Paul Mooney and Me

Sandra Bernhard reflects on her decades-long friendship with the late comic.

Paul Mooney and Sandra Bernhard in Los Angeles in 1989. Photo: Time & Life Pictures/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Paul Mooney and Sandra Bernhard in Los Angeles in 1989. Photo: Time & Life Pictures/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

On May 19, Paul Mooney died from a heart attack at the age of 79. Mooney was one of the most influential figures in the history of modern comedy. A behind-the-scenes giant, he had his hands in so much that would define the art form: He collaborated with Richard Pryor during the stand-up’s creative peak, maybe most famously writing the “Word Association” Saturday Night Live sketch. He was the godfather of the so-called “Black Pack,” working closely with Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Arsenio Hall, and Robert Townsend. He worked as a head writer on In Living Color, creating Homey D. Clown. Fifty years into his career, he became a Chappelle’s Show breakout star. He was a stand-up that influenced generations — and a mentor.

“You’re a cigarette come to life.” That was what an already well-established Mooney told a 19-year-old, just-starting-out Sandra Bernhard in 1974 the first night they met, after Mooney saw her perform at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills. They bonded instantly and remained, as Bernhard puts it, soul mates from that point on. Mooney mentored Bernhard, who he was certain from that first meeting was going to be a huge star, teaching her how to do stand-up right. From Mooney, as she posted on social media earlier this week, Bernhard learned everything she knew about comedy, honesty, friendship, and style. The day after Mooney’s passing, Bernhard spoke to Vulture about their special friendship.

I’m so sorry for your loss.
Yeah. It was a bit of a shock. I mean, he’s had some cognitive issues over the past two years and a few health issues as well, but nothing that I anticipated being life-threatening. He lived with his cousin up in Oakland, so when I got the text, I was totally shocked and devastated. Thank you.

When was your last interaction with him?
We talked a couple of months ago. I kind of stayed in touch through his cousin because, like I said, it was hard to reach him directly because …

You know? Without going too deeply into it, he had some dementia so it was hard to … But he sounded good. I think he knew who I was. He was a big old movie buff. He loved Bette Davis and all of the classic movies, so whenever I called, he’d be sort of breaking down what he was watching. So we’d talk more about the movies than anything, which was nice because it’s just something that he always loved. I guess that was his comfort zone.

Do you remember the last time you hung out or the last memory you had, even when he was still out and about performing?
Oh, I mean, I have so many memories of him. Whenever Paul got onstage, whatever was happening in the moment, he would be able to totally digest it and just squeeze it through the meat grinder and make it into something brilliant. There’s just a million things. He was on my radio show five years ago. We were just playing a clip of it, because I do my shows on Thursdays. I was talking about the Kardashians and just the burden of always having to be beautiful and be a woman who basically spends all their time putting on makeup. I said, “What do you think about it, Mooney?” He goes, “I think they’re all like Dracula. The dirt’s just falling off of them. They’re dead already.” Even when he was sort of not as sharp as always, he still managed to come up with something I thought was very insightful.

The story of how you met is almost a legend at this point: He came to see you perform at the Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills, and he told you you’re “a cigarette come to life.” What did his endorsement and advocacy mean to you as a comedian, as an artist?
Well, you know, Mooney already was a legend when I first came to L.A. He had already been writing for Richard Pryor and all this SNL stuff. He was just a figure that was bigger than life. This friend of mine, who also performed at the Ye Little Club doing more of a cabaret singing act, had told Paul Mooney that she was bringing me to do my little open mic night performance. I knew that I was going to meet Mooney, and I was nervous with having him be in the audience. So when I got up and basically, at that point, killed with my five minutes, I was happy because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.

At the same time, we connected with our other friend Lotus Weinstock, who was also a legend at that time; she was a comedian and a singer. They both became sort of my soul mates. Lotus was my Jewish soul sister; Mooney was my Black soul brother. Everything I learned about comedy and life and relationships and style came from both of them. But Mooney just really took me under his wing and helped me develop my style and my sense of myself. As scared or as frustrated as I would ever get, he wouldn’t let the bottom fall out on my emotions. He was always like my rock.

What was Paul’s advice like?
Basically, just to always shed your skin. Night after night he would say, “Just go up and be like an onion. Peel away another layer of yourself. Reveal more of who you are.” To this day, every time I get onstage, I think about that. Because we keep evolving, and there’s more and more and more underneath as we grow as people, in every way. I always just push myself to that limit of revealing who I am in that moment, and that was, to me, the essence of what I learned from Paul.

Do you have any specific memories of those early shows with him in L.A.?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I was working as a manicurist in Beverly Hills, so I would come home and make myself a little simple dinner, then I would take a nap because I knew every night was going to be a late night. By the time we got to the club and got on … Because at first, they didn’t give you a time, you just had to show up and wait to be put on. Whether it was like a funky old place, because there’s a place called Rusty’s Bagels on La Brea that was just a storefront that this guy had. That was just before you made it to the Comedy Store or the Improv; there were all these other ancillary clubs. Mooney would always show up. He would just be there. He liked to go on late anyways. So he would go on, and then usually I would go on after him, or at least one other person after him. So I would go on at like one in the morning. He would just hang out.

