Mooney's Memories: 'Black Is The New White'

Paul Mooney i i

Paul Mooney also appeared on Talk of the Nation in 2006, interview found here. Pieter Henket hide caption

itoggle caption Pieter Henket
Paul Mooney

Paul Mooney also appeared on Talk of the Nation in 2006, interview found here.

Pieter Henket

Paul Mooney has spent decades behind the scenes as a writer for shows such as Saturday Night Live, In Living Color and Chappelle's Show. Now he takes the spotlight in his memoir about his life in comedy, Black Is The New White.

Mooney joins Neal Conan to discuss his friendship with the late comedian Richard Pryor, and also his life and work. Mooney believes that stand-up is the only place in the entertainment industry where a black man can speak honestly, and shares his battles with Hollywood to illustrate his point.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Some comedy can make you laugh 'til it hurts. Some comedy hurts so much you have to laugh. Count Paul Mooney in that second camp. He resume lists a string of groundbreaking moments, many with his longtime partner and best friend Richard Pryor, as well as stints on "In Living Color" and "Chappelle's Show" bits that deal with race in excruciating and sometimes hilarious detail. It can be uncomfortable. Sometimes the laughter is nervous, and he likes to try to make you think.

His new book is, in part, a memoir of his friendship with Richard Pryor, but it also describes his life and work, his belief that stand-up is the only place in the entertainment industry where a black man can speak honestly, and the battles with Hollywood that illustrate his point.

Paul Mooney joins us in just a minute. Later in the program, Dawn Turner Trice weighs in on Disney's first black princess. But first, if you'd like to speak with Paul Mooney about his career, from his partnership to Richard Pryor to his days on "Chappelle's Show," our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Paul Mooney joins us today from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Comedian): Well, it's nice to be back.

CONAN: And do you think that comedy is, by its very nature - or should be uncomfortable?

Mr. MOONEY: I don't know if it's uncomfortable. It all depends on who you are. I mean, you know, being in a topless bar, is that uncomfortable? I mean, you know, I can't speak for someone else. I mean, I only speak for myself. I like comedy, I mean, in all forms. You know - it - and - I guess it could be uncomfortable for a lot of people if you're not experienced.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. MOONEY: But experience is the best. You know, if you're not used to going to a comedy club, you may get upset. You know�

CONAN: And just go back a couple of times, get used to it, and see if you like it.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. I mean, I don't - you know, I can't speak for others. I mean, I can speak for what I've experienced, but I - you know, I can - I don't know. I mean, a human being is a difficult creature to, you know, to make comments on.

CONAN: It's interesting, though. You say when you were starting out in Los Angeles, there were times when you would deliberately try to make your audience uncomfortable.

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, that's my experience with stand-up. I mean, an audience can be like a pack of wolves. I mean, after I, you know, learned about an audience -you know, an audience becomes one. So, you know, they decide what they're going to do, I mean, whether they're going to like you or dislike you. And I didn't like the feeling of being disliked. You know, I wanted the audience to feel it, you know, like any other human being. Do you like pain?

CONAN: Not usually, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: That's my point. So, I mean, it's interesting. It's an interesting feel, you know, and you have to experience it. I mean, it's hard to talk about, because as I'm talking about it, you can't relate to it because you don't know because you haven't done it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: But I can tell you about it, you know. A woman can tell me about her having a baby, but I'll never know what it is to have a baby.

CONAN: Well, I've gotten up in front of an audience and told jokes, some of which went over well and some didn't. But the fact of the matter is, I'm not in the business of - I still have a job if my jokes fall flat.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, you know, so - well, you experienced it. So, you know, it's an interesting experience, you know, when you get up on stage, when you're by yourself. I mean, if you're part of a group, if you're doing improv, it's different, you know.

CONAN: Yeah, that�

Mr. MOONEY: You know, you have other people on stage with you.

CONAN: And they will back you up if you start to fall flat.

