For fans of the Emmy-award winning series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, on Amazon Prime Video that traces the fictional stand-up comedy career of a former housewife in the 1950s, much of the show’s excitement comes from its colorful portrayals of real-life comedy legends. In the season three finale, viewers are treated to a night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and a performance by none other than “The Funniest Woman in the World,” comedian Moms Mabley (played by Wanda Sykes). Though her contributions to comedy have often been overlooked, Mabley’s career spanned over half a century and actively defied prejudicial societal conventions. The Gift of Laughter, the companion exhibition to So Ready for Laughter: Bob Hope and World War II on view at New-York Historical from February 5, 2021 to September 5, 2021, delves into Mabley’s story.
The precise details of Mabley’s early life are largely shrouded in mystery, complicated by hearsay and rumor. She seldom spoke about her personal life publicly, refusing even to be forthright about her age. What is known, however, is that she was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, in the 1890s. She left home as a young teenager and joined a vaudeville troop that toured the country on the Chitlin’ Circuit—theaters, clubs, speakeasies, and restaurants where Black artists performed for Black audiences. Women working on the Chitlin’ Circuit typically performed as sidekicks or costars to male leads, but Mabley eventually became one of the only female solo acts.
Under the stage name Jackie Mabley, she made her way to New York City in the 1920s and began performing in Harlem’s most popular venues, including the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and Connie’s Inn. In the 1930s, she became the first female comedian to play the Apollo Theater, subsequently becoming one of the venue’s most frequent entertainers. She performed alongside other legendary Black performers like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Drawing on her vaudeville training, Mabley would intermingle singing and dancing with her comedy routine. According to Whoopi Goldberg, who directed a documentary about Mabley in 2013, she may have been the very first stand up comic of any gender.
“That’s it—Mom. M-O-M frontwards, M-O-M backwards, upside down W-O-W, wow.”Moms Mabley, I Like ‘Em Young, 1972
She performed her act under the persona of “Moms,” a character that she first developed in the 1920s. An outspoken granny figure, Moms “schooled” her audience on the facts of life, imparting her wisdom through observational humor and social commentary. Always referring to her audience as “children,” she cultivated a maternal authority that made it socially permissible for her to speak her mind without consequence.
Moms’s onstage outfits were just as outrageous as her comedy. She adopted the look of an eccentric older woman, performing in shapeless housedresses that dramatically clashed with her argyle socks and floppy hat. Her frumpy appearance was calculated to be jarring against her use of sexually explicit jokes, known as “blue humor.” She was notorious for openly discussing her sexual desires in her act, in particular her attraction to young men and revulsion of “old men.” In one of her famous jokes, Moms states, “Moms’s been accused of liking young men, and I’m guilty. Can’t no old men do nothing for me but bring me a message from a young man!” In another bit, she recounts running into an old acquaintance on the street who asks the age of her eldest child. Moms answers “Fifteen.” The friend then asks, “Why, hasn’t your husband been dead twenty years?” To which Moms responds, “He’s dead. I ain’t!” Mabley’s open expression of sexual desire worked to undermine popular culture’s derogatory depiction of middle-aged Black women as asexual mammy figures. Through embracing an elderly and motherly persona, Mabley directly challenged the notion that sexual desire is the sole privilege of men and young, beautiful white women.
But just as Mabley captivated audiences with her warmth and levity, she also used her act to confront racial prejudice. In the early 1960s, Mabley began to gain the attention of white audiences through her popular comedy records as well as her appearances on mainstream television programs such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show. Yet despite her increasing popularity, Mabley did not change her routine for white audiences. She used her stand-up comedy to pointedly critique American politics and expose the underlying absurdity of racial discrimination. In a bit on racial segregation, she told her audience, “I was riding along in my Cadillac, you know, going through one of them little towns in South Carolina. Pass through a red light. One of them big cops come running over to me, say, “Hey woman, don’t you know you went through a red light?’ I say, “Yeah I know I went through a red light.’ “Well, what did you do that for?’ I said, “Because I seen all you white folks going on the green light, I thought the red light was for us!’” Mabley effectively harnessed the power of laughter in ways that resonated with her Black audience and forced her white audience to confront their own prejudice.
Moms Mabley died of a heart attack on May 23, 1975, in White Plains, New York. Though she never experienced the full fame she deserved in her lifetime, she is remembered as a trailblazer, not only helping to create the craft of stand-up comedy but challenging gender stereotypes and racial bigotry as she did so.
Written by Brenann Sutter, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.