“Who do they say sewed the flag? What’s her name? Betsy Ross?”
Paul Mooney pauses, his eyes dancing.
“Now, come on! They had slaves back then. Betsy Ross was asleep at 6. You know some big black mama was up at night sewing that flag! ‘Honey, oh, Lawd, have mercy, I’m just up so late sewing this flag, I’m seeing stars.’ And she’s thinking about the stripes on her back from the whip. So there we get it, the stars and stripes. But as soon as the white men got there, the white lady Betsy Ross jumped up, ‘See what I did?’
Comedian Paul Mooney unleashes the kind of hard-boiled unapologetic jive that some people think about race but would never let fly in polite company.
On stage, Mooney hurls incisive truth-seeking missiles, the kind of comedy that when it lands, explodes leaving some in his audience dazed by what just hit. When the comedy hits too close to home, some “people” can’t take it and get up and walk out. But Mooney is unfazed.
“My comedy is a nuclear bomb inside my mind,” Mooney says. “It’s a weapon that’s never been tested. It just blows up and flattens everybody. I start out talking about the funniest [expletive] I know, which is race.”
“Thank God, Paul Revere was white, because if he was black, they’d have shot his [expletive]. ‘He done stole that horse. Let’s kill him! Kill him!’
Mooney returns to D.C. for shows Friday and Saturday at the Howard Theatre (produced by Jill Newman Productions with PM7 Entertainment), where he has no plans on holding back on jokes that explore the complexities of race in America.
“I love Obama because he is proof all black people don’t look alike. Nobody every told me, ‘Good morning, Mr. President.’ We don’t all look a like.”
On stage, Mooney is like a history professor, explaining race from a deeper racial perspective, explaining history left out of most history books. He analyzes his audiences, measures their ticks and reactions to his jokes. “I always drop some history into my act. It’s knowledge. There’s always a message in my comedy. But it’s like a time bomb.”
Mooney, the “Godfather of Comedy,” has been involved in some of the biggest comedy acts in Hollywood for more than 40 years, literally raising a generations of comedians. Mooney wrote laugh lines for Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, “Sanford and Son,” and “Saturday Night Live.” Mooney created the character “Negrodamus” on “Chappelle’s Show,” and was creator of “Homey the Clown” on “In Living Color.”
Mooney’s DVD, “Paul Mooney: Know Your History—Jesus Was Black … So was Cleopatra,” which was released in 2007, received rave reviews for its scathing humor. His book, “Black is the New White: With a Foreword by Dave Chappelle,” an unapologetic memoir, was a bestseller.
Mooney writes about working with Richard Pryor: “California, yellow sun and Pacific blue sky. That September day in 1968, Richard and I are in Duke’s Coffee Shop, the original one, in the old Tropicana Motel. Two dudes, two dudes, like Richard starts one of his routines. We are the only black guys who can make the scene in Hollywood. We are ground breakers, accepted at all the clubs, invited to all the parties. When we break into it, Hollywood is still a closed, racist town. The place has never seen anybody like us. We are fearless. We go everywhere. We break down barriers. We still get harassed by bigots and cheated by the system, but it never stops us.”
Mooney was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. “The deep, deep South, a “mean, hateful, racist place.” When he was 7, Mooney moved to California, but his memories of Shreveport are wrapped in “a golden haze,” pleasant memories of his grandmother Aimay Ealy, whom everyone called “Mama.”
“She was no nonsense. My grandmother was the best,” he says in an interview. “She loved you for you. She loved me for me. She was old-school. They broke the mold with her. They don’t make them like that any more.”
It was his grandmother who named him “Mooney.” In the South, there was a nickname for everybody. “Mooney is an island word. I think it means the chosen, the gifted.”
Ask Mooney when did he know he wanted to be a comedian. “It’s not about want. It is innate. It comes from God.” Mooney was still young when he realized the power of his comedy. “It gets people’s attention,” he says. “People want to laugh. The funniest jokes you’ve ever heard come from family.”
Mooney loves talking about race because it drives people crazy. “Everyone has finally caught up with me,” he says. “When I did it, it wasn’t popular. I was considered a trouble maker. Now they all caught up with me. Now it’s the popular thing. Hollywood is acting like that was the first time we heard this.”
In 2006, Mooney made headlines when he announced he would stop using the n-word after the meltdown by “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards, who unleashed the n-word during a stand-up comedy routine at a comedy club in Los Angeles.
“Yeah, I’m going to stop saying it,” Mooney says. “But I didn’t say I wouldn’t say it backwards, ‘What’s up Reggin?’:” He laughs. “People keep saying it. But this is not my language. This language came from Europe. Now they tell me it’s my fault.”
He says the word was created by Europeans to dehumanized people. Mooney says when he uses the word, he defuses its power. But the word has to be handled with care.
The use of the word by Michael Richards, he says, was completely crazy. “If it hadn’t been for me, they would have lynched that man. Richards had forgotten about stand-up,” Mooney says. “They turned on him way before he had his melt down. He was trying to be me. He stepped out of line of stand-up. He tried to go back to be who he was, he couldn’t do it. He had lost it. It was like he hung up his guns like Jesse James. And they shot him in the back.”
Despite his success, Mooney continues to perform stand-up because he says, “the good ones are born comedians. That is what we are. There are some people who learn the art of it. They pretend to be comedians. They use trickery. They know comics get attention, but they are really actors and singers. They know comedy is king. They use that as a platform to get what they want. The real ones will always do stand up.”
Paul Mooney, “The Godfather of Comedy,” produced in association with Jill Newman Productions & PM7 Entertainment, is scheduled to perform 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 13, and at 8 p.m., Saturday, July 14, at The Howard Theatre, 620 T Street, NW.