The Curious Decline of Paul Mooney

Mooney in the 1970s. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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.”

Paul Mooney was born in 1941 in Louisiana to teenage parents and raised mostly by his grandmother. He moved to Oakland as a child. As a teen, he competed in and won dance contests, eventually appearing as a regular on a local American Bandstand–like TV show called Dance Party. (Mooney counted future Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton as a high-school friend.) After a stint in the Army, Mooney got into professional show business by working as a circus ringmaster. Then, in the early ’60s, he saw Lenny Bruce performing in a bar and his life changed — he started doing comedy and moved to Los Angeles. Almost from the beginning, race was central to Mooney’s act. In his 2009 memoir, Black Is the New White, he writes that when he was starting, black comics had to “have one self for the master and one self that’s ‘just between us’ … I’m the first comic to bring a ‘just between us’ black voice to the stage.”

In the late ’60s, he met Pryor, who’d already had a career as a suit-and-tie-clad Bill Cosby acolyte, which he pissed away in 1967 with a self-lacerating onstage meltdown. The two became tight, eventually relocating to the Bay Area together, where they grew increasingly politically conscious. Pryor was reading about Malcolm X and listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Mooney joined an antiwar theater troupe called FTA, or “Fuck the Army,” where he performed alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.

Mooney nurtured Pryor’s rebellious streak. Argus Hamilton, a comedian and former colleague of the duo’s, says, “It was Mooney that turned [Pryor] into Dark Twain.” When Pryor hosted Saturday Night Live in 1975, he insisted Mooney be hired as a writer for the episode. Mooney crafted a job-interview sketch for Pryor and Chevy Chase — tensions escalate until Chase says “nigger” — that remains one of the show’s most potent moments. As Chappelle has explained, “To see a black man on TV holding his own with a white man, that was television history.”

Mooney’s legend grew, but career opportunities didn’t follow. Hollywood, he wrote, was scared of “a proud black man like me.” Mooney’s friend Sandra Bernhard saw this up close. “If you’re an insecure white man, you might be a little threatened by Paul,” she says. “I’ll never forget I was ready to sign with this big management company in the ’70s, and they came to see me at the Comedy Store and said, ‘You have to lose the schvartze,’ pointing to Paul.”

By the mid-’80s, Mooney was back in L.A. and hanging with a group of comics later dubbed “the Black Pack” that included Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Hall, and Townsend. It was a creatively exciting time that resulted in a slew of projects, such as Murphy’s “Raw” tour (Mooney was the opening act) and accompanying concert movie, the HBO special Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime (which Mooney appeared on), and Wayans’s groundbreaking show In Living Color (for which Mooney was a writer).

Despite the successes of many of these Black Pack–era projects, Mooney remained out of the spotlight. Townsend thinks his comedy cut too deep. “Some of the stuff he’d say would hit home so hard people in the audience would go, ‘This ain’t funny.’ ” But Mooney was also a master self–saboteur. Comedian Aries Spears had a bit about trying to bring Mooney aboard as a writer for Fox’s mid-’90s sketch series MADtv. “Soon as he walked in,” Spears recalled, “the producers were like … Are you familiar with our show?’ Paul went right into it: ‘I’ve seen your show. All of you niggas have stolen my material.’ ”

When Chappelle and Neal Brennan created Chappelle’s Show in the early aughts, they hired Mooney and gave him a wide berth. As Chappelle has put it, “You don’t fuck with Paul Mooney. You don’t
fuck with his writing, his material, his sketches … and you certainly don’t tell him what to do! Trust me, I’ve learned.”

Mooney’s recurring sketches for that show, “Negrodamus” and “Ask a Black Dude,” raised his profile, but efforts to build on that fizzled. A BET show called Judge Mooney petered out after seven episodes. Brennan believes Mooney’s prickliness is probably as much to blame as anything else for his failure to break through. “He’s charismatic,” Brennan says. “He’s just completely uncooperative. It’s a lesson some comedians have to learn: In an office setting, you have to be benign. He doesn’t have any benign in him.”

Even in his life outside comedy, Mooney was committed to being truthful, no matter how insensitive or hurtful the truth may have been. As his son Shane recalls, “My mom would say, ‘Do I look good?’ He’d say, ‘No. You’re fat.’ That’s my dad. I saw my mom cry. He was like, ‘I’m just being honest.’ ” (Mooney is long divorced from Shane and Spring’s mother, Yvonne.)

