In comedy circles, Paul Mooney is a respected veteran with a formidable resume. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mooney co-wrote much of the material that Richard Pryor used in his concert appearances, including the classic 1982 comedy album “Live on the Sunset Strip.” As a TV comedy writer, Mooney also wrote for “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “In Living Color.”
Mooney won a new generation of fans with his regular appearances on Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central series “Chappelle’s Show,” particularly with his recurring bit as cultural prognosticator Negrodamus. At the age of 73, Mooney still makes regular rounds in the comedy clubs and theaters. He performs Friday night at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
Speaking from his home in Oakland, California, Mooney talked about his career in comedy – and made it clear from the get-go that no one is safe from his jokes.
Q: Have you ever played at the Carolina Theatre? It’s a nice space – a renovated movie house.
A: Well, back in the day it was an old whorehouse. Yeah, and I’m not trying to play the dozens with you, but ask your grandmother. (Cackles)
Q: Ha! Nice. She wasn’t from around here, Paul. For fans of yours, looking to come out to the show, what can they expect?
A: It all depends on what happens. Things could change within the hour. We live in an instant world. It could change. Whatever’s going on, whatever they don’t want to talk about – that’s what I’ll be talking about.
Q: So what is on your mind these days?
A: The political stuff, the racial stuff, the usual stuff that keeps everybody crazy. The half-truths. The lies. The half-lies. The brainwashing, all the insanity.
Q: What’s your take on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri – is that something you’ve been talking about onstage or that you want to talk about now?
A: Of course, yeah. Isn’t that what America’s all about? There’s an innocence about all of this, for your generation, but it’s been going on forever and it’s a wake-up call for everybody. People are seeing things on TV that are just terrifying. It’s pretty scary.
Q: You were head writer on Richard Pryor’s short-lived TV show, in 1977, and one of the cast members you brought on was Robin Williams, before he broke big. Did you know him well?
A: Yeah, I knew ’em all. Richard just told me to go find the funniest people, and he trusted me. Working at the clubs, I knew who was funny and who wasn’t. I knew Robin for a long time. He was a great comic.
Q: How did you first get together with Pryor?
A: I had known about Richard. When we were all in California, I brought him up to Berkeley to go get some “edumacation.” Because the college was up there and all the students were up there.
We used to do improv together. For everybody else, when Richard got offstage, it ended for them. It didn’t end for me. Richard wanted me around 24/7, like his third arm. Even when I went home, it wouldn’t end, because people would call and say Richard wants you. I would get calls to come out with him to gamble. He’d pretend he was drunk and take everyone’s money.
Q: You wrote for “In Living Color” in the 1990s. (Cast member) Tommy Davidson recently came to town, and he said something interesting: He said that “In Living Color” wasn’t just hip-hop comedy, it was about hip-hop culture in a larger sense, where everything gets mixed together.
A: Tommy, oh yeah, very talented. Underrated, actually. Sure, it’s like a goulash. It’s like a gumbo, from where I’m from, in Louisiana. With “In Living Color,” it was actually like Benny Hill. He actually started all that.... He made so much fun of the government.
Q: How did you get involved with “Chappelle’s Show”?
A: He used to come into the clubs to see me all the time. “Chappelle’s Show” was the best. People love it who couldn’t even speak English. It was big with the military, even the Russian military. I’m serious.
Q: Anything else you want to say about the show in Durham?
A: Well, it’s gonna be funny. That’s all. Just tell ’em it’s gonna be funny.