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Paul Mooney: Pioneering Comedian
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Paul Mooney, the influential comedian, writer, and actor known for his biting social commentary and collaborations with Richard Pryor, passed away on May 19, 2021 at the age of 79. Over his nearly 60-year career, Mooney left an indelible mark on the world of comedy while fearlessly addressing issues of race and racism in America.

Early Life and Influences

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Paul Mooney was born Paul Gladney on August 4, 1941 in Shreveport, Louisiana. He moved to Oakland, California at the age of seven and was primarily raised by his grandmother, Aimay Ealy. Mooney coined his stage name after being inspired by actor Paul Muni in the original 1932 film Scarface. As a teenager, he worked as a dancer and circus ringmaster with the Gatti-Charles Circus. However, after seeing comedian Lenny Bruce perform in the early 1960s, Mooney was inspired to pursue a career in comedy. This early exposure would shape his bold, socially-conscious comedic voice.
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Collaborations with Richard Pryor

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Paul Mooney and Richard Pryor formed one of the most influential comedy partnerships, collaborating extensively throughout the 1970s and 1980s. After first meeting in 1968, they went on to write episodes of the sitcom Sanford and Son together when there were few Black television writers. Mooney served as the head writer on The Richard Pryor Show in 1977 and co-wrote material for Pryor's groundbreaking comedy albums and films, including ...Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986). Mooney famously penned the edgy word association sketch with Chevy Chase for Pryor's 1975 Saturday Night Live appearance, which became one of the show's most iconic moments. Their partnership lasted until Pryor's death in 2005. Mooney later chronicled their relationship in his 2007 memoir Black Is the New White, noting "Even though I have a feeling that sooner or later it's all going to crash, I still accept Richard's friendship. He is irresistible."
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Impact on African-American Comedy

Paul Mooney had a profound impact on African-American comedy. His fearless and incisive social commentary paved the way for future generations of black comedians to unapologetically address issues of race and racism. Mooney's comedy was rooted in the long tradition of African-Americans using humor as a coping mechanism to deal with oppression and injustice.
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By boldly confronting uncomfortable truths about the black experience in America, he expanded the boundaries of what black comedians could say on stage and screen. Mooney's influence can be seen in the work of comedians like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and W. Kamau Bell, who have continued in his footsteps of using comedy as a powerful tool for social critique and change.
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Groundbreaking Writer and Mentor

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Paul Mooney made significant contributions as a comedy writer, crafting groundbreaking material that fearlessly addressed issues of race and culture:
  • Mooney wrote for several iconic African-American sitcoms in the 1970s, including Sanford and Son and Good Times, at a time when there were few Black writers in television.
  • As the head writer for the sketch comedy series In Living Color, Mooney pushed the show's satirical voice and inspired memorable characters like Homey D. Clown.
  • On Chappelle's Show in the early 2000s, Mooney appeared in provocative sketches like "Ask a Black Dude" and as Negrodamus, showcasing his signature brand of racially-charged humor.
  • Throughout his career, Mooney gave early opportunities to then-unknown comedians like Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, John Witherspoon, and Tim Reid on The Richard Pryor Show and other projects.
Mooney's writing always aimed to expose uncomfortable truths and challenge societal norms. His comedic voice was uncompromising, even if it meant limiting his mainstream appeal. By consistently putting race at the forefront of his work, Mooney expanded the possibilities of what Black comedy could say and paved the way for future generations of comedians.
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Paul Mooney's Comedy Albums

