Paul Mooney – who, over the past several years, in a slight surprise even to me, has become something like my favorite comedian – has a bit, in the early moments of his 2012 special The Godfather of Comedy, that begins almost plaintively:
White folks, we don’t try to take nothing of yours. Why do they try to take our stuff?
We don’t try to take nothing. We didn’t try to take Elvis. We didn’t try to take Joan of Arc. We didn’t try to take Helen of Troy…We don’t try to take their shit! They always trying to take our shit, then recycle it and say it’s theirs.
American Idol: it’s so English, it’s so brilliant.
American Idol is the Apollo with white judges! Keep this shit real!
As a name for the genre, “stand-up” is of course a misleading bit of abbreviation: the truth in practice is that there are sitters-down as well as standers-up, and it’s fair, I think, to read a subtle symbolism into the difference between the two postures. Because, let’s face it, there’s more than a hint of desperation on the standing side of things: that whole shtick with the guy from out of town alone onstage with a mic and a stand, a stool and a bottle of water, sweating his way toward whichever laugh it is that reveals itself first. So I’ve always admired the sitters for what reads as an indifference towards the audience, a nonchalance verging on benevolent contempt.
Mooney is a sitter.
For the entirety of The Godfather of Comedy’s 80-some-odd minutes, Mooney – whose most lasting legacy will probably be the hundreds of jokes he wrote for Richard Pryor – is perched atop an upholstered barstool. He’s dressed in a pimp’s (or gangster’s, or deacon’s, or funeral-going uncle’s) wide pinstripes, shiny shoes, and sparkling jewelry. Behind him is a pretty startlingly tacky office setup – random fern, brick wall painted olive, huge framed portrait of none other than himself.
The problem, if you want to use gentrification as a metaphor for cultural encroachment, and have that metaphor amount to something more than cutely cutting, is arriving at a definition of the stakes involved. Neighborhood change makes a blunt, almost martial, sense: if this city block, or that building, or the other apartment now belongs to me, it can’t possibly also belong to you – no matter what forces, what history delivered it into my hands. Beautifully, starkly zero-sum.
But culture’s slipperier. Because music and mannerisms and foodways, etc. aren’t items, aren’t tangible, at least in the territorial sense, it might seem reasonable to offer a Gallic shrug when these things begin slowly to change hands. No harm, no foul.
Earlier this year, in the Daily Beast, the writer and linguist John McWhorter set out an argument along these lines. “All we need to know,” he writes, “is that we will never arrest [cultural ‘cross-fertilization’], and that a stipulation that brown people in America must be shielded from it will serve no purpose except to provide people with something to be upset about. It will keep happening.”
I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone asking to be “shielded” from anything – and such a request, at this late date, would be a special brand of absurdity, what with, I dunno, the preexistence of blues-based rock-and-roll, and just about every important item of popular culture over the past two decades or so, and a curious new interest in the once-lowly collard green. No, what I think I hope for is something subtler – something closer to attribution. What I worry about, to the extent I worry, is the process by which things – some things – find themselves forgotten.
It’s a surprise, as I called it before, my late-onset Mooney-mania, because for a long time my tastes in what might reductively be called “racial” comedy (more precisely: comedy performed by Black people with various-sized axes to grind) tended toward the cerebral, the roundabout, the indirect. The occasional. Stuff that made White People laugh, too. There’s something about, say, Chris Rock – who, by the way, despite the fame of his riffs on race, really spends only about a quarter of his time on the subject – that allows him to glide this close to giving true, irretrievable offense via one barb or another, then boomerang back toward safety. Crossover appeal, I guess this is called. Something in the smile.
That tiptoe takes genius, of course, but like many other forms of Black artistry, it comes out of a tragic necessity – for evasion, for barely visible subversion. And, looking back, it’s obvious to me that my enjoyment of it was, and still is, a response to a parallel effort in my own life.
It occurs to me that I, too, am a kind of crossover artist: A crossover artist of daily life.
Like most people, I spent my younger years surrounded by people who looked more or less like me. I was aware of a wider, mostly white America – impossible not to, given TV – but wasn’t baptized into it until the age of twelve or so. The encounter came in waves, two of which feel particularly important. The first was my eighth grade arrival at a leafy prep-school campus atop a hill in the Bronx. The second came almost a year later, when for the first time I spent the entire summer away from the city, at a camp in rural New Hampshire.
Camp was everything you remember, if you’ve been, and everything you’ve probably seen on TV, or imagined, if you haven’t – C-stroke practice on the lake by day; fires and innumerable stars by night. Dance parties with the girls’ camp next door that doubled as initial encounters with sexual exasperation, soundtracked by such period pieces as Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”
It strikes me now, looking back, that there was also an incredible amount of time for just sort of sitting around and shit-shooting, and, as status-panicked boys of a certain age will do, we filled this time with constant attempts to make each other laugh. Back then, my major comedic influence was the cartoonish, white-hating patter of the robed Black Israelites who in the 90s seemed to inhabit every street corner in Harlem. It’s hard to articulate what about their sermons I found so funny, but I remember feeling an attraction to their certainty – in a world already, and increasingly, incomprehensible to me – about the truth that lay behind things. Race, and racism, were everywhere for them – you could find it in the Bible, at the movies, even in your own race-betraying mind, if you weren’t careful. And, most importantly, they seemed to know why it mattered. They were sure up there on their crusty milk crates, imperturbably and blessedly sure, and sure people of all kinds crack me up, even as I envy them somewhat.