Mr. MOONEY: No, no, no. Even if they won't back you up, I mean, it's - you know, you're in a group. You can't take it personal. I mean, when you're by yourself, you have to - because people will say that. What they - if you go on an audition for acting or go out and they go, don't take it personal. Well, I'm not in the Temptations. I have to take it personal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's right. And you get no a lot.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. So�

CONAN: It's a difficult business. It's interesting. You write - you moved from Louisiana, from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Oakland, California, when you were a little kid and moved, eventually, at the age of 14, from your grandmother's house to a house with your mother. And at that time, it was like leaving a cocoon, and you describe going to high school then in Berkeley, California, where you found a replacement for that cocoon of love that you'd felt in your grandmother's house.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. Yeah. Humor. I mean, I learned it all from my grandmother. I mean, I got my sense of humor from my grandmother. You know, my grandmother was very funny. You know, she - and in the book, you'll see, she used to sleep with a hammer, you know. So she was a funny person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: You know�

CONAN: Sleep with a hammer?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. You didn't read that?

CONAN: Yeah, I did read it, but I thought it was pretty curious.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. Although she did, she said just in case, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Just in case.

Mr. MOONEY: In case someone broke in or someone came in she didn't know, she had something for them. You know, so that's a very funny situation.

CONAN: She also had a set of sayings that came into being over time.

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah, her sayings were the best. Everything about her was the best. She was - you know, she was a very funny lady. So, you know, I learned from the best.

CONAN: It's interesting. We've heard from other comedians who've been on the show, other comics: It's important to give the audience a chance to know you. Do you find that to be true?

Mr. MOONEY: I don't know whether it's important to have them to know you. I mean, it's important to have them to like you, because as I said before, the audience is like a pack of wolves, and they know if you're an amateur. They feel it right away, like a Broadway play.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOONEY: They can tell. You know? I mean, when you come to Broadway, you better bring it, because they've seen the best and they've seen the best theater and they've seen the best actors, you know?

CONAN: And they�

Mr. MOONEY: It's like when - let me think of this actress's name. She was married to a very rich man. What was her name? She did - I don't have Alzheimer's. I kind of (unintelligible) sometimes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: I'll think of her in a minute. She took�

CONAN: In our business, we call it newsheimers(ph). But�

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. She took it - the play, "The Diary of Anne Frank."

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And now you're making me forget her name.

Mr. MOONEY: No I - yeah. But anyway, the audience hated her so much, when the Nazis came, the audience said, she's upstairs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: So, I mean, that's how bad it can be.

CONAN: That's how bad it can be. So�

Mr. MOONEY: You know, with an audience, I mean, you have to bring in some sort of professionalism. And sometimes it works in reverse, too. They - you can be so bad that the audience feels like you're one of them, and they'll love you.

CONAN: Hmm. You've had such an interesting career. It has been from appearing on a dance program, this sort of West Coast equivalent - or the Oakland equivalent of "American Bandstand�"

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah.

CONAN: �where you were - basically, helped integrate the show. You were the first African-American to start dancing with the white girls.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, yeah. And the Asians and anybody that wasn't - well, at the time, Negro or colored.

CONAN: Uh-huh. That made you a celebrity in your community.

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah, definitely.

CONAN: And with�

Mr. MOONEY: Definitely. I mean, I knew what fame was before I went to Hollywood, you know. And I'd met everyone - you know, I'd met everyone, I mean, from Ann-Margaret to Aretha Franklin, and everyone came in to do the show.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. MOONEY: To - you know, all the little stars, the little blondes, and you know�

CONAN: Were they lip syncing to their records?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Exactly. Back in that day, yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: They all were. Yeah, back in the day.

CONAN: Everybody was, yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, they all were. Yeah. Annette Funicello - all of them. They all did the show. Everyone did the show. Clint Eastwood - everyone did the show. Anybody that was doing anything did our show.

CONAN: Hmm. Clint Eastwood did the show. That's�

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah. That's when he was a cowboy, a regular on that series.

CONAN: On TV.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, TV.

CONAN: And again, it was - now�

Mr. MOONEY: "Rawhide" (unintelligible) what it was.

CONAN: "Rawhide," exactly.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. He was - yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Exactly.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. Ann-Margaret - when I met Ann-Margaret, she was like, 18.

CONAN: And you said that she has always been a breath of fresh air. You met her again many years later in a�

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah. She still was the same person.

