Paul Mooney was never afraid to speak his mind, no matter who was around. The self-proclaimed “Godfather of Comedy” worked alongside some of the industry’s most heralded stars, from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy, inspiring the comics who came after him to do the same. As Robert Townsend once said: “Paul didn’t care to be loved. He wanted to speak his mind. He taught a generation of comedians to be fearless.”
On Wednesday, Mooney died at 5:30 a.m. at home in Oakland, Calif., his rep Cassandra Williams confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 79 years old.
Journalist Roland Martin, who first reported the news, tweeted that the legendary comedian died after suffering a heart attack.
A statement was posted shortly after Martin’s tweet on Mooney’s official Twitter account, which read, “Thank you all from the bottom of all of our hearts...you’re all are the best!...Mooney World...The Godfather of Comedy - ONE MOON MANY STARS!...To all in love with this great man.. many thanks.”
Paul Gladney was born Aug. 4, 1941, in Shreveport, La., to George Gladney and LaVoya Ealy. Because his parents were young, the acerbic comedian was mostly raised by his maternal grandmother, Aimay Ealy, whom the family called “Mama.” According to the comic’s 2009 memoir, Black Is the New White, Mama gave the young boy the nickname “Mooney” after Paul Muni, the actor who starred in the original 1932 version of Scarface. Paul moved to Oakland, Calif., as a child, where he would become friends with Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton.
A talented entertainer, Paul competed in dance competitions as a teen and even won a spot on a television show called Dance Party. After serving in the military, he joined the circus and performed as a ringmaster before falling in love with comedy after seeing Lenny Bruce perform. But his biggest comic influence was his grandmother. “I learned it all from my grandmother,” he said in a 2009 interview with NPR. “I got my sense of humor from my grandmother. My grandmother was very funny.”
In the late 1960s, the future legend moved to Los Angeles, where he would meet his longtime friend and collaborator Richard Pryor. “I was having a party, and a friend of my sister’s, who was dancing at the Whisky a Go-Go [nightclub], had dated Richard and brought him to the apartment,” Mooney recalled in a 2010 interview with Pop Matters. “This was during that whole era of [the 1969 film] Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, when everybody was sleeping with everybody. So Richard came in and said, ‘Let’s all get into bed and have an orgy.’ And I threw him out.”
Mooney may have kicked Pryor out of the party, but the pair would go on to form a tight bond that would last until Pryor’s death in 2005. In the early 1970s, the duo moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they began delving deeper into increasingly political material. Mooney joined the anti-war theater group F.T.A. (also known as the Free Theater Associates or Fuck the Army), where he performed with Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda. He also began writing for Pryor, helping him make the transition from being a buttoned-up, Bill Cosby-like performer to an edgier, “blue” comic. As one of their peers, Argus Hamilton, put it, “It was Mooney that turned [Pryor] into Dark Twain.”
Pryor’s star grew, aided by Mooney’s adept writing, but Mooney’s big break failed to happen. Though he wrote material for shows like Sanford and Son, Saturday Night Live and The Richard Pryor Show, Mooney’s unwillingness to quietly play by rules that Hollywood imposed on black performers, which subjected them to the whims and rules of white executives, made his road to success even more difficult. “If you’re an insecure white man, you might be a little threatened by Paul,” friend and fellow comedian Sandra Bernhard said.
“In Hollywood it’s about controlling. If they can control you they like you, but if you speak up and you have an opinion, have a brain, it turns them off,” Mooney once said.
Undaunted, Mooney continued to perform throughout the 1980s and 1990s, opening for Eddie Murphy’s Raw Tour while writing for Pryor on the big and small screens. He wrote the 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, as well as episodes of The Patti LaBelle Show and The Marsha Warfield Show. In 1990 he began writing for Fox’s new sketch-comedy show In Living Color, creating one of the show’s most memorable characters, Homey D. Clown. Damon Wayans recalled how the disaffected clown came to be:
“Paul Mooney, he was the angriest black man in the world and he prided himself on that,” Wayans explained. “Like, he wouldn’t even pitch ideas for sketches in front of white people. ‘Not in front of the white people, homey. One on one, me and you ... and I’ll tell you everything. Not in front of the white people.’ And he would say ‘homey,’ you know, homey this, homey that.”
After In Living Color, Mooney would go on to write for The Roseanne Show before producing his own comedy special, Paul Mooney: Analyzing White America. The hourlong effort centered on racism, the Sept. 11 attack and his complicated relationship with the n-word. Although he promised to stop saying the word in 2006 after Seinfeld star Michael Richards went on a racist rant during his stand-up routine, during the comedy special Mooney argued, “American was too busy worrying about the land niggers; they forgot about the sand niggers.”
In the early 2000s, Mooney joined Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show, creating the wildly popular sketches “Ask a Black Dude” and “Negrodamus.” Although Chappelle looked up to the comedy legend, he knew that he shouldn’t get in Mooney’s way. “You don’t fuck with Paul Mooney,” Chappelle wrote in the foreword to the comedian’s memoir. “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.”
Throughout the remainder of his life, Mooney continued to hit the stage at comedy clubs across the country, despite his brother Rudy’s claim that he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014.
Though Mooney never reached the level of mainstream popularity of some of his peers, the divorced father of four sons (his youngest son, Symeon, was murdered in 2001) leaves behind a comedic legacy for countless acolytes who will carry on his brand of brutally honest and fearless humor.
Britni Danielle is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who frequently covers the intersections of race, gender, and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.