Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, exclusively on HBO, celebrates the legacy of the pioneering comedienne. Often referred to as “the funniest woman in the world,” the iconic African-American standup comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley broke racial and sexual boundaries and continues to inspire comedians, to this day. In her directorial film debut, modern-day comedy favorite Whoopi Goldberg pays homage to this pioneering talent while featuring recently unearthed photographs, rediscovered performance footage and interviews with Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Sidney Poitier, Kathy Griffin, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Arsenio Hall, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Whoopi Goldberg talked about what led her to direct this documentary, what it was about Moms Mabley that really spoke to her, why her jokes still hold up today, so many years later, what she would say to Moms Mabley, as far as the impact she had on her life, and being an inspiration herself. She also talked about how she came to be voicing the White Rabbit’s wife for Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, and how she ended up with a role in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: You know, I used to do Moms on stage, and I had made the decision that I was going to do it again. And then, I realized that the last time I said it was 25 years ago. I got all the crazy work that I got and I just never got around to doing it. So, if I was going to do it, it was time to remind people who she was. I started to discover that a lot of young people have no idea who she was, so I thought, “Well, maybe I should make a documentary.” Fool that I am, I thought, “Oh, I know, I’ll just do this.” This is a whole other world. I had no clue what people go through to make a documentary. I flip my dreads to them. Wow! I ended up deciding to do the documentary, so that I could let people know who she was. So, I’m very happy that it came out as well as it did.
Were you shocked that there wasn’t already something done on Moms Mabley, with the influence that she’s clearly had on so many people?
GOLDBERG: No, I’m shocked that I didn’t see it sooner. But, you’re in the middle of your own stuff and you never think, “Oh, hey, what’s happening here?” And then, suddenly you realize that there’s an issue here, and you start to see that this issue exists everywhere, when it comes to these performers. It’s just not there. Eventually, I will try to rectify it and put something together that has a little bit about a lot of performers. But, I’m just happy I got through this one with a couple of dreads left on my head.
What was it about Moms Mabley that really spoke to you and caught your attention, when you first saw her do her thing?
GOLDBERG: When I was a kid, just visually, look at her. Nobody else looked like that. And she didn’t have any teeth. She was cool and she was funny, and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is fantastic!” That’s what it was. She was the funniest thing out there, not just because of how she looked, but the way she told her jokes. Her jokes are flawless, and that’s why they work today.
It’s amazing that they still hold up today, so many years later.
GOLDBERG: My biggest fear was that I would be wrong about what I was hearing, and that, in fact, I was projecting and they didn’t work. And then, when we premiered it at Tribeca, people fell out. They were having a great time, and I was so pleased. The material is older than I am, so you go, “Wow, how come this holds up? What can I do? What can any of us do? As comics, what can we take from this?” Well, great material never dies, and that’s great material.
Is that why you’ve been talking about doing a one woman show on Broadway with her material again?
GOLDBERG: No. She’s always made me laugh. The show that I did a thousand years ago, I felt would be a lot of fun for me to do. I love being an actor. There’s nothing better than acting with brilliant stuff, and her material is brilliant. So, I just thought that I’d go back to the stage. I do television. I’ll go do the stage. I’ll produce something. I just need to keep myself interested and bring things that maybe people don’t know about, so that I’m not bored. Who wants to see the same old thing? Well, some people do, but I don’t.
Now that you’re at a point where you don’t have to work anymore, it must be more important to have some fun with what you choose to do.
GOLDBERG: Well, here’s the thing, I will have to work for the rest of my life. I married often, but never particularly well. I will always have to create that which I’m interested. I’m a little bit older than I was. I’m still fun and silly, and all the things that I love being. But, the reality is that they don’t make movies the same way they used to, and they don’t pay the way they used to. You have to have a lot of stuff going on. You’re the only person taking care of business. In the world I live with, I take care of everything. I have a company. It’s just nuts. If you want to have some say, you always want to be able to at least put something in, so that you’re not left with nothing. It’s taken 20 years for me to learn that.