CONAN: Yeah, she�

Mr. MOONEY: Still was gorgeous, still was very friendly and, you know, had a memory. She didn't have selective memory. She was great. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Paul Mooney�

Mr. MOONEY: Connie Stevens. I mean, go down the list. I met them all before I came to Hollywood.

CONAN: And they helped you get ahead so quickly in the business.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, not really. It was Richard Pryor's doing. I mean, Richard was fascinated because I knew everybody. He would always say to me, you know everybody.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Paul Mooney's new book is "Black is the New White." And 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jamal, with us from Sacramento.

JAMAL (Caller): Hey, Mr. Mooney. It's a pleasure to talk with you. I just wanted to ask, when specifically did you meet Richard Pryor, and when did you notice, you know, that comical genius about Richard Pryor?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, I had heard about Richard Pryor from a two folk singers. They were like - Joe and Eddie, the ones that gave me my first start, to open for them. And they were like the Smothers Brothers, the black Smothers Brothers. And they told me about Richard, and I'd heard about him, you know, and so I met him.

I was living at a very cheap apartment on Sunset in Hollywood, where Gladys Knight and the Pips stayed. A bunch of people stayed with us, you know, (unintelligible). A bunch of people would come and stay because nobody had any money, and we let them all sleep on the floor and in the bathtub or wherever they wanted to sleep. And I met Richard - a friend of my sister's who was moonlighting with her, who was dancing at a go-go club, at the Whiskey a Go-Go, had dated Richard and brought him to the apartment. And so it was during that whole era of, you know, that hippie, that, you know, that Bob, Ted, Alice -everybody sleeping with everybody - and Lassie, and whoever else we could get into bed.

And Richard had come in and said, well, why we don't just all get into bed and have an orgy? And I threw him out of the apartment. And he had said before in his book that he didn't know that was my sister.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I want to read just a little passage from Paul Mooney's book: Whenever I read reviews about what a comic genius Richard is, I have the same response. I know him too well. Yes, Richard Pryor is the funniest man America has ever seen. Mark Twain is runner-up; Richard is Dark Twain. But I know he's a junkie first and a genius second. That's cold but it's the hard, sad truth. Is that still how you think of him?

Mr. MOONEY: Who?

CONAN: Richard.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, the drugs were first with Richard. Everything else came second.

CONAN: Everything else?

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. Everything else came second.

CONAN: And you talk a lot - and by the way, Jamal, thanks very much for the phone call. You talk a lot about how he was tortured about if he succeeded, he worried that he was not being - keeping it real, that he was not somehow black enough. And, of course, if he wasn't succeeding, that would drive him crazy, too. And that was not an aspect of it, that that's not why he turned to drugs, that insecurity?

Mr. MOONEY: I think that drug addicts, for me - because I don't do drugs, and I've been around them - I think that they have a lot of issues, that they don't feel good. You know, like, their whole mental thing is that they need that to keep them from thinking about the things that they think about, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOONEY: That they have issues - in their life that they've - that are very negative, and the drugs make them feel better. I think it's a feel-good syndrome. That's how I - you know, and it comes with the territory of being a super-genius, I think. I think it just comes with it. I mean, it's - you know, it's like the yang and the - you know, I mean, it's just like - I don't - everyone I've ever been around, everyone that you love, from Jimi Hendrix to, you know, the people that people just worship, I think that comes with the package, I think, for me. I think it comes along with it, you know, that it's a part of it. That it's the price of being that brilliant, and it's the price of being that it factor, that thing, whatever it is.

CONAN: Paul Mooney writes in his book how sometimes he could see the pentagram come to life on Richard Pryor's forehead and knew that the werewolf would be coming out shortly. We'll talk more about that, and more about his comedy: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. His book is "Black is the New White." I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest is writer and comedian Paul Mooney. And we should tell you, Paul Mooney, we had Charlie Murphy on this program last week, telling tales, and your name just happened to come up. Let's listen.

