This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Today, Paul Mooney has been making audiences laugh for more than 20 years, often in some very uncomfortable ways. A comedy writer for groundbreaking shows like “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” and “Chappelle's Show.” He wrote many of the late comedian Richard Pryor's edgiest sketches, some of which included liberal use of our ugliest racial slur. Pryor changed his mind about that word later on. Mooney continued to use it.
Then last week comedian Michael Richards unleashed a shocking tirade at Africa-American hecklers at a comedy club. In the uproar that followed, African American leaders, including Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson called on black people to stop using the word. And Paul Mooney, who once said it has no meaning to it anymore, I love it, decided to eliminate it from his act.
If you have questions about Paul Mooney's decision, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail, Theatre this weekend and he joins us here in Studio 3A today.
Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Comedian): My pleasure.
CONAN: Why the change of heart?
Mr. MOONEY: Well, it was - you've got to remember that the first person - the first stand-up to deal with this word was Dick Gregory, who I'm working with at the Lincoln Theatre - two shows, 8 and 11. And to deal with the word, he wrote a book and it talked about it. And also Lenny Bruce had a part in it too.
When I was like about 16 I saw Lenny Bruce taken away out of a nightclub in handcuffs and, you know, for using words. Anyway, times are different and well we're here now. But anyway, so Richard Pryor was the first stand-up to stand up against the word and say let's not say the word.
He had went to Africa and he had came back and he had told me - because we were very close friends and that he wasn't using the word because he had been in Africa, he hadn't even thought about the word, he hadn't seen any N-people, the N-word in Africa, and so he wasn't ever going to do it again. He had made that speech.
And I said well that's you. You're your own person. That's your decision. And I'm going to use it. And I couldn't see the forest for the N-word. And I had an affair with the word. I was romancing it. I was married to the word. And that was then and now it's time to divorce the word.
And what brought me to this, because I never thought I'd live to see myself say this. And it shows you how change is. How things can change. When I was called about Michael, who I've known for a long time.
CONAN: Michael Richards?
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, over 20 years. And - oh, we don't want to get him mixed up with Michael Jackson or Michael anybody else.
CONAN: Any other Michael…
Mr. MOONEY: There's so many of them. Michael Richards. When I first heard about it - because I've known him for over 20 years, he'd never shown me that side of him or he had that kind of thing in him - and I said no, there's got to be more layers to this than what everyone's saying. It can't be this obvious.
And when I saw the video, I mean I'm not easily shocked, I went into shock. And it was the first time - because I'm usually inside of myself looking out - this time I had an out-of-body experience. I was outside of myself looking at me and looking at the word and it was such a weapon. It was such a nuclear - like it was a weapon. It was just - I don't ever want anybody to have that power again, you know.
And also I thought about it and it's become an equal opportunity word, because little Asian kids are using it, little white kids are using it, little Latin kids are using it, little black kids are using it. I don't want that to be that.
And I actually saw the monster for the first time, the horror in it. And he kept saying it and mentioning slavery and upside down and naked and pitchforks and all this other crazy stuff. And he kept - I felt like I was in a Klan meeting or in some Twilight Zone and it really wasn't him, you know. It was the devil. I mean all kinds of things went through my head. And I just said, well I'm not going to be a part of this. He was actually my Dr. Phil. He cured me.
So I went and I had a, you know, a private meeting with him in a hotel and he was very glad to see me. He thought first of all I was going to curse him out or get on him or whatever and do something. And, you know, I just gave him hard love and I understood it.
And being a comic, it's not all black and white. And everyone is right there, from black and white, their response to him - I mean they want him deported. They want him horsewhipped. They want all these things done. You know, they want him to pay money. They said he should give up a liver. But, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOONEY: But these horrible things that they want done. I couldn't believe that these human beings have no forgiveness. I mean the deed has been done. You can't beat a dead horse and you got to take a lemon and make lemonade, and you try to heal and give love. He's a human being. And he wasn't responsible by himself. Our society is responsible. They got to take responsibility - and I got to take responsibility because I was out there. Whether good, bad or indifferent I was saying - it made me a part of it too. And I understood that.