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Here is a summary of Paul Mooney's notable stand-up comedy albums and specials:
  • Race (1993) - This Grammy-nominated comedy album showcased Mooney's provocative social commentary on issues of race in America.
  • Master Piece (1994) - Mooney's second stand-up album continued his bold comedic style of tackling uncomfortable truths about the black experience.
  • Analyzing White America (2004) - In this stand-up special released on DVD, Mooney offered his satirical take on white American culture and racial dynamics.
  • Know Your History: Jesus Is Black; So Was Cleopatra (2006) - Mooney's stand-up DVD special featured his signature brand of comedy that challenged historical narratives and highlighted the often overlooked African roots of major figures.
  • It's the End of the World (2010) - Mooney's stand-up special took an irreverent look at contemporary social issues and the state of the world.
  • Shaquille O'Neal's All Star Comedy Jam (2010) - Mooney performed as part of this televised comedy showcase hosted by Shaquille O'Neal.
  • The Godfather of Comedy (2012) - This TV special paid tribute to Mooney's influential comedy career and his status as a trailblazer for black comedians.
Throughout his stand-up work, Mooney consistently pushed boundaries with his fearless social satire, using humor as a tool to expose harsh realities and provoke thought about race in America.
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BET Comedy Awards Controversy

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At the 2005 BET Comedy Awards, Paul Mooney performed a controversial segment called the "Black People Wake Up Call Award". In the bit, Mooney jokingly presented an award to African American celebrities he felt had neglected their blackness to try to blend in with white people, only to still be seen as the "n-word" in their eyes. His "nominees" included Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Lil' Kim, and Diana Ross. Mooney gave the satirical award to Ross and made several jokes about her 2002 arrest for DUI. According to audience members, he also made light of the death of Ross's ex-husband Arne Næss Jr., who had died in a mountain climbing accident the previous year. Ross's daughter Tracee Ellis Ross was in attendance and reportedly left the room, offended and embarrassed by Mooney's comments about her family. Backstage, when asked if he felt his performance went too far, Mooney defended his edgy comedy. He argued that Ross's real-life actions were "over the top" and that as a celebrity, she was fair game for mockery. Mooney also pushed back against the scrutiny of his comedy, saying that white comedians like Jay Leno and David Letterman didn't face the same criticism for their material. BET heavily edited Mooney's segment for the televised broadcast, with the majority of his performance not making it to air. The incident highlighted Mooney's brand of provocative, racially-charged comedy and his steadfast commitment to it, even in the face of controversy. It also demonstrated how his jokes, which took aim at cultural icons and taboo topics, could cross lines and alienate even some Black audiences.
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Paul Mooney's Memoir: Black Is The New White

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Paul Mooney's 2009 memoir Black Is the New White provides an intimate and revealing look at his life story and decades-long comedy career. In the book, Mooney recounts meeting Richard Pryor in 1968 and the beginning of their fruitful yet tumultuous partnership. He shares candid stories about helping Pryor write his groundbreaking comedy albums and the highs and lows of their time working together. Mooney also reflects on his own winding path in the entertainment industry, from his early days as a circus ringmaster to becoming the first Black writer for Saturday Night Live in 1975. He details his notorious behind-the-scenes moments, like organizing a performers' strike at The Comedy Store and publicly giving up using the n-word in his act after Michael Richards' onstage outburst in 2006. Throughout the memoir, Mooney's uncompromising comedic voice shines through as he shares uncensored opinions on race, politics, and show business. By chronicling both his triumphs and tribulations, Black Is the New White offers a rare glimpse into the man behind the biting social commentary. Mooney's autobiography serves as a testament to his comedic legacy and his lifelong commitment to challenging societal norms and telling the unvarnished truth.
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Closing Thoughts

Paul Mooney's comedic legacy extends to his influence on many contemporary comedians from Louisiana. CJ Landry, a popular comedian known for his Cajun-influenced humor, has cited Mooney as an inspiration. Mooney's fearless approach to addressing race and social issues through comedy paved the way for a new generation of Louisiana comedians like Theo Von and Mark Normand to push boundaries in their own acts.
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His impact can also be seen in the work of Cajun comedian Jonathan Perry, known as "The Cajun Ambassador," who similarly uses humor to highlight his Louisiana roots and culture.
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While these comedians may not directly emulate Mooney's style, his legacy of using comedy as a tool for cultural commentary undoubtedly opened doors for them to speak their truths on stage. As a pioneering Black comedian, writer, and social satirist, Paul Mooney's contributions continue to resonate with funny people from Louisiana and beyond seeking to challenge societal norms through laughter.
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