We continue this week of Black Comedians with trailblazer Moms Mabley
Jackie “Moms” Mabley (March 19, 1894 – May 23, 1975), born Loretta Mary Aiken, was an American standup comedian. A veteran of the Chitlin’ circuit of African-American vaudeville, she later appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
She took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend, commenting to Ebony in a 1970s interview that he’d taken so much from her, it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as “Moms” because she was indeed a “Mom” to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. She came out as a lesbian at the age of twenty-seven, becoming one of the first triple-X rated comedians on the comedy circuit.
During the 1920s and 1930s she appeared in androgynous clothing (as she did in the film version of The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson) and recorded several of her early “lesbian stand-up” routines. Mabley was one of the top women doing stand-up in her heyday, eventually recording more than 20 albums of comedy routines. She appeared in movies, on television, and in clubs.
Mabley was one of the most successful entertainers of the Chitlin’ circuit, earning US$10,000 a week at Harlem’s Apollo Theater at the height of her career. She made her New York City debut at Connie’s Inn in Harlem. In the 1960s, she became known to a wider white audience, playing Carnegie Hall in 1962, and making a number of mainstream TV appearances, particularly her multiple appearances on the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour when that CBS show was number one on television in the late 1960s, which introduced her to a whole new Boomer audience.
Mabley was billed as “The Funniest Woman in the World”. She tackled topics too edgy for many other comics of the time, including racism. One of her regular themes was a romantic interest in handsome young men rather than old “washed-up geezers,” and she got away with it courtesy of her stage persona, where she appeared as a toothless, bedraggled woman in a house dress and floppy hat. She also added the occasional satirical song to her jokes, and her cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John” hit #35 on the Hot 100 on 19 July 1969. At 75 years old, Moms Mabley became the oldest person ever to have a US Top 40 hit.
Mabley had six children: Bonnie, Christine, Charles, and Yvonne Ailey, and two given up for adoption when she was a teenager. She died from heart failure in White Plains, New York on May 23, 1975. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.