And being a comic, he had been out of that arena for six years. He had been the darling of the (unintelligible) for TV and they've all been kissing his butt. You know, he's been getting all this instant love and as a comic, we, you know - he does what he does very well. He had come back in the arena, things had changed. Words had changed. And he wanted to have instant love, he didn't get it. So he was trying to be me, he was trying to be Lenny Bruce and he mentioned me on stage. He was trying to find himself in a lot of things. And then the audience, they went after him, told him he wasn't funny.
Now just looking at that to a regular person - you're not funny, you've never been funny - that doesn't mean anything. Well, you know, you have to accept hecklers. To a comic who wants love, that's like talking about their mother as a hooker and it's horrible to them.
Mr. MOONEY: So he fought back, he reached in the depths of hell to reach up to try to hurt back. He tried to do that, okay. Then he got carried away and he flipped out. He actually had a breakdown. And there was layers of it, okay? And now he knows his demons and he could be cured, you know.
I'm a recovering N-aholic. So I've been there, done that. So I can - but what I'm saying is we have to bury that word and whether it's with an A or an E or whatever it is, it's a Reynolds Wrap. It's a done deal. I'm never saying that again on stage, and I'm never saying the B-word again.
CONAN: A couple of questions, though. You mentioned Lenny Bruce earlier and one of the reasons he used profanity - I know you've spoken about this, so I'm not surprising you with this - was he was trying to rob these words of their power?
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, here too.
CONAN: He did mentioned them in public.
Mr. MOONEY: And he was mentioning racial words.
CONAN: Yes, and racial words too.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, it was driving people crazy. Yeah, this movie and all, oh, they just loved him. They didn't love him.
CONAN: No. He caused a lot of problems. But nevertheless, his theory was that you rob these words of their power if you use them in public.
Mr. MOONEY: Yes, yes, yeah. That was then. And it is. But now is a different world. And we have to end it. You understand? And I understood all of that. But we got to take a stand about this and everyone thinks it has to be a majority rule. So that's not true. A majority can be a lynch mob, you know?
You have to take one person can change the history - Rosa Parks, changed it. It wasn't Rosa Parks and her cousins. You know what? And I mean it's like - we've had people in history, one person can change stuff, they really can. Harriett It wasn't Harriett Tubman and her sisters. It was Harry Tubman. You have to take a stand. And I'm taking that stand and I just hope people can hear me and feel it and see it. I never thought I'd say this.
CONAN: Yeah. You were quoted once as saying, you know, would it be all right if a white person used this word and you said, sure it would be all right because I like a little salt on my cracker, which is a funny line.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, this is a very funny line. I mean I can be funny, very funny when I want to be.
CONAN: I'll take your word for it.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, take my word for it, yeah, please do. But it's, like, you could tell racial jokes and you can say things but there's a way to tell them. So I've changed everything around. You know, put it around and funny is funny. Can I tell you a racial joke?
Mr. MOONEY: All right. A white woman was baking a little chocolate cake for her son, her little white son. She turned her back. And he took the chocolate cake and he put it on his face and he said, look mommy, I'm black. Now I would have used the N-Word - and the mother slapped him, okay - but now, I'm using black. The mother slapped him and said don't ever say that in this house and go tell your father what you said.
Look, daddy. I'm black. And the father slapped him. Don't ever say that in this house. Go tell your grandfather what you said. So grandpa, I'm black. The grandpa slapped him, said don't say this. Go back to your mother. So the mother said look, sit down Timmy. What have you learned today? He said I've learned, I've been black for five minutes, already I hate you white people.
So it's was very funny.
CONAN: That's right.
Mr. MOONEY: And you can be funny without the N-word. So, I mean -
CONAN: So, that's not going to change your routine that much?