Mr. CHARLIE MURPHY (Comedian): We thought that Paul was wearing a toupee, right? And we were - I would never do that now. I was much younger. Let's pull it off on the bus. That's - we thought that would be funny. And we was trying to figure how to get his hat off for like, two and a half months, and we could never get it off. And the night we gave up was when I said, you know what? This is how we're going to get it off. I'm going to pull the fire alarm in the hotel, and you bang on the door and say, fire, fire!

So my brother says OK, and I did it. Ah! And Paul Mooney - my brother went back, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Fire! Fire! You heard�

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. MURPHY: �Paul Mooney. And then he opened the door, and he was buck naked with his hat on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Charlie Murphy, referring to his brother Vern while on the "Raw" tour with Eddie Murphy, who you opened for. Paul Mooney, is that a true story?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: It's partially true. Charlie's out of his mind. Charlie's too much. I mean, they played all kind of tricks. They were like crazy people. We used to be on the bus, and I would sit up like an Indian, and they would say, why don't you go to sleep? And it was a white man driving. I said, somebody's got to watch this white man. And they all thought that was so funny.

CONAN: Yeah, they called you the vampire, too.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, they have all kind of stories. That's very funny. Charlie's a funny boy.

CONAN: Charlie Mooney, out with a memoir titled "Black is the New White." If you'd like to talk with him about his career, from his partnership to Richard Pryor to his days on "Chappelle's Show," 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

Let's get another caller in for Paul Mooney, and this is J.J., J.J. with us from Rock Hill in South Carolina.

J.J. (Caller): Hi. I'm - you're one of my personal comedic heroes, by the way, Paul Mooney. You're just amazing. I've always thought you were awesome. But I noticed I try out some of my jokes, you know, I go out, I'll go to a party or something, I'll try out some jokes. And half the people are either rolling laughing, while the other half are a lot of times really, really mad or, in some cases, disgusted, which always is hilarious to me. I was wondering: How do you stay true while not angering the audience, you know?

Mr. MOONEY: Well, you're talking about you're telling jokes at a party or offstage?

J.J.: Yeah, this is just offstage.

Mr. MOONEY: There's a difference. When you tell a joke sitting in the living room or at a club, it's a difference from - the stage is a different thing. The stage has the third wall, and the person that broke the third wall was Oprah Winfrey. Oprah Winfrey made people think that people cared about them. You know, she caused - she's the reason people break the third wall because she went straight to the audience and let them talk and let them say things. She gives them gifts and - you know, so they think that they're special.

CONAN: And that they're participating in the show.

Mr. MOONEY: Yes, that they're a part of it. She broke down the third wall. She really did. It's her doing. She's the reason for it. So when you're at a club or sitting around or at a bar somewhere, there's no third wall. But when you get in the theater or in a nightclub, there's a third wall. There's rules to the game, and people will break it because of Oprah. They'll break that third wall.

You know, it's like being at a play, and you know, blacks would do it at musicals. They'll talk, like they do at a movie theater. They'll talk at a play. It's real interesting to watch, when someone breaks that third wall down.

CONAN: And is it a measure if you're not doing well that they'll start breaking down the third wall? Or they'll do it even�

Mr. MOONEY: Well, they'll do it even if you're doing well. They want to be a part of it.

CONAN: Huh. Because you see that a lot in sports, too, people, you know, want to run onto the field and be part of the game.

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah. They want to be - vicariously, they live through it. You know, it's real interesting, you know? And being a performer, especially that television in your - it's in a person's house, you know? It's very private. So when you're on TV, people feel like they know you, that you're part of their family. And if you're on every day or every week, it's very scary because they actually - you know, I remember one soap opera, and the star of it was getting off a plane, and it was at an airport - it's before 9/11 - and someone walked up and slapped the woman in her face and called her, you know, the B-word. You know, and they can't�

CONAN: That's a little extreme, yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: No, it's not extreme. It's just that they believe what they're seeing. You don't say, I heard it. What do you say? I saw it with my own eyes.

CONAN: I saw it with my own eyes.

Mr. MOONEY: So when your eyes see something, you believe what you see.

CONAN: Yeah, but there's�

Mr. MOONEY: So that makes - no, that makes film and TV very dangerous.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad it doesn't happen in radio. Anyway, J.J.�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: Wait. Well, they can't see you.

