for a janitors job. The white personnel interviewer suggests they do a word association, in which racist phrases are used. The skit culminates with Chase saying the “N-word” and Pryor responding “dead honky.” The idea sprung from Michaels and the NBC executives being nervous about Pryor and Mooney being on the show. “After all the bullshit I’ve been put through to get here, the fucking cross-examination Lorne subjects me to, I decide to do a job interview of my own,” Mooney later said.
In 1977, Mooney was the head writer for NBC’s The Richard Pryor Show. While only four episodes would air, the cutting edge, groundbreaking comedic motif of Mooney’s impeccable writing, blazed a trail that would be followed by shows like In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show, Key and Peele, and A Black Lady Sketch Show. With an undeniable eye for talent, Mooney helped give Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, and Sandra Bernhard their first big breaks on The Richard Pryor Show.
Mooney’s influence loomed large over Black comedians during the ’80s when Black creators were getting more opportunities to showcase their artistry and to tell their stories. He was a founding member of “The Black Pac,” a collective that consisted of fellow powerhouses like Eddie Murphy, Robert Townsend, Arsenio Hall, and Keenan Ivory Wayans. Mooney toured on Murphy’s Raw tour, appeared in Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, and created one of the signature characters in Keenan Ivory Waynas’ In Living Color, Homie the Clown.
A brand new audience discovered Mooney when he appeared on Dave Chappelle’s Chappelle’s Show. In his two segments, “Ask a Black Guy” and “Negrodamus,” Mooney delivered the unfiltered, raw Blackness that made him a legend, uttering the famous quote, “Everybody wanna be a Nigga but nobody wanna be a Nigga.”
No one deployed the “N-word” with such gusto, vigor, power, and poignancy as Mooney. He adroitly transformed a dehumanizing racial epithet into a weapon in his comedic arsenal. He turned the phrase on its head, making his use of the term an artform. Explaining his rationale for using it, Money wrote in his memoir Black Is The New White, “When I use it one stage in front of an audience of both white and Black folks, we’re saying something that white people can’t say. It’s forbidden to them but allowed to us. Ain’t too many things like that. It’s liberating.” However, in his later years, Mooney would have a change of heart, renouncing the word after Michael Richards’ infamous racist tirade.
With all of his acclaim for his writing prowess, Mooney was most comfortable on stage as a stand-up comedian. In that domain, that sacred Black space, Mooney could be himself without compromise. Speaking with Okayplayer in 2014, Mooney said, “The best time for me is now. It’s what I do, it’s not yesterday. Yesterday is the past. And it’s never tomorrow, it’s always today. Tomorrow never comes. It’s always today. It’s what goes on today, and it’s wonderful today because it’s so exciting. It’s exciting, everything’s exciting! I love the times now, I love it.”
Paul Mooney was not for sale. He was free to speak his mind, to spotlight the white supremacist ethos that is woven into the fabric of the American project, and to be a guardian of Black culture against the oppressive forces that seek to deny it and appropriate it.
“I say what I feel,” Mooney said in 2010. “White folks got their freedom. I’m going to be free, white and 21, too.”
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.
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