Mr. MOONEY: No. No. Funny is funny. I mean that's what people hear because with the shock barrier and all this other insanity. So it's insane and we have to be cured.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in this conversation. Our guest is Paul Mooney and 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join the conversation. Or send us an e-mail, talk@NPR.org. We'll begin with Tim. Tim's calling us from Oral Valley in Arizona.
TIM (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call. Obviously, I'm an African-American and I just wanted to say that I do think it's okay for blacks to use the word because, first of all, I think whites know what that word means. They know exactly what the use of it is to take away the self-esteem of a person, a black person. And, like, I think also is that, you know, I can call my sister an idiot, but if you were to do the same thing, you know, obviously that wouldn't sit well, with me.
CONAN: Might have a problem, yeah.
TIM: Right. And lastly, I would just like to say that, you know, that word - we seem to have amnesia in this country. You know, without it, historical context on that word - you know people use that word as kind of like a ego boost.
I heard in the past someone say to me, you know at least, I'm not the N-word and to me that just seems like a person defining themselves by what they're not. It seems like poor self-image and I know that there are plenty of well-adjusted white people and I understand those nuances.
CONAN: Paul Mooney, what do you think?
Mr. MOONEY: Don't - you sound like I sounded three months ago. Don't have an affair with that word. That word's - we have to get rid of that word. We have to get rid of it. We really do. It has to go. That word has to go. And we try to hold on to it and try to - it's got go because it's gotten out of hand. It's become an equal opportunity word. We are not using in it by ourselves anymore. It's gotten unleashed. And it's like a monster.
CONAN: What about what Tim was saying, within one black to another? Is that all right?
Mr. MOONEY: No. That's not all right, period, for anybody to use it. No, it's not.
CONAN: There is not just - your generation, you mentioned of course Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory - people who were, well Richard Pryor isn't still with us but Dick Gregory still is. And yet it seems to have taken on a whole different velocity amongst younger people.
Mr. MOONEY: Well, it has. It's a backlash. It's a backlash on our society. Society is the culprit. Society really is the culprit.
CONAN: Yeah, go ahead, Tim.
TIM: Sir, if I can just add one more thing. I was wondering, Paul Mooney, if you could kind of talk about this in terms of - the way the discussion is usually framed as race and class, and I would argue that race is class because when you're calling a person that word, you're classifying him, compartmentalizing him, and like I said, it's an attempt to boost your ego.
So that's where I look at that word is - in terms of race being class. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Mr. MOONEY: No, I understand that. I feel you. But you know, the person is a Jew. They're not going to use that other word, that K-word. They're not going to do that. And when Michael Jackson put it in his video, they pulled it from the shelf. They pulled it. They're not having it. They're not having it, because they know what danger in it from that holocaust. And we had our holocausts and we've got to get out of that.
We come from the land of kings and queens. And we have got to get it back, our dignity back, we've got to take a stand with that word. We have got to end all that.
And to make almost illegal to say, we have to just - we have to get that out of our vocabulary and it can be done. Because it's like when people say to you, you know oh, you're using the race card. I wasn't interested about the race card, I want to know how it got in the deck.
But I want, I want that word out - it's going to be out of my vocabulary. I mean your an American, it's your - well you're not really an American, only an Indian and a Mexican - you're a United States citizen because you're occupying a land that really isn't ours. So you can do what you want to do. I mean that's your right as an American. That's why we've come here, for freedom of everything. And this is not about freedom of speech either and this is about dignity. And I'm, hey I'm done with it. It's a Reynolds Wrap. I'm done.
CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call.
TIM: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Paul Mooney, a comedian who's performing here in Washington, D.C. this weekend at the Lincoln Theatre. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Michael on the line, Michael calling from Portland, Oregon.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
MICHAEL: I just wanted to say that there's a real danger in the black community using the word. In my experience, personally, I don't hear it much anymore but in my experience in the past, when people, white people used the word and I would call them on it, the rationalization has been - well, they used it themselves. They call themselves that.