CONAN: Well, thank heavens.

Mr. MOONEY: They can hear you. Listen to me, they can hear you, OK?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: They can't see you. And then that's why radio is mixing this with - radio's becoming where you can see people, see? And that's going to change radio completely.

CONAN: And we're going to put a stop to it.

Mr. MOONEY: OK.

CONAN: J.J. thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Sue, Sue with us from Kansas City.

SUE (Caller): Hello, yes. I wanted to ask this question. I enjoy your humor, Mr. Mooney. It is intelligent. It's insightful, but it's also uncomfortable sometimes. Is that intentional, or is that just a part of your attempt to educate the audience? Because sometimes you take us to places that we might think we know about, but you take us all the way over the edge. And then we may recognize it and we may not like what we're feeling, but it's funny as hell, and we come back for more. So I just wanted to know more about that.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, isn't that good that you can feel?

SUE: Yes.

Mr. MOONEY: Actually, what you're telling me, that you can actually feel and that you can experience something, whether you say it's uncomfortable, it's comfortable. I mean, what is comfort and what is uncomfort? It all depends on your reference. Do you understand?

SUE: That's true. Yes, yes.

Mr. MOONEY: It's what your reference is. If your reference is uncomfortable, you'll be uncomfortable. If your reference is - knowing is great. You know, there's a song: How you gonna keep them on the farm once they've seen Paris?

SUE: Right.

Mr. MOONEY: You know, I mean, once you've seen Paris, then you know there's more than the farm. But if you've never seen Paris, you only know what you know about the farm.

SUE: Right. So is that your intention? When you create your work, when you create your stand-ups and your pieces, is that your�

Mr. MOONEY: I can't really say that because people say they're shocked at, sometimes, what I say. I'm shocked at what comes out of my mouth. You know, I'm surprised. It comes from somewhere other than me because sometimes, I'm surprised at the things I say. People say to me, you know, you shock me. And I say. I shock myself. You know, I don't know what to say. I mean, I think funny is funny, and that's - I'm a comedian last and first, OK? And whatever's in between, people will say I'm political, I'm this, I'm that, I'm racial. I mean, that's what their response is. I mean, I can only live my life and my experience the way I experience it and how I react to it, you know? I'm as American as apple pie, you know. I mean, I don't live on Mars or on some other planet. I come from Earth, so I'm relating from Earth. I'm reacting from living here.

SUE: Well, your observations are stellar. They're just fabulous. So, thank you.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Sue. The - it's interesting, you quote the difference between - as Richard Pryor is trying to find his voice and trying to do characters and getting up on stage and talking without knowing what he's going to talk about, you compare him with George Carlin, who you say is very funny, but every breath, every pause, every line is carefully rehearsed. It's quite different to go up and not know what you're going to say.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, Richard would always do a lot of improv, and he would put a skeleton up there, then he would clothe it. But Richard was a great storyteller. I mean, he was the best. He made you believe it. I mean, you - when he talks about the deer walking in the woods, or Mudball, you're there. You know, he creates this atmosphere that you become involved, you understand? You - he was the best at it, the best.

CONAN: Let's go to Evan, Evan with us from Nashville.

EVAN (Caller): Thanks, fellows, terrific to be here. I just wanted to ask kind of a two-part question. I was talking with some friends the other night at work about the movie "Blazing Saddles" by Mel Brooks, and a couple of people had never seen it, and the thing that kept coming up is how the movie could not be made today. And I remember how that was one of my, like, young, oh-my-God moments, when I first started to learn about race, you know, and tensions between black and white.

Another thing that I wanted to talk specifically was the very famous �Saturday Night Live� sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor that culminates in him being called a honky and then him being called a dead honky.

CONAN: Yes.

EVAN: And if you could talk about like, maybe some of your, like, oh-my-God comedic moments in mass media, where you were like oh, my goodness. There's something really big going on here. And I also wanted you to talk about�

CONAN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Let's do one at a time. Let's just�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We'll get to "Blazing Saddles" in a minute. Let's hear about the �Saturday Night Live� sketch.

