March 9th, 2017 – Jackie “Moms” Mabley isn’t a name you hear too often, and it wasn’t even a name the trailblazing comedian was given at birth. Born Loretta Mary Aiken, “Moms” is often referred to as the first female standup comedian who tackled controversial issues long before many other female comics were given stage time.
After leaving her home state of North Carolina at the age of 14, Mabley performed in T.O.B.A. (Theater Owners Booking Association – an African-American vaudeville circuit) where she briefly dated a man who would give her a stage name. “Moms” would come later as she became a mother figure to fellow comics.
“Jack was my first boyfriend,” Mabley told Ebony in 1974. “I was real uptight with him and he certainly was real uptight with me; you’d better believe. He took a lot off me and the least I could do was take his name.”
Historians of comedy regularly applaud her for addressing material that was often deemed too edgy for mainstream audiences. She bucked the social norm by often wearing androgynous clothing and coming out to her fellow comedians. Moms hit the stage as the first woman comedian to be featured at the Apollo – often donning a housedress, gummy teeth and a floppy hat as she played the part of an old lady lusting after young men and providing social satire to racial bigotry.
Mel Watkins, author of On The Real Side, appeared on CNN’s The History of Comedytalking about the strategic planning on Moms part when she created her character.
“‘Moms Mabley’ as an old woman was not considered a threat, so she could get away with it,” he said of her more raunchy material.
Appearing on The David Frost Show in 1969, Moms cracked a few jokes when answering how old she was when her character got married:
“I was young, son. And I married a man 98. He didn’t live but five days. It took 3 undertakers a week to get the smile off his face.”
Appearing on TV for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, she joked:
“You know Mom don’t like old men. Any time you see me with my arms around an old man, I’m holding him for the police.”
Moms Mabley overcame overwhelming hardship from her childhood. She lost both her parents in accidents and had been raped two times before the age of 14. Though Joan Rivers describes her as a woman merely speaking truth onstage, she worked her way up to recording over 20 comedy albums, appearing in multiple movies and films and was once the highest paid performer at the Apollo.
Leo Benedictus of The Guardian summed up the comic ahead of her time by saying
“Moms was so loveble, and loving, in her manner onstage (and offstage, in fact) that she could get away with shades of blue that others couldn’t, let alone other women. Pretending to be old, long before she was old, put her somehow outside the political battle lines as well, meaning she could direct righteous fire at the status quo without ever losing the lightness that made her funny. She spoke from a tradition of old people saying what they damn well like.”