Moms Mabley only recently became familiar to me. It may be easily explained by the fact that she was mostly in the public eye in the 60s and 70s, and in America, but it still feels like a huge deal that I had never heard about one of the first female stand up comedians, and a hugely successful one to boot.
Moms started her career very young in the vaudeville theatre, where she learned plenty of musical and physical skills, but most important of all to a stand up comedian, how to make the best out of her stage presence. She was huge during the Harlem Renaissance, the period between the 1910s and 1930s which saw the development of the Harlem neighbourhood in NYC, and which was considered a golden period for African American culture, spanning literature, music, stage performance and art. According to the 2013 documentary about Moms, she was the only female comedian gracing the big stages of the circuit.
She had a career that spanned 50 years, from the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s, to the Ed Sullivan show, tens of comedy records released and even movies. And to think in the 21st century there are still those who care to share their opinion that women aren’t funny.
Mabley had a lot of firsts! She was the first woman comic to play the Apollo in 1930 and Carnegie Hall in 1962. She was also the first openly gay comedian – on record at least. Mr. Moms, as her contemporaries would call her, would get out of the frumpy old clothing her stage persona would wear, and don impeccable suits and short hair.
The first time I heard of Moms Mabley was when Wanda Sykes played her in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. It’s hard to immediately see it was Wanda as she managed to completely disappear into Moms’ persona, which if you think about the image of Sykes in your head, is hard to expect. By your head, I probably mean mine, as I mostly know Wanda Sykes from louder parts in sitcoms and her own stand up. It’s also interesting to me to parallel both Wanda and Moms as two openly gay comedians. During the Harlem Renaissance, and of course I’m saying this from what I’ve read and not from lived experience, people seemed to more easily live their lives openly…remember Wanda Sykes only came out in 2008, after a long career. It’s good to know most of us in today’s world don’t really have to decide whether to be out or not, as it’s become a more peaceful reality to exist in.
A Moms Mabley reference I totally missed before watching the documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley was Eddie Murphy’s grandmother character in Nutty Professor. Murphy modelled his character on Moms Mabley, who in turn modelled her character on her own great-grandmother.
Moms’ final role was starring in the movie Amazing Grace. The movie was filmed in 1974; a year before she died at the age of 81.