Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is a long title for a HBO documentary about the legendary comedienne, who is almost completely forgotten by contemporary audiences, even though she was hugely influential on generations of performers. This film does a good job of placing her in time as an important storyteller and sublime political satirist. It is odd seeing (and mostly hearing) bits of her routines, though, as much of it has not really aged well. We have such different expectations of a comedian's performance, I doubt that younger audiences would get her at all today.

Some of her best material isn't even remotely funny, like her song that is a tribute to "Abraham, Martin, and John," the three victims of assassins, two of whom she had known personally. It is pretty amazing what she managed to sneak onto TV in her few performances in the 60s and 70s. Thank goodness for The Smothers Brothers and a few other shows that invited her on, regardless of her peculiar look and performance style, so we have at least a few images of her at work.

Whoopi does a pretty good job of keeping her own personality from overrunning the documentary (except maybe in the title), and has a nice lineup of academics to help frame Moms' work historically and philosophically. In addition, virtually every important black comedian who was alive when Moms was working is interviewed, and they give very smart analysis of why her work was so monumental at that time. Moms was one of the few women working in comedy at the time, one of the few black comedians to make it into prime time (and had 20 comedy albums in her career), and was also a lesbian, making it even harder for her to the type of attention that typical women performers needs to be successful. (I think they could have further explored how that helped create her onstage persona.)

This is definitely worth viewing.

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