All this to say that my go-to bit during downtimes at camp was a character styled after the Israelites. Truly hacky stuff – you know: Why’s-a-WHITE-lie-the-kind-that-doesn’t-get-you-in-trouble-you-ever-think-about-that-HUH? Material with that level of edge. But these kids – raised in patrician outposts like Darien, Connecticut, with a certain politeness about race – hadn’t ever heard anything like it. It got laughs, so I kept it up.
One day (it’s only barely interesting to note that it was around noon, and that we’d just finished playing basketball, and that the tremendous heat and stillness of the day had line-dried our shirt-sweat stiff – these are the background details to literally every memory I have of camp; it can’t have always been that way) I was testing out a new riff, definitely stolen from somewhere, about the hidden symbolism in various parlor games.
And have you noticed, I was saying, that, in pool, the final conquest is when the WHITE ball knocks the BLACK ball off the face of the green earth?! Something like that.
I hadn’t noticed that the camp’s director, a basically nice guy named Bill, had been approaching our little cluster from behind. When I finally noticed him, he was right next to me, laughing and patting me on the shoulder.
“Funny stuff, Cunningham,” he said after a beat. “But did you ever think about how the black man treats the black woman? Ever think about that? Might be a little more important than the pool thing.”
He looked at me, laughed again, walked away.
This may or may not have been a lesson about comedy.
Can I be honest?
I had a very hard time writing the introductory paragraph for this column. That italicized bit toward the top of the page, the one that refers to me in the third person twice?
The part about artful, often barely perceptible thefts from black people…it struck me as a little too militant. Bit hostile. I imagined myself transforming, in the imaginations of my White friends, into a latter-day Stokely Carmichael. I wanted other options.
After spending too long trying to avoid the phrase and finally coming up short, I sent the paragraph to my editor, then immediately forwarded it to my girlfriend.
Hey, sent this intro, the email reads. Does it sound angry? Lol. I want an ironic tone, but can’t tell if it’s making its way through.
Where Rock’s wordless weapon is the smile, Mooney’s is a kind of snarl. He prefers a stomp to a tiptoe every time. If you, like I, worry fairly often about how you “sound,” if you hear Eric Holder describing a “nation of cowards” and consider yourself a citizen, Mooney’ll embarrass you a time or two. He’ll make you feel like the chump you sometimes are. He is nothing if not unafraid, and you, like I, probably know that you can’t say that about yourself. Not yet, not close.
This is not to say that Mooney is invincible: to the contrary, I sometimes sense a woundedness in his act. You can tell that he’s genuinely bewildered by the way the world has turned out to be. Some of the jokes, like this next one, sound like the simplest case of hurt feelings:
And white folk, you got to explain this to me: How come what’s on us is ugly, but when it’s on you, it’s cute?!
… Look at your black skin – beautiful black skin!
On you: “You ole black thing.”
On the white lady: “Your tan is gorgeous!”…
Am I making this shit up? Ugly on us, cute on them!
Paul Mooney’s from that older class of comedian with fewer, if any, compunctions about repeating material. So I’ve heard this koan of his ten times if I’ve heard it once:
The black man is the most copied man on this planet. Everybody wanna be a nigger but nobody wanna be a nigger.
The first time I heard it was probably on the little TV in my college residence hall’s common room, during Chappelle Show’s first season. Mooney periodically offered his negritude as a service for the show’s “Ask a Black Dude” segment, and in this case he happened to be referring to the inevitability of white men adopting the shaved heads that, well, black dudes made so popular.
I listened to it again last Tuesday, the day after a St. Louis County grand jury released its decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who in August shot and killed a black boy named Michael Brown.
Mooney’s jokes work because they aren’t really jokes, and for the first time I truly understood this one. Understood what it meant about life, death, and the difference between thin admiration and a fully acknowledged humanity.
This is a joke about the stakes.
It also happens to be hilarious, and on Tuesday I found it funnier than ever before. I played the line back again and again, laughing louder each time.
I met Paul Mooney once, by accident.
This was 2007, and I was a lowest-rung fundraising staffer in New York for the first Obama campaign. The then-Senator was in town for a high-priced event called “Barack on Broadway” – self-explanatory for our purposes – and I was outside, right in front of the New Amsterdam theatre in Times Square, checking in guests as they arrived.
The way I remember it, the day is purpling toward a warm night, and I’m happy because I feel close to the center of things in a way that only a twenty-two year old can pull off, and at some point here comes Mooney walking west from Seventh Avenue. He’s my height, maybe, so a little shorter than I’d expected, and on his head is a black handkerchief pulled tight from the nape of his neck.
My mouth must be open; there must be some outward sign of recognition, because he walks directly toward me, offers a hand, starts speaking as if he knows me.
“You work for ‘Bama, huh?”
I nod yes.
“Huh. I don’t know if they’re gonna let him win, man – but if they do, they’re gonna take him from us. Watch and see.”
The glint in his eye tells me he’s going into material. I don’t find out I’m right until years later.
“We liked Lionel Richie – they took him.”
“Liked Tina Turner – took her.”
“We liked OJ – they took him. But they gave his ass right back, didn’t they?”
“Just watch. When Obama started out he was just “that nigger over there.” Now he’s “biracial,” “multiracial,” whatever you call it. By time he gets in that Oval Office, he’ll be white as snow. Watch and see.”
With this, before I’m able to stop laughing, Paul Mooney rasps out an abrupt Alright, brother, straightens the kerchief, and keeps on walking past me, toward Eighth.
Paul Mooney’s The Godfather of Comedy
Mooney’s (very fun) memoir, Black is the New White
John McWhorter’s “You Can’t ‘Steal’ a Culture”