Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Eclipsed Mooney

I went to see comedian Paul Mooney Sunday night at Caroline's on Broadway in New York.

I've seen Mooney several times before. A legend in social observational comedy, he was a close friend of and writer for Richard Pryor.

Indeed, Pryor insisted that Mooney's work be added to the regular "Saturday Night Live" stable when he hosted the show for the first time; it was the only time that SNL allowed a host to bring in his own writer. That was the episode which featured the legendary (Mooney-written) Pryor-Chevy Chase insult trade-off. Mooney went on to write for "In Living Color" and Dave Chappelle.

If there is anyone that managed to take the N-word to creative heights, it would have to be Mooney. One can't ever sugarcoat the experience of a Mooney comedy show. It's very disturbing whether one is white or black. But, it is true social satire with a very sharp point.

Mooney recently announced that -- in the wake of the Michael Richards meltdown -- he would no longer use the word "nigger" in his act:

AP: You helped pioneer the use of the n-word in black comedy many years ago, didn't you?

Mooney: Oh yeah. I had a romance with the word. I worked with Richard Pryor using the word. It was so destructive - it was created by whites to hurt and destroy - and we were trying to defuse it, trying to desensitize people to it. We did it every chance we got, we would drive people crazy. We were very funny at it. But Richard backed off the word in the early 1980s. He went to Africa and came back and said he didn't see any n-people there. But I said, 'That's him, that's not me.' I was very much into it like an alcoholic was into (liquor).

AP: Any idea how many times you've used the word?

Mooney: Oh, honey, you can't count it! If I had a dollar for every time I used the n-word I'd be a billionaire.


AP: So, what happened last week? You heard about Richards at the Laugh Factory - he was caught on tape attacking black audience members.

Mooney: I have known Michael Richards for something like 20 years. We're friends. But I heard about the tape and I said, 'That doesn't sound like a comic routine. That sounds like a breakdown.' Then I saw the tape and I had an out of body experience. It was so ugly, so horrible. I hadn't heard (the n-word) like this - from someone I knew. Suddenly, I was directly connected. I was able to look at it not just through my eyes but through the eyes of the world. I had always thought it was endearing. It's NOT. It's not an equal opportunity word. I don't want everyone running around saying it.


AP: Do you think your comedy will suffer - can you be as edgy without the shock value of the word? I mean, you've used it constantly for so long.

Mooney: I'm an n-word alcoholic and I will not be drinking from the n-bar. I will say 'black' or I will say 'African American.'

AP: Can you tell me a joke that you've told in the past with the n-word and show me how you'll change it?

Mooney: There was a white lady baking a cake for her little white son. She turned her back and he took the chocolate icing and smeared it on his face and said, "Mommy, look! I'm black!" She slaps him and says, "Don't ever do that again. Now go tell your father what you did." So the boy goes to his father and does the same thing and gets slapped again. The father sends him to his grandfather and he does it again and the grandfather slaps him, too. So the boy goes back to his mother and she says, "Well, Timmy, what have you learned today?" He says, "I learned I've only been black five minutes and I already hate white people."

AP: Ha!

Mooney: Believe me, it will get just as big a laugh. Oh yeah, honey, it's a new Mooney. And another thing - I will not be using the b-word (to refer to women) anymore either.

AP: Oh?

Mooney: I'll say 'heifer' instead. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd be saying this, but it's a whole new world. A new time. I can't change the past, but one person can change the future - anything can happen. I'm taking my stand.

But, for those who've seen him, the idea of an "N-word"-less Mooney show would be like Bill Maher hosting his show for the last six years -- and not mentioning George W. Bush.

It seems impossible; it is what has made him. Mooney can say that he used it likes an alcoholic, but the truth is, a Mooney show was an exegesis on one of the most controversial taboo words in American history. Seeing and hearing Mooney made one recognize the banality of the average rappers use of the word.

Now, don't get me wrong, Mooney can still be funny without using the N-word or any curse words -- as seen in this clip from his appearance on Greta Van Susteren.

However, there is more to what Mooney does than just tell jokes -- in the same way that comics such as Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock do more than just "tell jokes." It is observational humor about politics and social mores going beyond simple relationships and family structure.

The joke that he makes above about the kid and the chocolate cake is still funny, but it is funnier when the N-word is used. Furthermore, there are parts of his act which revolve around the power of the word -- such as, "I say 'nigger' as much as I can because it makes my teeth whiten."

Anyway, I was curious to see what a "nigger-free" Mooney show would seem like. This was his first weekend of performances

Anyone who's seen him before can tell the difference between this Mooney and the man of yore.

As he said, he now just uses "black man" or "African-American." His famed "Nigger Wake-Up Call" routine (the moment when a 'celebrity' or 'buppie" black person suddenly realizes his true status in American society) has been replaced with a sanitized "wake-up call." Take my word for it; it doesn't have the same impact. There are parts that are still quite funny, but it sounds like one's favorite band playing a show where the guitars are slightly out of tune.

But what struck me as most tragic was that Mooney had allowed Michael Richards' "breakdown" (as Mooney refers to it) to emasculate Paul Mooney the wrathful social observer.

The commenter on all these fascinating celebrity shenanigans and their racial subtext was struck dumb when it came to the most blatant use of it publicly in decades. A has-been named Michael Richards killed the beastly Paul Mooney - and it is a tragic loss.

I am not a native-born American. I can't say that I've grown up and lived the same sort of American life that Paul Mooney has.

While I can respect this decision to stop using the word, I feel he owes it to the audience that has supported him for years to explain himself. He was the man who had elevated the word to a existential height forcing people to think about it.

Now, he doesn't even reference once -- in his act -- his decision NOT to use it? And "why?"

Indeed, he didn't even reference the Richards incident AT ALL (Oh, and despite what he said in the interview above, he did use the word "bitch"). He can talk about Nicole Richie's arrest, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan's problems, plus various racial situations going back years -- but he can't even MENTION the Richards incident?

The worst thing a comedian can be is dishonest. And Paul Mooney was being dishonest with his audience Sunday night. And will continue to be if he chooses to not merely no longer use the "word", but even avoid discussing the incident that has forced him to make the biggest creative decision of his entire life.


And ironic too: The man who created the "nigger wake-up call" has chosen to take a "Kramer sleeping pill."

UPDATE: BET.com's Jennifer Daniels is much harsher on Mooney and has a much lower opinion of his talent than I. However, she comes to a similar conclusion about his sincerity:

Don't get me wrong – I applaud your decision. I just question your reasons behind it.

It would be one thing if you'd have some life-changing experience, like Richard Pryor, or if you were forced to re-examine your material like Dave Chappelle, or if you had a skit that caught fire and you had White people in your face, like Chris Rock. Maybe you just needed another reason to be on television, since Chappelle's meltdown put you off the air. I guess that's as good a reason as any.
Something about a television camera in a person's face that always seems to make one have an epiphany.

But if it's one thing about Black folks, it's this: We know when someone is being less than sincere. We've had a lifetime of having to measure good intentions from dealing with White people, so we can spot a fraud amongst our own right away. You've made a rather bold resolution, just weeks before the New Year. Only time will tell if you'll stick by it – or if you ever intended to. Good luck to you if you did. God help you if you didn't.

UPDATE: Another outlet for topical humor, SNL's "Weekend Update," makes use of the "Kramer" incident in a different, but hilariously funny way. It also is more evidence that this has been one of the more consistently funny "Saturday Night Live" seasons in some time.

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