DOCUMENTARY "Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley"
WHEN | WHERE Premieres Monday night at 9 on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT She said it with no teeth. An old black woman. Wearing a dowdy housecoat. With a frumpy hat on her head. From the '20s to the '60s. Did you know she was gay?
And "the funniest woman in the world"? Maybe the funniest person. That's what some would argue. Here they are, in host-director Whoopi Goldberg's rich tribute to comic Jackie "Moms" Mabley, born poor in 1894 in North Carolina, eventually to star, before her 1975 death, on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," whence comes the "funniest woman" line. There isn't much footage of Moms -- few cameras on the mid-20th century "chitlin' circuit" of black vaudeville houses -- but whoa, are there memories.
Whoopi has some. She once played Moms onstage, with her slouchy, offhand manner, growling what others couldn't say, because an old black toothless woman seemed so, well, toothless. Ha! Listen to next- generation comics Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara recall her bite. Then Joan Rivers, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby. Down the line, it's Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, who nails Moms as a "wordsmith . . . hiding how bright she was and sneaking a message in the door." There's Moms on Merv Griffin's talk show, saying how folks in the South mistook her for Roy Rogers' horse, Trigger: "At least I think that's what they callin' me]."
MY SAY You gotta love those rumbly Moms impressions from Kaye Ballard, Dick Cavett, Robert Klein, Kathy Griffin. Lord, the affection here. It's about to float us away.
From the full title -- "Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley" -- you might fear a vanity project. But Goldberg has done a glorious job. Her succinct 70 minutes cover Moms, the chitlin' circuit, black culture's mainstream move, the civil rights fight, the counterculture, lesbian life and more, with little source material. The documentary cannily employs Goldberg's enthusiasm and some clever animations over Moms' audio routines to keep this lost legend's influence in the forefront.
BOTTOM LINE The depth resonates. More Moms!