Mr. MOONEY: You mean word association?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, that sketch was actually - it was actually about me, because �Saturday Night Live� had brought me in to Florida and had cross-examined me because there was no such thing as a black comedy writer, you know? And I was Richard's, you know, first and last and always, and Richard brought me in to write for him. So they wanted to talk to me to find out what I was all about. And that's how that came about.

CONAN: And because Chevy Chase kept following you around saying, can you write something for me and Richard?

Mr. MOONEY: Right. Right, right. Right, right. But that's how it came about.

CONAN: Yeah. So this�

Mr. MOONEY: It was actually about me.

CONAN: The job interview in the show, it's about Richard being interviewed for a janitor's job.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah.

CONAN: But in fact, Paul Mooney being interviewed for the job of writing for�

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. That was my joke on - my personal joke on them.

CONAN: And it's interesting that Evan said "Blazing Saddles" was a movie that might not be able to be made now. In fact, it couldn't be made then. It was supposed to star Richard Pryor.

Mr. MOONEY: Well, it was supposed to star Richard. And Richard went - he was afraid to fly at the time. He went by train with Patricia, the stewardess that he was living with, and which he denies, and their little dog. And they went there and he wrote it. And all that farting scene and all that stuff was Richard. All of it was. The studio was scared to deal with Richard because Richard was on the drugs. So they were afraid, you know, and he was edge also. So then he left and came back to California.

CONAN: Crushed.

Mr. MOONEY: But it was brilliant. It was funny.

CONAN: It was great. And you can only, as soon as I - I did not know that story, and I read it in your book. And I kept trying to recast Richard Pryor in the Cleavon Little movie - role in the movie. And it's an entirely different movie.

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, yeah, completely. They're always replacing somebody safe with Richard, you know. So it's OK; that's Hollywood.

CONAN: All right. Evan, are you still there? Did you have one more thing?

EVAN: Yeah, really quickly. I just wanted - if you could talk about maybe like what were some of your moments when you saw the real, you know, the real deal kind of like, as you say, the clash happening in comedy mass media. And also, like, what buys - why didn't that exist anymore? Why is it totally gone now?

CONAN: All right. Evan, still one thing at a time. But thanks for the phone call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: Evan is just full of it, isn't he?

CONAN: He's got a lot of questions.

Mr. MOONEY: He can be a radio host.

CONAN: Don't give him many ideas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Got any answer to his questions?

Mr. MOONEY: Huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: I thought I answered them.

CONAN: I thought you did, too. All right.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to - this is Kevin. Kevin with us from Dayton.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi. And hello to your guest. I am a real big comedy fan for many types and areas of comedy, starting with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. What I found today, a lot of those folks that are on late night, Jay Leno in particular, really needs to get back on the nightclub scene and take some lessons on what improv is about again. You can watch him reading the monitor. You can see him - the joke doesn't work out, he seems to be lost. But on the other hand, I wanted to know your thoughts on - it sounds like you're more of an improv - anything. And it also seems that Craig Ferguson is one, which I think is fantastic in the way he rides the wave of the audience. But�

Mr. MOONEY: Who did you just say?

CONAN: Craig Ferguson.

KEVIN: Craig Ferguson.

Mr. MOONEY: OK, go ahead.

KEVIN: He's awesome because he seems to ride the wave of his audience and the little things that come up, like if he mispronounces a word, he rides that and makes it funny.

Jay Leno, his monologue seems to be so script, joke at a time, it's really not funny anymore. But I wanted to know�

Mr. MOONEY: Well, Jay, the shoes that they gave Jay to fit are too big for him. You know, he - that's Johnny Carson's spot. And those are some big shoes to walk in. And Jay is�

KEVIN: Right.

Mr. MOONEY: Jay actually is a salesman. You know, he could sell Eskimos refrigerators, you know, so�

KEVIN: For me�

CONAN: I just want to say also that - and Kevin, thanks very much, but if you -Craig Ferguson has also been on this program. If you want to go listen to our interview with him, you can go to our Web site at npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go to Layla(ph). Layla, is that right?

LAYLA (Caller): Yes, that's right.

CONAN: In Norman, Oklahoma. Go ahead.

