Paul Mooney, a towering figure in the world of comedy and social criticism who brought a sharp eye and sharper humor to the subject of race relations, never better than in his collaborations with Richard Pryor, died today after suffering a heart attack. He was 79.
His death was announced by his cousin, Rudy Ealy, to CNN contributor Roland Martin, who said Mooney died at his home in Oakland, CA.
As an actor, Mooney portrayed singer Sam Cooke in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, played Junebug in Spike Lee’s 2000 Bamboozled, made numerous guest appearances on such TV series and specials as The Richard Pryor Show, The Larry Sanders Show and, more recently, Chappelle’s Show, Real Husbands of Hollywood. In 2004, he starred in his own comedy series, Judge Mooney.
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Mooney’s greatest influence, though, was as a writer, at first for sitcoms such as Sanford and Son and Good Times but more significantly with and for Pryor. He was the head writer for Pryor’s groundbreaking The Richard Pryor Show, co-wrote much of the material on Pryor’s comedy albums (including the breakout Live on the Sunset Strip) and even was recruited by Pryor to provide material for Pryor’s hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. That almost certainly included the legendary “Word Association” sketch, in which Pryor trades increasingly offensive racist terms with job interviewer Chevy Chase. Chase has said he himself wrote the routine with Pryor, an assertion Mooney disputed.
Mooney was head writer for the first year of Fox’s In Living Color, and is said to have inspired Damon Wayans’ signature character Homey D. Clown.
As a prolific stand-up comic, Mooney’s observations were as biting as they were funny, and on more than one occasion crossed lines of audience acceptability. Most notoriously, he allegedly said during a performance following the Boston Marathon bombing that “white people in Boston deserved what they got,” prompting the suburban New York comedy club to cancel his remaining shows. Mooney later denied making the comment.
Mooney’s memoir, Black Is the New White, was published in 2005.
Information on survivors was not immediately available, but a group of comedians planned to gather outside the Laugh Factory Hollywood to remember the influential comic.
Mooney’s Twitter page posted a thank you message to the many people offering condolences:
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 Mooney (@PaulEalyMooney) May 19, 2021
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