Then we’d go to Ben Frank’s, which was a coffee shop on Sunset, and basically have breakfast at two in the morning. Then sometimes we’d go out dancing, and we’d drive around. There were many nights that the cops pulled us over because Paul had a Bentley, and they’d see this very chic Black man with this white woman, so they immediately assumed that Paul was my pimp. They’d pull us over, and we’d laugh and talk to the cops. I said, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine. We just came from the Comedy Store.” They’d back off. We never really got too upset.

It was just funny, because back then, there were still hookers on Sunset, so we’d slow down and say hi to the hookers and chitchat with them, then go to the Playboy Club and go dancing, or the Candy Store, which was a club in Beverly Hills, go dancing there. Sometimes we’d go to Black clubs down in the hood. We kind of went everywhere together. He introduced me to Black culture. He was very much ensconced in the Beverly Hills scene as well. We just went everywhere and danced and got to know each other and got to know the whole L.A. scene, and then perform almost every night.

You mentioned the Black clubs. When you were doing comedy, can you tell me what it was like when he would have you come play for Black comedy audiences where you might be the only white person in the entire room?
He knew that’s how you cut teeth. If you can make a Black audience laugh, engage them and make them feel comfortable — whether you’re Black, white, red, or whatever your skin is — that’s like the ultimate, when you can make a Black audience laugh. Also, the vibe and the energy of a Black club is totally different. It’s funky, it’s groovy. The music’s better. There’s just an inherent sophistication that you won’t necessarily find in a white club. There was a place called the Parisian Room, way down on La Brea, which is now a post office. That was the club to go to with Mooney, because he had his friends there and they all knew him. I think they just got a kick out of me. I was really young. I was 19, 20, 21 years old, and then sort of already into the vibe, the Black vibe, and they felt comfortable with me. I usually did very well at those clubs. That was just part of my schooling under Mooney.

What did you love about Paul’s comedy? What was so special about it?
Just his outrageousness. His ability to take culture and just go right to the heart of it, the core of it, and reveal the hypocrisy of white culture, of having worked his way up through all the prejudice and the racism, and to be such a handsome, gorgeous man of color, and to have encountered people who would just automatically assume if you’re Black you’re not handsome or you’re not smart or you’re not this, and he was all those things and more. Of course, it’s all a misnomer anyway. He was always out to prove that a Black man could be more talented, smarter, more sophisticated than anybody white, and could just tear down all the preconceptions of what it was like to be Black in our culture.

What was it about comedy that felt like the ideal venue for him to get his message across?
I mean, he was a comic. He was satirist. He was a social commentator. The comedy clubs were, and still are to a great extent, places where people … Well, more then than now, because you really could say anything. You weren’t under a microscope the way you are now with social media. We were allowed a freedom to really go underneath and say things that, if you said it now, they’d accuse you of being a racist or a misogynist or a million different things, but you’d be missing the point. Of course, you had to be somebody as brilliant as Paul Mooney to achieve that. You can’t just be a common moron who gets up and says incendiary things just to be trying to stir it up. You’ve got to have a point, and Mooney always had a point and a purpose to his comedy.

Over the past day, I’ve seen so many comedians tweet about seeing him live and doing these two-hour shows, and him trying to really push the audience to their limits. Can you think of any memorable Paul shows?
Listen, I’ve seen Paul perform probably 500 or 600 times, so no, I can’t tell you there’s one specific night. But there were many nights when people got up and walked out, and they were pissed off, or they were insulted, or they were confused. That happened almost every night at the Comedy Store when Mooney got up. You name the night, and Mooney was pushing it to the limit.

How did he think about people who left? Did he find it as a point of pride? Did it feel like he didn’t want people to leave, he wanted to find out exactly where the line was? How did he think about those people?
No, no. He didn’t give a shit if they left. He’d say, “Get the fuck out. If you can’t handle it, fuck off.” That’s what he would say, just like that.

With Paul, you also had a front-row seat to sort arguably one of the most fruitful creative partnerships in the history of comedy with him and Richard Pryor. What was it about them coming together that ended up being so special and obviously so historic?
Well, I think Richard had his point of view, and Mooney understood it and helped him shape his material and gave him a bouncing-off place. Everybody needs, when they’re putting a show together where it’s like a formulated show, somebody there as a sounding board, and Mooney was that person. Mooney knew how to temper him and encourage him, because Pryor was very sensitive and often didn’t want to do the shows because it was just too much for him. So Mooney was his sounding board.

