In the latest installment of our series “Her Voice: Revolutionary North Carolina Women,” we look at one of the first stand-up comedians - Loretta Mary Aiken.
She's better known by her beloved stage character, Moms Mabley. Born in Brevard, North Carolina in 1894, she was one of 16 kids. Her childhood and early adolescence were marked by tragedy. And yet, Mabley made a lifelong career out of making people laugh.
WFDD's Bethany Chafin speaks with author and filmmaker Anna Fields about Mabley's story.
On her early days performing on the African-American Vaudeville circuit:
There she started to develop standup comedy. At the time, women had to sing. Female performers, a lot of male performers too, but especially female performers had to sing to be heard. And she did sing quite a bit and dance. But she had this idea: every few lines or lyrics she would stop and sort of talk to the audience, just sort of add a commentary here and there. And eventually she was doing more talking than singing. And then eventually she was just doing her talking, and so she sort of created this idea that you could break the fourth wall, so to speak, and directly address your audience, first through song then the combination of song and speech, and then just speech.
On a new name:
She took on the name of Jackie Mabley; she took the last name of a man she had a relationship with at the time. But everybody called her Moms. She had this very mentoring, mothering spirit. What started out as a nickname inspired her to create a character that she really used and utilized throughout the 50s and 60s and all the way into the 70s and 80s until her death to really address white audiences in a non-confrontational way but definitely divulging very confrontational topics. She would have certain jokes that were tailored to make non-white audiences who might be watching her at home on television laugh because they knew what she really meant. But the meaning was so sly that the white audiences that she was performing for live maybe didn't know exactly what she was referring to, or maybe they did.
On the character of Moms:
Moms Mabley's onstage persona was one of a woman of sort of an indiscriminate, nebulous age who was wearing a very large housecoat that sort of resembled what we would call a muumuu that completely covered most of her form. [She wore] either slippers or very worn looking house shoes [and] a big floppy hat. And she would remove her dentures so that the way that she spoke was sort of raspy and sort of lisping. But certainly she was almost removing her gender and removing her age. She was allowing herself to be, in her mind, more palatable to white audiences.
On her life offstage:
Moms Mabley's offstage persona was of Jackie Mabley...Jackie was openly lesbian, very interested in women, very openly amorous towards women and a very chic dresser. She had a large collection of furs. She was a lover of makeup. She was very stylish with her hairdos at the time and she wore her dentures, so she spoke very differently offstage versus on. That is not something, interestingly, that many biographers or comedians of today really delve into when they explore Moms' legacy. She was just this powerful duality of a person. And I think that she deserves to be included in a pantheon of performers, not only from North Carolina but the African-American community, the LGBTQIA community, and the "female," women's comedy community; she really belongs to all of them simultaneously.
On characterizing Moms' comedy:
Moms' comedy was a precursor for blue comedy - what I think most people think of as dirty comedy, sexualized comedy. She was very sly. She was a precursor for Richard Pryor. She wouldn't use obscenities on stage but she definitely referred to sex in a more blatant way than female comedians and certainly male comedians had at the time. I think that there's not a single comedian - Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, certainly - who can't thank Moms for sort of opening the door. Certainly at the time, some of what she said was very shocking. But if she hadn't said it, we wouldn't be able to say anything.
Listen every Thursday in March during Morning Edition and All Things Considered to hear Bethany and Anna with the series, "Her Voice: Revolutionary North Carolina Women."
Ed. Note: This post has been updated to include interview highlights.