Paul Mooney won’t play the game.
He’s got a gig on Saturday at the Bloor Cinema, but the veteran comic and former Richard Pryor-running mate blew off an appointment for our phone interview and hasn’t returned my messages. And when I finally do get him on the line when he arrives in Toronto from Oakland, he proves just as elusive in conversation.
“I’ve been doing this a very long time,” says the 72-year-old, when asked about his particular kind of funny. “If I have to describe my brand of comedy, we’ve got a problem here in Canada.”
So allow me to explain this cat. Mr. Mooney is a social critic and race-based comedian. Among other things, he collaborated extensively with Mr. Pryor and wrote for sitcoms such as Good Times and Sanford and Son. He’s thought to have invented In Living Color’s Homey D. Clown character and Chappelle Show’s Negrodamus. According to his autobiography, the not immodest Mr. Mooney claims to have instructed a puzzled Barack Obama on how to do the fist-bump.
As Mr. Pryor figures prominently in his bio, I ask Mr. Mooney about the late, great and troubled comic. “He was a storyteller,” he says. “If Mark Twain was the greatest storyteller, then Richard was Dark Twain.”
When asked if there was a modern-day version of Mr. Pryor today, Mr. Mooney dismisses the notion with a light laugh. “Man, you sound like what’s his name. The one who looks like Jiminy Cricket. You sound as crazy as he does.”
Turns out he’s talking about Spike Lee. The acclaimed film director who directed Mr. Mooney in Bamboozled, the 2000 satire about a televised black minstrel show.
After that, Mr. Mooney opens up a bit. When asked if Hollywood would ever move on from making films about unchained slaves and unbound servants that don’t involve bankable Caucasian heroes, he again chuckles. “That’s Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t even have respect for itself. Hollywood lies to itself.”
Other subjects awkwardly covered during our brief chat include religion – he thinks problems are caused when religion is left out of the equation; I think he’s crazy – and the myth of post-racial America. “America is racial. America was founded on race. Race is America. The code name for America is race.”
Mr. Mooney has an off-kilter charisma to him. In the end, I would describe the interview with him as delightfully uneasy and pleasantly challenging. “I like when people are trapped in the joke, when there’s no escape,” he says, possibly owning up. “I like to lead people down the wrong path and then trap them.”
And I know that feeling.