Despite working with some of the biggest names in comedy ever, from Pryor to Chappelle, Paul’s issues with the entertainment industry were fairly well-known. How did he feel about his career? Did he wish for celebrity?
I just think that Paul was somebody who didn’t mind staying behind the scenes. I don’t think that Paul’s goal was to be the superstar. I think he liked his anonymity in a certain way. He liked being able to prowl around and not have people tracking him and exploiting him. He saw what it did to his friends — like Paul, like Dave Chappelle, like Eddie Murphy. These people all paid a price for their fame, and at different points had to walk away from it because it was just counterintuitive to why they got into it to begin with. Mooney never had to do that. Mooney just kept doing it. And he had enough fame, and obviously enough notoriety and respect, that he didn’t feel like he had missed out on anything, but he always had control over his destiny, and that was important to him.

How do you feel like he thought of his legacy and his influence?
I think he was very clear about it. I think he knew, in terms of just straight stand-up, he was one of the best that ever hit the stage — that without him, the Pryors, the Chappelles, the Eddie Murphys, on and on, couldn’t have maintained that level of quality. He was always there giving material. He worked for these people; they paid him. But he was behind the scenes, and he was pushing them along. He knew that everybody knew. When he walked onstage, no matter where you were in the club — in the hallway smoking, drinking — you’d stop and walk in and watch Paul. It would be hard to rip off Paul, because it was so specific to who he was. It wouldn’t have mattered anyways, because the next night he’d go on and do something completely different and totally innovative. So there’s kind of no way to really one-up Mooney.

As you mentioned before — you also put this in your Instagram message — you learned everything you knew about comedy, honesty, friendship, and style from Paul. We’ve talked about comedy, but can you talk a little bit about what you learned about honesty, friendship, or style from him?
He was somebody who stood by me through thick and thin. He was just always there for me. He allowed me to be the same with him. He had kids, he had a family, but his first love was being out, being with people. His friendships, I think, came before anything. That’s what motivated him and kept him inspired. No matter what time of day or night, I knew I could pick up the phone and call Paul. If I was freaked out or needed to have a good cry, or somebody broke up with me, or I was feeling frustrated, he was just always there. We’d do these old road trips together and be in little clubs around the Southwest or California. As we were driving or staying in little motels, everything got unpacked. Mooney knew exactly who I was and vice versa.

In terms of style, Paul Mooney was one of the best dressers in Hollywood. He could have been a clothing designer. He would go to the secondhand store and get vintage clothing and just wear it out and look amazing. He’d buy me stuff all the time and help me. Because with a limited budget when you’re first starting out, he’d get me tuxedo pants and I’d wear them with high heels. He just always had a sense of how to dress me, and he believed in me as somebody who was beautiful and would become part of the fashion world. He predicted all of that early in our friendship when I didn’t believe him, because I didn’t have that confidence in myself. But he saw it and he knew it, and that really helped develop me. Fashion and style are such an important part of my work as well.

What is one thing that fans might not know or understand about Paul, who might only know him from his public presentation?
I wouldn’t call him sensitive, but he was aware of what made people tick. He was interested in people’s families. He knew my brothers, he knew my mom. He would check in. He had a real humanity about him. That ability to just put everything aside and see who you were. That was always, along with everything else, so important for me.

On Twitter, you once called him a hopeless romantic, which I thought was really sweet.
Yeah. Well, I think he fell in and out of love many times along the way. I think that maybe his work eclipsed his relationships and his marriages. But I think he liked the idea of being in love, like we all do. I think he was a romantic.

Yesterday on Twitter, someone shared an anecdote where they were at the Knitting Factory seeing you perform live, and they were standing next to Paul, and during an applause break he said to Paul, “You must be very proud,” and he smiled and nodded. You then retweeted that. What does that mean to you to know that he was proud of you?
That always meant everything to me because that meant that I was on track, that I stayed the course of not only being an honest performer but being a real friend and not becoming another Hollywood phony. That’s something that Paul and I prided ourselves on — of being interested in new people coming up and always cultivating new talent and supporting them. Just staying interested in life and engaged. That was what Mooney was about and what I’m about, and that’s why we connected and stayed friends throughout our lives.

What do you think Paul exposed you to, either culturally or about the world, that you wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise?
Without a doubt, being immersed in Black culture for me was something that was invaluable and gave me another layer and sense of myself and the world, and an empathy and a compassion and a respect for Black culture, because without it, white culture would not exist. Music, art, theater — Black culture has informed everything about white culture. I knew it back then when I befriended Mooney, and I got to see it firsthand. To me, there was no more valuable lesson than to have that respect and understanding.

Can you remember a favorite day or night with Paul that didn’t involve comedy?
Yeah, I can think of a really funny story. We went out dancing and it was very, very late. We came back to the Comedy Store because my car was parked there. I was wearing super high heels and he was wearing cowboy boots. To Mooney, I said, “Now I know why there’s no Jewish hookers,” and he said, “Now I know why there’s no Negro” — he used a different word, but I won’t use that — “cowboys.” That just sort of summed up everything. We laughed our asses off and wandered into the night. There were so many nights like that, when we went out and danced and went crazy, and those were some of the nights I will remember forever.

Sandra Bernhard Reflects on Her Friendship With Paul Mooney