Paul Mooney is old school. And I don't mean that just in terms of comedy.
Sure, he was Richard Pryor's longtime co-writer and collaborators. Long before and long after, Mooney has been a fixture in comedy. He's seen 'em come and go, and acts with the easy coolness of a man who's stared into the sun.
Mooney doesn't do interviews so much as simply talk. He doesn't have a publicist. Instead, his manager said, "oh yeah, Paul would love to talk to you," before handing me his phone number. Call anytime. At first, on the Freeway in L.A., he was preoccupied.
I caught up with him later, by phone from a hotel room in New York. Later that night he would play Carolines. We talked about what makes a comic, today's state of the art, Pryor, Chappelle, and much more.
Today through Saturday, Mooney is at Helium. Schedule and Tickets available here. Now, on to our conversation:
TONRY: You've been behind the scenes as much as you've been onstage. I imagine you're not the kind of comic who needs to be onstage all the time?
MOONEY: I wear different hats. I'm an artist. When I wear a hat of writing, I wear that hat. When I wear the hat of performing, I wear that hat. If I direct, if I act, as an artist, I just do it.
I'm comfortable while I'm in it. I like what I do, so it's comfortable. It's no big deal to me.
You came up in the golden age of comedy—especially Black comedy. I imagine there were highs—things like working with Richard—that are tough to match. What keeps you hungry?
It's not being hungry. It's what I do. I'm an artist. It's what I do. I'm very blessed because I like what I do. I love what I do.
It's a creative thing. It's not the money. It's not the fame. It's not any of that. I'm an artist and I do what I do. Whether they paid me or didn't pay me I would still do what I do. It's in the blood. It's in the marrow.
What has changed over the years? Have there been styles in comedy that you've had to adapt to or, on the other hand, fads you've chosen to stay away from?
Comedians nowadays, they're like a herd of elephants.
How do you mean?
You haven't seen a herd of elephants? There are elephants everywhere. You've seen one before. They're everywhere. They're all over the place. That's what's changed. Before you could count them on your toes and fingers. Now you can't.
Why is that?
I think it's the money and the fame and the other things that attract them. These people are not artists. They're not creative people. They have ulterior motives.
In that case, earlier in your career, was there more of a political draw for comedians? More than just to make people laugh but the idea that everyone has something to say?
I think people did it because it was something they chose to do. For a lot of 'em, it was just something that happened—you just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Back in the day a comedian could dance, sing, act—they could do everything. Like Uncle Milty. They could do everything. They didn't just do one thing. They could do it all.
There's a stereotype that comedians come from dark places. And that comedy is used as a coping mechanism. Do you find that to be true in your work?
I think it is for some people. It's not for everybody. But some people are just born to be comics. Some people, it's just in their marrow. They're a comedian wherever they go. That's part of them. You can't stop 'em from being what they are. They're just going to be there.
It's weird. Some woman are sexy and some aren't, you know? Whatever their it-factor is, some people have that. Some people are special and they break the mold and once it happens it'll never happen again.
Who do you feel like is doing that today? Are there comedians currently breaking the mold?
Not really. I think they're all copycats. I just think that they all are. It's weird.
The originals, from Moms Mabely to George Carlin to Richard Pryor to Sam Kinison to Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock—I've worked with the best. I've worked with all of 'em, from the old school to the new school. I know my profession. I know it well. It's not like I read about it.
It's one thing for you to talk about Martin Luther King. It's another thing to meet Martin Luther King. It's one thing to talk about Malcolm X. It's another thing to meet him. You can talk about it, live through it vicariously. But to know these people, to see or be in their presence, it's a whole different thing. It's just weird, that's all.
So, then, when you're out in comedy clubs in a place like New York, are young comics anxious to talk to you, trying to get as much information as they can?
They drive me out of my mind. If I had a dollar for every time some young comic got in my face I'd be richer than Trump. It just goes on 24 hours. They have a hunger for it.
The TV and the movies and all that stuff, they seduce people. It's like the carrot before the horse. They're chasing the carrot. It's just weird.
Do you feel any inclination to mentor them? Or just to talk? Or does it become too much over time?