In 2005, Pryor died after a battle with multiple sclerosis. In his book, Mooney writes, “The last years of Richard’s life are so painful to watch that I feel guilty for wishing the good Lord would just take him to rest.” But Pryor’s widow, Jennifer, says Mooney wasn’t exactly supportive. “He came into a party we were having,” she says, “and made a rude comment about Richard being in a wheelchair. He didn’t even go to Richard’s funeral.”

For most of the past decade, Mooney has worked as a stand-up, and he’s long incorporated forgetfulness into his routine. “He would joke about the queen of England,” says Brennan, “and start by going, ‘What’s her name? That woman in charge of England? That white woman?’ ” For a while, that technique may have also masked any mental decline, but by 2012, fans were commenting online that Mooney often lost his train of thought. One fan posted: “His people should not let him go out like this.”

Indeed, when I first called Ealy about the prospect of writing this story, I asked if Mooney was mentally well enough to be interviewed. He assured me he was, and a week or so later, Ealy called to tell me that Mooney had agreed to be interviewed. Except for a phone call I made that Ealy answered before immediately hanging up, that was the last time we spoke.

Shortly after that aborted call, the comedian Charlie Murphy told me that Mooney had just come to see him perform in Oakland on a bill with Eddie Griffin and Cedric the Entertainer. “[Mooney] almost died at my show,” Murphy says. “I guess he’s on medication now, and he drank Champagne, and it gave him a reaction. One minute Paul was in the audience laughing, the next thing Paul is in the back with the bag with the fluid to rehydrate you. Eddie said, ‘I just want to know why he picked my dressing room to lay down and die!’ Everybody started laughing, even Paul.”

Shane tells me his father’s health has improved since then and suggests I talk to Shaw, Mooney’s erstwhile manager, about Mooney’s arrangement with Ealy. Shaw says, “Rudy doesn’t let Paul talk to me.”

Mooney’s children talk about Ealy warily, as if he were a situation to be managed but not challenged. Neither believes their father is as far gone as Shaw does, though, and both say he doesn’t have cancer. “He knows who he is,” says Spring. “He knows where he lives. If he has a disease, it’s the first stages of dementia.”

But regardless of his specific diagnosis, should Mooney be on the road? Tatia Day, who books some of Mooney’s stand-up shows, says the comedian has told her “he doesn’t ever want to stop.” And Spring says the family isn’t about to make him: “I wouldn’t take that from him. He’ll die onstage.”

Day says that at the moment, Ealy mostly controls Mooney’s itinerary because he’s the one with him day to day. She also explains that as long as the schedule allows for Mooney to have proper rest, his performances go fine. “I don’t want his reputation to go down with his health,” she says.

In early November, Mooney is booked to perform at B.B. King’s in New York. I make plans, with Day this time, to interview him. Unsurprisingly, the interview winds up being canceled.

A few weeks later, Mooney is set to appear for multiple nights at the Uptown Comedy Corner in Atlanta. The possibility of an interview is again dangled and again comes to nothing. Onstage on a Friday night, though, Mooney appears okay, at first. He’s comparatively spry, momentarily dancing around before settling into his chair and beginning his set. He smiles and jokes about Donald Trump. But things devolve. He spends 30 minutes chatting with a woman in the front row while the crowd loses patience. He slouches. Someone shouts for a refund. Mooney responds, “There are no motherfucking refunds at a Paul Mooney show!”

The second night also gets awkward. Mooney circles jokes without ever landing on one. He mentions that he likes the old Hitchcock movie The Birds and asks the audience, “What are those nigger birds called?” People call out “crows” and “orioles” before Mooney goes with “magpies.” What starts as another riff about Donald Trump veers seemingly unintentionally into one about Howard Stern. A woman near the stage offers Mooney some fries. He starts eating. Initially, it’s kind of funny — a roomful of people watching a man snack. “I am hungry,” he says, adding, “These are good fries.” Then, as it goes on for 15, 20 minutes, it stops being funny and starts feeling deeply uncomfortable. He finishes the fries, and the show stops when a handler tells Mooney time’s up.

Maybe those close to him ought to decide enough is enough. Or, in some strange way, maybe this is the farewell that a man who insisted on honesty deserves. It may be hard to discern the defiant figure of Mooney’s prime in the man audiences are seeing onstage these days. And perhaps it’s dispiriting to watch Paul Mooney age like this. But it’s the truth.

Additional reporting by Hilary Weaver.

*This article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.