Saturday, April 29, 2017

What Has Become of the Great Paul Mooney?

vulture |  In his youth, Paul Mooney was a dancer. And you can see it, too, in vintage clips from the ’80s, in the lithe, graceful way he carried himself onstage during his comedy sets. Even as he entered middle age and beyond, and even after he took to performing while seated, Mooney had a dignified, almost regal bearing — no matter that he was, as always, laying waste to any notions of political correctness or politesse. “Kill every white person on this planet,” he said bluntly in his 2012 special, The Godfather of Comedy. “To end racism, that’s the only way.”

Today, that dancer’s elegance is almost entirely gone, replaced by a slumped and diminished figure with a rambling, uncertain delivery. The 74-year-old is still touring, though whether he should be is an open question. It’s a troubling state in which to witness one of the most important and underappreciated comics of the past half-century. And that’s exactly what Paul Mooney is. He was Richard Pryor’s writing partner and best friend. He’s worked with Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Dave Chappelle. A comedian’s comedian, he was known to command the stage at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood for hours, riffing acidly on show business, politics, and, especially, the ugly state of America’s race relations. Slavery, lynchings, riots — these weren’t isolated sins, they were the country’s foundation, and somehow Mooney made it funny. Filmmaker Robert Townsend, who cast Mooney in his satirical 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle, says, “Paul didn’t care to be loved. He wanted to speak his mind. He taught a generation of comedians to be fearless.”

Now, though, Mooney’s legacy is in danger of being sullied by an increasingly disheartening series of appearances. Last May, he delivered a rambling performance on Arsenio Hall’s since-canceled talk show. A week after it aired, news outlets reported that Mooney had cancer, citing his cousin and sometime manager Rudy Ealy as the source of the info. I asked Ealy, who I’d been told lives with Mooney in Oakland, if Mooney was ill; he said Mooney was “fine.” (Despite agreeing to let me interview Mooney and inviting me to Oakland to do so, Ealy stopped returning my calls once I arrived in the Bay Area.)

Helene Shaw, who was Mooney’s manager for more than 30 years, has a different view. “Those people around him right now,” she says incredulously, “are going to put this man onstage?” She says Mooney was living in Los Angeles until about two years ago, when he fell ill during a trip to Oakland. “Rudy’s just been around because Paul happened to get sick up in Oakland. He just grabbed him. When he was in his right mind, Paul hated Rudy.”

All this uncertainty is especially jarring given the man it surrounds. Paul Mooney has built, and occasionally undermined, a career by boldly delivering his version of the truth. “They said, ‘Paul, why don’t you sugarcoat?’ ” he snapped at imaginary critics during one of his routines. “I ain’t sugarcoating shit … because white folks didn’t sugarcoat shit to me.”

Many of Mooney’s bits don’t read like jokes. His comedy is more like a challenge: Can you take me seriously? Can you not? Laugh, or you’ll cry. As Mooney’s daughter Spring puts it, “There is no lukewarm.” And that applies to his relationships, too. Comedy Store veteran and Roseanne executive producer Allan Stephan says, “Paul is a very gentle, sweet man. I have nothing bad to say about him.” Jennifer Pryor, Richard’s widow, who has known Mooney since 1977, sees him differently: “I don’t have anything nice to say about the asshole.”