LAYLA: Mr. Mooney, I know you're an inspiration to a lot of many young comedians nowadays, especially Dave Chappelle. And I understand you worked with him. I've seen many, many Chappelle shows. And I know he has become sort of an icon to a lot of younger people just getting into comedy. I'm only 26, and my parents had me watch so many older shows with Richard Pryor and, of course, George Carlin, who's now gone, and yourself.

And when Dave Chappelle decided to�

Mr. MOONEY: Well, thanks for keeping - thank you for keeping me here.

CONAN: Not dead yet. Paul Mooney.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: That was great. And you know, and you - go ahead. Go ahead.

LAYLA: Yeah. When Dave Chappelle left Comedy Central, it was a big blow, I know, from many, many fans. And I understand, you know, there was a lot of rumors going on and things about, you know, why he left. And he is sort of, you know, such an amazing inspiration to so many people. And do you think�

CONAN: And Layla, can we just see if we get an answer to that?

LAYLA: Oh, yeah. I was just wondering, do you think maybe one day he might come back to the Comedy Central or maybe even do another show�

Mr. MOONEY: Well, I've been�

LAYLA: �if you've ever offered him any advice�

Mr. MOONEY: Well, I've been, you know, I've been talking to him about doing Dave Chappelle, the show, the movie. And I've been working with him six months, so keep your fingers crossed.

CONAN: But it's interesting, you say that show derives, not in a bad way, but derives from "The Richard Pryor Show," a TV show that he did.

Mr. MOONEY: Oh, it does - oh, it all comes from that.

CONAN: And he was under the same kinds of pressures that Richard Pryor was.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. "The Richard Pryor Show" was the, as I said, was the mothership. They all come from that. It's a tree. They're all the apples from that. But Dave is, you know, Dave comes from a very - both of his parents are educators. He's a very bright young man. And I said before, I've been working with him on doing the show. I mean, I miss the show because the kids from - my youngest fan from that show has been 4 years old.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. MOONEY: And kids from 8 to 18 - I mean, fat, skinny, black, white, green, yellow. They can't even speak English, they love that show. That's the only thing why I miss it, because the kids loved it so much.

CONAN: We just have a very little time left. Let's squeeze in one last call from Marshall(ph). Marshall with us from St. Louis.

MARSHALL (Caller): Hi. Mr. Mooney, it's a huge honor.

CONAN: And keep it quick if you can, please.

MARSHALL: I was just wondering, you're such a funny person and sometimes the things that you say are serious and you have a serious tone. Are there ever times that you're trying to be serious that people were like, oh, that's funny, or ask you why you're not being funny or why you're so serious or expect you to be more funny than you are.

Mr. MOONEY: You know, I think it's just - it's my personality. It's who I am. People, you know - I guess it's my voice, or attitude. They take me like I'm real serious, like, you know, that I'm angry and that, you know, I think angry is sitting on top of a roof and shooting people coming in the theater, not on stage�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOONEY: �talking to them. I mean, you have to just remember that you're in - it's comedy. And I don't - I mean, I'm not like the average comedian, you know? And so I'm just a different type. It's just - that's all. It's just like food. It's just a different flavor, that's all. It's no big deal. I mean, people take it so seriously. I mean, let's give it a break. I mean, it's comedy.

CONAN: Paul Mooney is seriously funny. His new book is called �Black is the New White.� He joined us today from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. MOONEY: No problem. Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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Excerpt: 'Black Is The New White'

Cover of 'Black Is The New White'
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

Chapter 36

Harlem is haunted. I ain't talking about no Harlem Renaissance shit, Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois and all those black-history-month folks. I always tell kids if they ever want to do a real report for black-history month, they should hand in a paper on Jesus. Write about Jesus Christ.

He's black.

But Harlem is haunted because ever since Richard's death, every place in the world is haunted for me. I know Richard starts his career here in New York City, down in the clubs of the Village. He kicks off his comeback after Berkeley at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. So I am walking the streets, minding my own business, and suddenly a thought of Richard blindsides me. It can happen any time at all.