This film states that, in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. If you had the opportunity to talk to Moms Mabley, what would you say to her, as far as the impact she had on your life and how she affected you?
GOLDBERG: I would simply tell her, “Listen, a lot of people are going to be really mad when they realize that I’m part of your legacy. I can direct people to come to you when they’re pissed at me.” To discover that Sidney Poitier was impacted, and to discover that Kathy Griffin was impacted, and that she affected all those different people, from different walks of life, they were all pulled into her because she was as good as she was. That’s what you want to tell her. I’d say, “Thank you.” How can we affect young people now, to wake them up? They don’t have the same opportunities. Kathy Griffin and I could see the same television show. She could watch The Ed Sullivan Show, and I could watch The Ed Sullivan Show. There was a comic on, and there was a guy that spun plates, and there was The Beatles, and there were the June Taylor Dancers. There was a variety to choose from, and you could reach people through that. Now, you don’t really have that. You have these shows with people who haven’t done it before, and who are new and up-and-coming, but there’s no place for veterans to go perform. There’s no way for you to see someone who does something that you think you might want to do, and do it well. There’s not a variety. There are no choices for folks. If you’re watching the Comedy Channel, you’re watching that comedy. That’s what you’ve got. There’s not an array.
When I was a kid, there used to be a guy who drew two dots and lips on his hand and he would clip on a body, and the hand puppet was called Johnny. Where are those guys? Someone is doing it, so where is that guy? Not the guys on America’s Got Talent, but where are the guys who have made it magnificent and brought it to the art form that it is. That’s what I miss. I miss stupid transistor radios that forced your ear not only to hear Motown and The Beatles, but forced you to hear Andy Williams and Johnny Cash. You were at least aware of all the music that was out there, except for classical. You didn’t hear that with rock. So for me, it’s a reminder for people who remember and an introduction for people who don’t know. They can see and watch a woman like Moms roll out a joke. When she was sitting with Merv Griffin, you think she’s just this little old lady, getting ready to tell a story, and you don’t see it coming. The audience lost their mind because nobody saw it coming. That is brilliant!
How did you end up voicing the White Rabbit’s wife for Once Upon A Time in Wonderland?
GOLDBERG: I like the show and I was so honored that they said, “Will you come do this?” I was like, “Yeah!” It’s right up my alley. Anything with sci-fi or horror, I’m there. And how odd will it be that I’m the female White Rabbit.
Did you get involved with the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie because of the whole fantasy aspect of it?
GOLDBERG: I have a grown daughter, and all through my career, she has always said, “Why can’t you be in a Ninja Turtles movie? Why can’t you do a voice or something? Please!” Now, she’s got three grown kids and I’ve got three grown grandkids. I happened to meet up with the folks that were doing it at Paramount, and I said, “Look, if there’s anything in there, would you let me come and play?” Everybody always says, “Oh, sure!,” but very few people follow through. But, these guys followed through, and I had the greatest time. This is the stuff I love! Even my grandkids were like, “Granny, that’s really cool. That’s very hip.” One of them is in their 20s, one is 18 and one is 15, and they’re like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. Go ahead, granny!” Things that I enjoyed and that I know that they like, if I can get in there, I will. There are just so many things to do now, which is great. Whether it’s going out in space with Star Trek, or doing a voice for the White Rabbit as a black woman, life is good.
With all the things that you’ve accomplished and achieved in your career, do you think about the fact that there are people who look at you and are impacted by you and your contributions in the world, and that you could be affecting people in the same way that Moms Mabley affected you?
GOLDBERG: Yes, and it’s very weird. If it makes somebody or something better, I can take it. I just can’t take hearing it. I’m really messed up. There are people who are more messed up, but I’m really flawed and my flaws are really clear. As long as people know that at the next moment, I could step in some poo, it’s cool.
Well, that’s what makes it real and human, and that’s what people relate to.
GOLDBERG: I like that. Human is everything.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley debuts on HBO on November 18th.