I try to give them advice. I try to give 'em some knowledge about it. They talk stupid about it. I can always tell when they're really sincere about what they do or if they have some ulterior motives.
They really don't want to be—they learn to be stand ups. They're not really a stand up. They're not really a comedian. They're not really an artist. They do it cause they want to get the attention so they can do movies. They don't really like doing stand up.
The person who likes doing stand up—like Chapelle, that's all he does is works clubs. When it's who they are and what they are they're going to find an audience.
I just interviewed a young comedian, Kyle Kinane, and he told me he had no interested in being in movies. He said, "All I want to do is stand up." And I did think that was nice to hear and kind of rare.
That's good. I'm glad to hear someone said that. Then he's an artist—a pure artist.
So to you, in what makes a stand up, it doesn't so much matter what they're saying necessarily, but the manner in which they do it? It's not about content?
You've got to find out why they're doing it.
Listen—if they truly love it, they give up everything for it. They'll give everything up for it—family, friends. They have to do it. They'll leave their home town, they'll leave their security because they have to do it. It's who they are. You understand? It's already a done deal. They're going to do it.
What did it cost you?
I was blessed. I've known it since I was five years old. I already knew it. I knew about comedy. I knew about timing. I knew what my destiny was. I knew what I was going to do. When I was growing up I told 'em all the time—you're getting jokes for free. Someday you'll have to pay. (chuckles) I'm serious. You're getting it for free. Enjoy it. But there'll come a time, when you're gonna have to pay.
I've always thought of comedic timing as similar to a musical ear, or having good pitch, in that it's something inherent, and inside people. Something they're born with. Or born without.
It's like playing by ear, you know, the piano. It's what you just said. It is like that. That's a good analogy. It is like that.
And there's an inner voice that speaks to you.
Over the years you've had a lot to say, politically. Is there anything that strikes out at you that you feel like came true or, on the other hand, anything you regret?
That I regret? If I had to do it all over again I would do it the same way. If I saw the movie of me, up 'till now, I'd go back and do it the same way.
Listen—it's the way it's meant to be. It's the way it is. God gave me the strength to understand the things I can do and gave me the strength to understand what I can't change. You do what you do, and the rest of it, it takes on its own life. You can sit and dream all you want to but the dream will take its own life on.
Like I'm talking to you now. Tomorrow the phone will wring and something else will change. Do you understand? Today won't be like today. Tomorrow never comes, really. It's always today.
You seem very grounded in it all. Accepting. You also said you wanted to do this since you were five-years-old. I wonder if there were ever really trying, difficult times where you had to really put up or shut up? Or any times that you doubted yourself?
No. I always knew.
That's pretty fortunate, I think.
It's like, there's an inner voice and an inner feeling that tells you what you're doing and what you should do at gut level. Certain moves that you make, you can make 'em wrong or you can make 'em right. But it's always the way it should be if you go with it honestly. If your feelings are honest it's never wrong.
I want to talk about Rich for a minute. Is there anyone that's influenced you more in your career than Richard?
The experience with Richard has been the heaviest influence in my life. My grandmother too, but Richard, creatively. I learned a lot from him and he learned a lot from me. I would never change that.
What did he teach you?
The art of comedy. The art of partnership. The are of working together. The art of creating. The art of having that insight about the future.
The stuff that we did—you've seen the shows and all that—but for the large collars and stuff, you wouldn't know it's the 70's. It still works.
You spoke earlier about really knowing these people, and I wonder what we the public miss about people like Richard? What have we overlooked in Richard?
Richard was an introvert. He wasn't a people person. Neither is Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy is an introvert. He's not a people person. They're good actors. That's not who they are.
What do you think Richard would've thought about seeing a black president?
We already knew that was gonna happen. That sketch that he and I wrote when he's the black president, it's uncanny. It's very scary.
It's eerie. It really is. It's eerie. The questions that they were asking that we wrote then, it's like what they ask Obama now.
In that same political way, what issues are most interesting to you now?
The most disturbing is the war. We're at war. All those men and women that are over there, that's disturbing. They're losing their lives in this bullshit war. It really is.
