RIP Paul Mooney: The Sad Death of One of the Country’s Best Comedians

The fact that he is not as well-known and loved like his contemporaries Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, or George Carlin is a cultural crime ranking with the destruction of the ancient Alexandrian library.

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When Paul Mooney’s death was announced in the afternoon of May 19, 2021, a friend posted to my Facebook Wall an old clip of the Black comedian and writer making an appearance on The Chapelle Show, “Mooney on Movies.” My friend messaged me, saying, “That clip is fucking hilarious.” I responded that, though I had been unable to watch it on my phone because I was at work, “I also psychically knew that already.”

Mooney never spoke an unfunny joke, bungled the delivery of a line, or even had a single instance (in all of his videos I ever watched, and there were a lot) of stuttering, flubbing or flustering a single word. The fact that he is not as well-known and loved like his contemporaries Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, or George Carlin is a cultural crime ranking with the destruction of the ancient Alexandrian library. With the exception of Pryor, who he wrote jokes for, he was honestly funnier than the other two.

And why is it that you never heard of him?

Putting it simply, Paul Mooney talked some real shit about whiteness and white people.

In the history of African American literature, there is a small sub-genre of Black authors writing about white people, speaking truths that are more insightful than anything any European-descended peer could be capable of. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an amazing article, “The Souls of White Folk,” that remains powerful more than a century later. James Baldwin said in The Fire Next Time:

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.

If Du Bois evolved Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism into a more mature 20th century iteration and Baldwin was God’s Prophetic Voice, Mooney surpassed Dante as a humorist narrating a journey through Hell with the starkest, funniest jokes possible. Within the span of twenty microseconds, he would move seamlessly from James Bond smooth to James Brown hip. Faster than the flip of a light switch, his speech pattern went from crisp Oxford diction to the hard Black syntax known by anyone who has worked in the poorest sections of the urban ghetto. The rhetorical pivot was as brilliant as the greatest ballerina, the mightiest pole-vaulter, or Muhammad Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

With just such power, he used his humor to rip apart the absurdities, hypocrisies, and evils of whiteness and its pitiful beneficiaries. He could have held back, delivering milder, cleaner, gentler jousts. If Paul Mooney had kept the jabs at white people down to just 10% of his act, delivering more “color-blind” humor like Bill Cosby, only four years his senior, he would have been just as successful as “America’s Dad.” The fact that he didn’t hold back was professional suicide. His authenticity was his gift to the world, given with a sacrificial edge.

Mooney’s example of jaw-dropping candor married with rib-cracking laughter is exactly what is wrong with the white Left today. Matt Taibbi would die of a stroke trying to process a Mooney video. Michael Tracey is too stupid to understand him. Everyone is so pathetically serious and morose, I can’t even read Chris Hedges anymore without needing to up my antidepressant.

I was raised as a white boy. Whenever I watched Mooney, part of me felt deeply discomforted. I always have a voice in the back of my head wondering if this sort of thing wasn’t made for me. That’s because his humor is not for whites. Baldwin famously said, “So long as you think you are white there is no hope for you.” Mooney rubbed your nose in that hopelessness. That little voice in my head was always saying “Damnit, he’s describing every cringe-worthy moment of my entire family’s history!”

Go watch every one of his stand-up routines this weekend, it is money well-spent.

Rest in power Paul Mooney. The world will be a little whiter and therefore less funny without you .


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