I'm in a Harlem McDonald's, subway coming aboveground right here and shaking its rattletrap ass over my head, and I sit listening to a short crazy dude sound off. All I can think of is Richard, hearing this tight little African leprechaun (an Africaun?) rant and rave in a strange, high-pitched nuts-in-a-vise voice. The dude rants to everybody in the Harlem McDonald's, but he's not speaking to anybody in particular. He's talking to thin air.

"I beat you and I hit you," this little Africaun says. "You think I'm small, but I can do it. Come at me, let me see you bring it. I win, because you know why? I may have small hands, but I got God in my hand, right here. God is in my hands. You don't know? I used to be a great opera singer."

I say, laughing, "Oh, little man, I wish my friend Richard were around."

If Richard were alive now, I'd write him such a great character. I'd give the little Africaun to him and he'd make a million dollars out of doing the character of the little dude with a big-assed rant. I can see it like it is happening right in front of me. I can see Richard doing him. I miss Richard. Mr. Mooney. I miss him calling me that.

Mostly when I think about Richard, I think about keeping it real. I think about never losing my voice, never giving in, never selling out, always keeping black, always sticking to the street. Staying neighborhood and not Hollywood.

I mean, I've been doing what I do for a long time. I've made millions of dollars at it. I've always worked, throughout the course of five decades now. Not many comedians can say that.

Stop a random black person in the street and ask if the name "Paul Mooney" rings a bell. Now stop a random white person. Two different realities. Maybe that's what we're talking about.

I'm unheard-of by white people. I'm stealth for white people. I'm silent to white people.

So after a half century doing comedy, I'm some sort of secret? I'm the real unknown comic, not that Canadian who used to appear with a paper bag over his head on The Gong Show. What's his name? Murray Langston. Somebody put a bag over my reputation. I'm known for being unknown.

Or maybe I'm unknowable.

Or maybe some people just don't want to know me.

All my life, I witness reactions to my presence that seem to veer crazily from fascination to denial. Love-hate. But Mama bestows upon me the greatest gift: an absolute bedrock belief in myself. I'm the ugly duckling who right from the start always knows he's a swan. So the people who want me to be a duck just seem silly to me.

"You're different," Mama tells me. "You've got the light shining from within you."

So it's that light, that God-given light, that makes people respond to me in such strange ways.

What I'm wanting to do with this book-joint thing is give you a glimpse behind the curtain. I'm the one operating the special effects and the fireworks and the light show to make the Great and Powerful Oz great and powerful. That's who I am.

Mama's supreme gift means I'm untouchable. Her unconditional love makes me bulletproof. "You are better than anyone," Mama whispers to me. "You don't have to bow and scrape."

So I'm not slowed down or changed by any of the bullshit thrown at me. I always have the same reaction: I just think it's strange.

I'm trying to come up with a comparison. Say there's a single surviving dragon, the last one in all existence. People are fascinated by it, but they're terrified, too. You can imagine all the excited chatter.

"There's only one left?"

"Are you sure?"

"Omigod, I'm glad there's only one left."

Then the dragon wakes up and spits out a few fiery words, and the people are shocked and even more fascinated and terrified.

"You mean it can talk?"

I cannot be any other way than how I am. I can't "tone it down." I can't "be less black." I never worry about whether that person gets me or that person doesn't. I've got the endorsement of the world's funniest man in my hip pocket.

Richard helps me to keep going. Even from the grave, he insists on my keeping it real.

Dr. King says, "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted." I am just happy to be of service to the human race, with all my maladjusted creativity in play every day of the week.

The paper for this book is white and the print is black. Are either of those shades even close to the skin colors of white folks and black folks? No. Malcolm has his realization moment, when he looks up white and black in the dictionary and sees that it's all bullshit. White people take the color white for their own when they ain't white, they're shades of pink and red and tan. And they assign black folk the color black, when we ain't black, we're brown and tan and high yellow and russet.

To paraphrase H. Rap Brown, racism is as American as cherry pie. It's the country's original sin — that and the shit the Europeans pull on the Indians, which is part of the same trip. Racism is a thread that runs through history. Everything is stitched with its color.

June 2008–April 2009
Harlem
Los Angeles

Text copyright © 2009 by Paul Mooney. Published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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