A Hollywood Moment with Whoopi Goldberg: She’s Got ‘Somethin’ to Tell You’

By  May 16, 2013

Expletives may not be part of your everyday vernacular, but for veteran actress, comedienne, and The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg, cursing is the “flavor” to her language. That wasn’t the case, though, for pioneering funny woman, satirical vaudeville star, and subject of Goldberg’s directorial debut Loretta Mary Aiken, cemented in history as Moms Mabley. In her later years, Mabley captivated crowds with her disheveled duster, floppy hat, and trademark—toothless—smile; a signature look that sagaciously propelled her message on race and gender sans swearing. With more than 20 comedy albums and a record as the oldest person to achieve a U.S. Top 40 hit with the stirring single “Abraham, Martin and John,” little is known about Mabley’s personal life. For that reason, Goldberg rounded up greats like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte to applaud the trailblazer who, as the film notes, has been “lost somewhere in history.”

The Kickstarter-funded I’ve Got Somethin’ to Tell You features Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Bill Cosby, and others who applauded Mabley’s 50-plus year career while reminiscing on her most memorable moments. The doc, which debuted at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, won’t be released to the masses until August, but we heard from Goldberg herself about the filmmaking process, what Mabley’s work means to her, and how this future HBO series sparked her next big project.

Q: When were you first introduced to Moms Mabley?
A: I think I saw Moms on Ed Sullivan, [and I was] not quite a teenager. She was odd—look at her! I mean she had no teeth! Everyone that I knew was trying to keep their teeth, she didn’t have any teeth! And she talked about things that I really didn’t understand, but I understood that my mother understood her and she dug it. She was smart enough to let me watch her… She took me to see a myriad of things all the time because she wanted me to just be aware of what was in the world. Moms, being a woman that looked like other women I knew, she [my mother] thought it was a good idea for me to watch her… Moms was just unusual. She didn’t look like anybody else and I think part of my little itty bitty kid brain said “Oh, ok. She doesn’t seem to care that she doesn’t have any teeth.
Q: Why did you think it was important to tell her story?
When I discovered that she was the first, and only [comedian of her kind] for 40 years, I thought ”How come I didn’t know this? How come this isn’t something that we’ve had discussions about? Why is there no Moms Mabley award for comedy?”
Comics like to think of themselves as real present, and to have lost this—and I include myself too—seems a real shame. (I see little kids, so I’m not going to say what I mean). It’s insane, because we all thought we knew Moms Mabley, and as it turns out, very few of us did.
Unless someone is talking about you, you’re dead. And people die when you don’t remember them. And so, now, she’s been a little resurrected in your minds and maybe other people’s minds, and maybe someone will do a bigger thing.
Q: Why did you look to crowdsourcing through Kickstarter to fund this project??
A: Financially, I thought I was going to freak out. There were maybe 50 stills in this piece; they cost $1200 a piece. You say “What? Who was the last person looking for that picture?” Nobody! I knew, once I realized what was coming, that I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t do it. I know, it seems weird, and it seemed weird to a lot of people. They say ”You’re Whoopi Goldberg.” Don’t you wonder why I work my ass off everyday? I’ve got family, I’ve got a company to run—it’s [all from] one check… We asked for $65,000 and we made it. And then we made and extra $10,000, which was great because we needed it.
Q: Moms Mabley’s personal life, as with many entertainers of her time, was closely guarded. Your film delved into that a little bit, particularly her sexuality. Do you think people were surprised by it?
A: If people start to think “How was that possible?” just think Rock Hudson, because I know many of you were shocked as hell. [Back then], people looked after you because they wanted you to keep your job, because they would keep working. It was a whole other groove. It wasn’t this “everybody’s got to know everything about your business.” It just wasn’t like that. You were trying to keep your job. You were trying to keep that thing that you knew how to do. And she was a great comic. And being gay had nothing to do with it… It had nothing to do with her comedy. And no one was interested in her personal life. It didn’t matter.
Q: You interviewed everyone for this documentary, from Quincy Jones and Jerry Stiller to Eddie Murphy and Joan Rivers. Which chat was your most memorable?
A: The most fascinating for me was Sidney [Poitier], because you’re used to Sidney Poitier being Sidney Poitier. And you never think of Sidney arriving in America, and coming from the islands, and stumbling into the Apollo. One of my favorite things that he said was “I couldn’t really figure out what they [Moms Mabley and other Apollo Theater performers] were talking about, but they looked like family, so I was comfortable.” So, the impact that Moms had was far-reaching in terms of entertainment. She was able to grab Sidney, who had just arrived; she was able to grab Jerry Stiller out of Brooklyn. It was kind of phenomenal. And Kathy Griffin said that she was able to reach through the television and say, “Yeah, you know me.” It’s kind of amazing!
Q: This is your first time in the director’s chair. What’s next?
I’m going to go to American Express and several other places to see if they’ll give me the money to make a 10-part documentary about black entertainment from the 1800s ’til now.