Paul Mooney's comedy found power in making white people uncomfortable

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 19:  Paul Mooney performs at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on November 19, 20...
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ByNaima Cochrane

“My comedy is a nuclear bomb inside my mind. It’s a weapon that’s never been tested. It just blows up and flattens everybody. I start out talking about the funniest sh*t I know, which is race.” - Paul Mooney

The Godfather of Black Comedy, Paul Mooney, died Wednesday morning at the age of 79, signaling the end of an era and the passing of an old guard.

Mooney, who once proclaimed stand-up to be the only place where a Black man can speak honestly, was a driving voice behind keeping-it-real-to-the-brink-of-discomfort comedy. Social criticism through comedy isn’t new or shocking in 2021, but in the late 60s he was one of only a small number of stand-up acts — along with partner Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin — unafraid to leave mixed or predominately white audiences shocked and maybe even disturbed after a set. Though he never rose to the same heights as his counterparts, Mooney’s fingerprints are all over modern stand-up and sketch comedy today.

Born Paul Gladney in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1941, Mooney’s possibly best known as Richard Pryor’s career-long co-writer and best friend; part of Pryor’s legend as one of the most impactful comedians — Black or white — in modern entertainment. But Mooney specialized in barrier breaking even beyond his work with Pryor, and over the course of his career has written for and worked with nearly every comic known for talking their shit on stage, especially about Blackness and the reality of the Black experience: Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle chief among them.

Mooney was also behind some of the edgiest — and funniest — comedic moments on TV addressing race, like Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase’s infamous word association skit on SNL, which he wrote as a jab at showrunners for giving him the run-around when Pryor insisted he write for the episode. He also co-wrote Sanford & Son’s “Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle” episode, in which Redd Foxx’s Fred challenges police officers for only arresting Black drivers, saying, “Look at all these ni**as (in the courtroom)!” He created Damon Wayans’ infamous Black, conscious, and fed up Homey D. Clown character while he was the head writer for season one of In Living Color, and of course the all-knowing Negrodamus for The Chappelle Show — a variety comedy show inspired in large part from the earlier, even shorter-lived The Richard Pryor Show, for which Mooney was head writer.

Mooney was raised by his grandmother in Shreveport until moving to Oakland, California to live with his mother as a teenager. His teen and young adult years were a unique precursor for his comedic career; he hung out with eventual Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P Newton in high school, during which time he also integrated a local Oakland American Bandstand-eque show as the first “negro” dancer on the set. After a stint in the army, he worked as a circus ringmaster, a role that required writing jokes to keep the audience engaged and entertained.

He and Pryor came into each other’s orbits while Pryor was in a self-imposed period of professional retreat in the Bay Area. Pryor was struggling with the Bill Cosby-derived professional persona that had made him famous, but tortured him creatively because it was so restrained and inauthentic. Together, the two temporarily relocated to Berkeley, mixing in with a burgeoning collective of Black artists and intellectuals, and forming a loose affiliation with the Black Panther Party thanks to Mooney’s continued relationship with Newton. In the safety of Berkeley’s counter-culture, Pryor and Mooney found Richard’s true comedic voice, one that broke an invisible performance wall for Black comedians — mixed and white audiences got the same jokes an all Black crowd would get. That included very generous use of the word “nigga,” which became a trademark of sorts for both men. Richard was no doubt the comedic genius, but the push for Pryor to put his full, unedited Black self in his comedy was Mooney, who’d already been tackling race in his acts. “Black comics have a ‘double consciousness’ in the way W.E.B. Dubois uses the phrase, meaning they have one self that’s for the master and one self that’s ‘just between us,’” Mooney explained in his 2010 autobiography Black is the New White. “When I first hit the scene...if they want to gain a wide crossover audience, Black comics have to be careful what they say...I’m the first comic to bring a ‘just between us’ Black voice to the stage. To any stage.”

Mooney was an OG — respected, revered, and also sometimes disliked by the greatest names in comedy. He notoriously didn’t give a fuck, a stance that possibly kept him from the same level of stardom as the comedians he wrote for and mentored. For example, when Aries Spears was hoping to have Mooney brought on as a writer for MAD TV and producers asked Mooney if he was familiar with the show, his response was, “All of you niggas have stolen my material.” But it was a stance he seemed comfortable owning. Robert Townsend who, along with Murphy, Ivory-Wayans, Arsenio Hall, and Mooney was part of a tightly knit circle of Black comedians dubbed “the Black pack” in the mid-80s, once explained of Mooney, “Paul didn’t care to be loved. He wanted to speak his mind. He taught a generation of comedians to be fearless.” When a fan asked Mooney about the intention behind his direct approach in 2009, he claimed he was along for the ride just like his audience. “I’m shocked at what comes out of my mouth, you know. I’m surprised,” he revealed. “It comes from somewhere other than me because sometimes, I’m surprised at the things I say.”

In the last several years, however, questions of Mooney’s health and well-being have circulated widely. He continued to do stand-up until 2017, often meandering through his routine. He lost his train of thought and forgot names in performances and interviews. He lost goodwill by publicly defending Bill Cosby during his 2017 trial for multiple counts of sexual assault (even though he initially declared the moment of reckoning Cosby’s “nigga wake up call”). Even the legacy of his friendship and partnership with Pryor came into question when Mooney faced his own allegations of sexual assault against Richard Pryor, Jr. Pryor’s bodyguard claimed the comedian learned Mooney had molested his then-teenaged son on the set of 1986’s JoJo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, an allegation the younger Pryor confirmed, but Mooney and reps adamantly denied. However, the decline of the last decade was not enough to tarnish Mooney’s reputation or legacy in full.

Mooney should be celebrated for, essentially, making it okay to make white people uncomfortable in public. His work not only helped widen the lane for Black comedians in mainstream Hollywood, it helped advance dialogue. Now, “wokeness” is a must-have for mainstream success, but Mooney was on that even when it was considered dangerous instead of marketable. “Everyone has finally caught up with me,” he proclaimed in 2012. “When I did it, it wasn’t popular. I was considered a troublemaker… Now it’s the popular thing. Hollywood is acting like that was the first time we heard this.”