Paul Mooney has died, just a few months shy of his 80th birthday. The comedian, writer and firebrand was a fearless critic of race and racism – and had one of the most important roles in the development of comedy: He wrote for Richard Pryor. Mooney, a comic in his own right, creator of characters and owner of the stage when he put on his own shows, writer of books and co-writer of TV shows, was Pryor’s hype-man and writer; he was the architect of The Richard Pryor; the breakout comedian of the 1970s. No Mooney, No Pryor.
Prior to Paul Mooney’s exacting influence, Richard was telling clean jokes and copying the delivery style of Bill Cosby. With Mooney on the payroll Pryor turning the mirror on society and then back on himself. They co-created the short-lived but brilliantly daring Richard Pryor Show for TV; it was Mooney that scripted the legendary SNL skit from Pryor’s first hosting gig where he and Chevy Chase call each other degrading, racist epithets. It made for a genuine shock-moment on live television.
Mooney would also write for Sanford and Son, Good Times, In Living Color and many bits from the many filmed Richard Pryor comedy specials. He was reintroduced to a new audience via Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle so clearly the Pryor of his generation gave Mooney several moments to shine, via the Ask A Black Dude and Negrodamus segments.
Mooney’s humour had a huge impact on Chappelle. The famous Clayton Bixby skit from the opening episode of Chappelle’s Show featured a black white supremacist, literally blind to racism. Several decades earlier Mooney would do a bit about a black man moving into a white neighbourhood and burning a cross on his own lawn, declaring himself better than anyone in the street since he didn’t live next door to any “N*ggers”.
Mooney’s stand-up specials on CD and DVD and pulverising – brutal. Hilarious and horrific. He was happy to let jokes fall flat if they made a wider point. He held the microphone – and the audience – like no one else. He was a writer of pain of truth, a deliverer of the ugliness of modern life and the, erm, white-lie that the real racism was over, was historic.
He has some acting credits too – in some of Pryor’s movies and out on his own, he played Sam Cooke in The Buddy Holly Story and was also in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
I loved Mooney’s uncomfortable comedy. He wore his anger on his sleeve. It drove his comedy deep into hearts and minds. There was no one else doing it on that level. He showed the way not only for Pryor then of course for Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and so many others. His influence is towering.
R.I.P. Paul Mooney