On Wednesday May 19, 2021 we lost the one and only Paul Mooney at the age of 79.
The incredible comedian/actor/writer was born, Paul Gladney, in Shreveport, LA in 1941. He took on the nickname “Mooney” after actor Paul Muni who starred in the original Scarface film (1932). He was ringmaster in a circus when he started writing and telling jokes. His sense of humor would come in handy once he entered the world of comedy.
After meeting Richard Pryor at a party in 1968 he began working with him as a writer. Paul was one of the first black members of the Writer’s Guild of America. In the 1970s Mr. Mooney contributed to episodes of Sanford & Son, Good Times, Saturday Night Live, The Richard Pryor Show several of Pryor’s classic albums and his biographical film Jo Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling.
His career would be a long one and it spanned decades. This is impressive considering his penchant for discussing race in a manner that was often blunt and abrasive.
As controversial as his material could be, Paul Mooney still managed to establish himself as a highly influential and revered figure in all of comedy. Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, the Lucas Brothers, Dave Chappelle, Kenan Thompson, Michael Che and many others count him as a huge inspiration.
His stand up act could elicit riotous laughter and it was no secret that he regularly offended patrons unfamiliar with his act. While he obviously understood that Hollywood and the entertainment business is largely white-controlled, he remained a proud black man that openly chastised white society for the way that it exploited black people and other marginalized groups.
He was special because he did comedy his way, even if it cost him some jobs and some potential fans. I highly recommend his 1993 comedy album Race, where he talks about the whitewashing of history, social injustices and the overall ridiculousness of living in a world dominated by white supremacy.
He was head writer on the groundbreaking sketch show In Living Color. He famously tackled cultural appropriation before it was in vogue while working on Chapelle’s Show – “Everybody wants to be a nigga but nobody wants to be a nigga.” He appeared in many films throughout his career including Which Way is Up (1977), Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Bamboozled (2000), Good Hair (2009) and Meet the Blacks (2016).
Paul Mooney was a brave and bold performer. He didn’t shy away from controversy and he didn’t bow to those who may have had more money, fame or celebrity than he did. He would regularly joke about sensitive topics (like the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing) and high-profile stars *(Oprah Winfrey, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson). Yes, he lost opportunities, yes, his material had to be heavily edited or removed entirely from some programs but he refused to conform to anyone’s structure but his own. He was “edgy” when many comedians preferred to take the safe route. Paul Mooney was unapologetically black; he was unafraid to challenge the status quo and he was funny as Hell. Dave Chappelle said that Mooney was one of the best to ever do it and he was right.
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