At one point in Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, a fascinating new HBO documentary about the pioneering African-American comedian that premieres at 9 p.m. ET on Monday, Nov. 18, we see Moms Mabley on the set of Merv Griffin’s chat show. Dressed in her usual costume of floppy cap, garishly colored house coat, and goofy knee socks, Mabley haltingly begins an anecdote about her travels through the American South. Her memory seems to be failing—in 1969, she was somewhere around 72 years old—so Griffin gallantly helps out.
“What’s that man got that horse in pictures … that Western man?” Mabley asks.
“They name me Roy Rogers’ horse …”
“Trigger?” Griffin suggests.
“Yeah, everywhere I go, they’re, ‘Hello, Trigger. What you saying, Trigger?’ At least I think that’s what they say.”
As soon as he realizes that not only he’s been thoroughly outsmarted by this homely septuagenarian—and potentially upset affiliate stations in the old Confederacy—Griffin’s facial expression indicates a combination of exasperation and veneration. Like so many before him, he has underestimated Moms Mabley.
It was Mabley’s costume that seems to have disarmed people. As Joan Rivers—one of a parade of eminent comics to testify to their admiration of Moms—points out, for many female comedians, appearing harmless was a way to get men to pay attention to their jokes. Mabley took it to extremes—not only did she dress like a homeless bohemian, she even took out her dentures when she performed, though that never diminished her ability to deliver a line with bite. Of course, telling jokes is itself a sneaky way of making social commentary. In a live performances included in the documentary, Mabley declares, “Mom don’t know no jokes, but I can tell you some facts.”
In her off-duty hours, though, Mabley dressed quite differently. Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell tells Goldberg that Moms was “the first lady I ever saw wearing men’s clothes.” We then see photographs of Mabley in a bespoke tailored suit. Onstage she dressed in shapeless garments and affected a gormless expression; in her leisure hours she sported sharp suits and projected butch confidence. Dancer Norma Miller, who was on the black show-business circuit in the same period, recalls sharing a dressing room with Moms and her girlfriend. “We never called Mom homosexual,” says Miller. “The word never fit her. We never called her gay. We called her Mr. Mom.”
In her stage act, Mabley claimed to have a thing for younger men. This new film confirms that the first cougar was also one of show business’s earliest out lesbians.