The Week (US)

The fearless comic who smashed racial taboos

Paul Mooney 1941–2021


Paul Mooney delighted in making white people uncomforta­ble. A barrier-breaking Black comic, writer, and actor, he first made his mark as Richard Pryor’s writing partner, scripting some of the comedian’s most blistering material. The duo worked together on comedy LPs, movies, TV specials, and Saturday Night Live, which Pryor agreed to host in 1975 only after securing Mooney a guest-writer spot. In that episode’s highlight, Chevy Chase interviews Pryor for a janitorial position and the ensuing wordassoci­ation test rapidly descends into an exchange of racial insults. Mooney won a new generation of fans as a writer on the 1990s sketch show In Living Color—his creations included the militant kids’ entertaine­r Homey D. Clown—and with his portrayal of the all-seeing Negrodamus on Dave Chappelle’s show a decade later. “My comedy,” he said, “is a nuclear bomb inside my mind.” Born to teenage parents in Shreveport, La., Mooney was “raised mainly by his grandmothe­r,” said The Washington Post. At age 7, he moved with his family to Oakland, and then to Berkeley, where Mooney experience­d what he described as his

“watershed ‘n-----’ moment.” One day in high school, Mooney accidental­ly knocked a white classmate’s bag onto the floor. “Pick up my purse, n-----!” she demanded before slapping his face. He grabbed her by the hair and was sent to the principal’s office and then to the police station. Following a stint in Germany with the Army, Mooney performed in improv groups and worked as ringmaster for the Gatti-Charles Circus. He first met Pryor in 1968 when the comedian showed up at a party at his Los Angeles apartment “and suggested an orgy,” said the Associated Press. “Mooney threw him out.” Despite their contrastin­g personalit­ies—Pryor was a self-loathing drug addict, Mooney a hardworkin­g teetotaler—the pair soon bonded over jokes and their detestatio­n of Hollywood’s white power structure, said The New York Times. “Mooney’s bluntness got him into trouble at times,” as when he joked in a 2012 comedy special that the only way to end racism was to “kill every white person.” Mooney rarely self-censored. “Maybe it’s my arrogance or my self-assurance,” he said, but “whatever that thing is that white people like in Blacks, I don’t have it.”

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