CONAN: I suspect you've heard that too, Paul Mooney.
Mr. MOONEY: Oh yeah. It's true. That's why I said it has become equal opportunity and it's just - it's the Willie Lynch syndrome. It is. It's the Willie Lynch - have them love and trust only us and not each other, the old against the young, the black against the light-skins, the dark-skins, the curly hair, the straight hair. It's to keep us brainwashed and said do it and then they'll brainwash themselves. And that's why lynching is named after him. It's not literally hang you, it's mentally. Mentally.
MICHAEL: I applaud your decision to keep it out of the vocabulary.
Mr. MOONEY: Well, sir, I'm glad that you're smart enough to see it and thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Michael.
CONAN: I wonder you mentioned speaking with Michael Richards, have you spoken with any other comedians about this?
Mr. MOONEY: Of course. I spoke with Whoopi Goldberg about it and she called me and told me that I had to give her an N-word pass, because she had somebody to curse out Friday, and after that she would never said it again.
CONAN: She promises.
Mr. MOONEY: She promises. And I've had calls from Roseanne Barr who's calling me the black Jesus now and so she says I have love for my own species, which is comedians. And we're all getting together about this and from Brad Garret from Everybody Loves racism - I mean Raymond. And a couple of other people. I mean we're going to stand behind this.
CONAN: Of course it's not just comedians. It's very much an element of hip-hop too.
Mr. MOONEY: Oh, that there. Some of them are coming around too. We just have to - it is. We just have to - we've got to kill this word. I know everyone wants it to live and they have such fun with it and it's so dramatic, and you know.
CONAN: And it's shocking.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, but it's hard to get away from drama. It's hard to get away from drama.
CONAN: Yeah. As you look ahead to, you know the world ahead, dropping that word, dropping the provocation, dropping the shock effect of that word it's not going to stop you from being a you know comedian, a funny comedian, and a controversial comedian, I suspect.
Mr. MOONEY: No, no. And we actually at the Laugh Factory, we're fining people. They say the B-word or the N-word. They get a fine.
CONAN: A fine.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah. We were serious about this.
CONAN: Kangaroo court there like in baseball?
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, we get the whole thing. Yeah. That's what - we're doing it. I mean we're serious about this. We're not playing games about this. This is the new world, not the new world order because this is the new world with this N-word.
CONAN: I wonder though as you went through your routine for your next show, and I don't know whether that's the show that's coming up this weekend or not, but you know I don't know if you keep notes or however you arrange it or whether it's all in your head. But you're going to have to go through - you're going to have to make a lot of edits.
Mr. MOONEY: Well, that's possible. Because someone asked me about that they said, you know, you use that word so long. You had a dollar for it, you be a billionaire. You know so. But that was then. I'm talking about - I don't want to live in the past. I mean I can't do anything about that. I can only do what's the future and the present. Now, I can only handle that. So.
CONAN: Well, here's an e-mail we got from Jonie(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Perhaps there are just some words we haven't healed from if comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and those who fall cannot loosen its power through satire to the point where it cannot still provoke outrage, maybe it's time to retire the world until time has had a chance to diminish it.
Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, that girl, she's smart. That lady was smart. It's just I - you know sometimes people can't see what you see. I mean when we see a head on collision, we all see different things. We all feel different things, you know. And I'm not angry with anybody because the same we're using all - because I can understand it because I was there, you know. I was there but it's just time to move on. We have to just let it go.
CONAN: Paul Mooney, thanks for coming in. Good luck with your shows.
Mr. MOONEY: Thank you very much. I hope you show up.
CONAN: Paul Mooney is performing here in Washington D.C. this weekend at the Lincoln Theatre. He joined us here today in Studio 3A. You can hear more of Paul Mooney on NPR's NEWS & NOTES at our Web site NPR.org.
Ira Flatow's here tomorrow with Science Friday. We'll see you, Monday.
In Washington, I'm Neal Conan NPR News.