Is that something you're addressing in your work?
Of course. I'll address anything that's on the front page. If it's on the front page, it's in my act.
How much have you been performing in the last few years? Are you up there most weekends?
Every week. Sometimes I'm off on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But then I get a phone call and they want me to do something. The phone rings all the time.
Your work with "Chappelle's Show" put you on the map to a younger generation. Is it strange to you that you might be known best to white college kids now?
No. That's not strange. That was gonna happen regardless with Chappelle's Show. Youth has always been into me. I mean, if I could tell you how many rappers, how many young people, sound bite of my albums and put me on their thing. It's too funny.
What do you think made Chappelle's show such a force? A cultural moment?
It was across the board. It was a true American show. It was like, America's a melting pot, and it was truly a melting pot. And the subject matter, with race and the matter, it was on the edge. It was very reliable. The youth really like it.
It seems like Tyler Perry might be the biggest black comedian working today. What do you make of his success?
I'm not a Tyler Perry fan. I'm not a fan. I'm thinking of my kids, for the future, and I don't like the kinds of things they put out. I don't like it. It's too dangerous.
When black people do movies in America they have to be very careful because when it leaves the country it becomes a documentary. People outside of America actually think black people are like that. They really do. If you leave this country, the way they treat you and talk to you, you realize that's what they think. They know that white people are not superman. They know they're acting. If you had a black superman and I would go to Germany or Sweden and the planes were flying, they'd say 'you can fly home, I saw you do it in the movies.' And that's for real. They really believe that.
Have you ever had an opportunity to talk to him about it?
To talk to him? I talk about it a lot on stage. I've never met him. That stuff is dangerous. That "Precious" crap is dangerous. All this stuff is dangerous for black people. I don't like it.
I'm not talking about now, I'm talking about ten years from now. I want to protect my kids, my grandkids. I'm thinking of the future.
Has Barack Obama's election made people relax about race in this country, feeling maybe like they've made more progress than they have?
It made it worse. White people were nice until Obama got into office. That's when they got crazy. They're crazy now. It's a sickness. They've got the flu. Things that come out of white people's mouths, it's crazy. And black people too, are just insane. When it comes to Obama, the things that come out of their mouthes are scary.
In the political arena, they have no respect. That stupid woman from Alaska. That idiot that said 'Obama let America down.' They're idiots.
White people were a lot nicer before he got into office. I guess they just hid their feelings. Their feelings are not hidden now. They're open with it. They get crazy. It's the idea of Obama being in that office that's driving people crazy.
I don't have to tell you. You hear the things that they say. You hear the conversations. The things they say, it's fucking scary. He's the President of the United States. It's scary what comes out of their mouthes. Let me see your birth certificate and all this other crazy shit. It's too much. 'I want my country back'? Please. It's disgusting. That man ain't been in office five minutes.
I was watching a couple of episodes of Sanford and Son, which I believe you wrote for, and I felt like—now, I don't know if it was just his look—but the actor who played Lamont seemed to share some mannerisms and style with rich. Is that just me?
Oh, of course. He's an actor. He wasn't a stand up so of course he's going to steal and do some of Richard's stuff. He grew up on Richard Pryor. You're absolutely right about that.
Now, you're often associated with Rich and Chappelle and Red and all these guys. With all these associations, what do we miss about Paul Mooney? What are we leaving out when we think of you only in terms of the company you kept?
Read my book, 'Black is the New White,' and you'll understand everything. It's a done deal.
My whole thing, if I drop dead tonight, it's done. I've got those videos and tapes out—Race is out, and Master Piece, Analyzing White America Know Your History: (Jesus Is Black; So Was Cleopatra) it's done.
Now, you mentioned that as an artist you'll always be performing or working in some way or another, I wonder if there's any particular projects you want to take on, or new things you want to try out?
I'm doing what I do best, and that's making people laugh.
There’s no particular thing?
I'm making people laugh. Laughter is a cure-all. When people laugh it's a blessing. It's the way it should be. I'm where I'm supposed to be.
And that's tonight at Caroline’s?
Yeah (laughs). And next week I'll be there where you are. It's where I'm supposed to be.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!