Paul Mooney Was in the Circus! (Now He’s Dead)

Okay, forgive the irreverence of the headline — we thought we’d honor the late Paul Mooney (1941-2021) by emulating the spirit of his comedy. And, besides, he really WAS in the circus. We were delighted to read in his obits that he’d started out as the ringmaster of the California based Gatti-Charles Circus (as it was then known; it’s now just called Circus Gatti. It still exists). Mooney later claimed he saw cruelty to animals when he worked there. Decades later, when he was writing for In Living Color, he came up with the character of Homey the Clown (played by Damon Wayans). I wonder if he was thinking of anyone in particular?

I chose the photo above because it looks like the headshot they used in the window of Caroline’s whenever he played there. I spotted it once years ago, and went, “Who’s that?” He was a bit of a show business legend, and did a lot of his most important work behind the scenes. Mooney was born Paul Gladney and raised in his native Shreveport and then in Oakland. His first major foothold in show biz came as a writer on Sanford and Son (1972-74). He then became a writer for Richard Pryor, co-writing classic comedy routines that were immortalized on concert records and films in the ’70 and ’80s, creating material for Pryor’s Saturday Night Live appearance, working as headwriter on the short-lived Richard Pryor Show (1977), as well as the kid’s show Pryor’s Place (1984) and the bio-pic Jo-Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling You (1986). He also wrote for The Marsha Warfield Show, In Living Color, Roseanne, and Chapelle’s Show.

Mooney was also an actor. He played Sam Cooke in The Buddy Holly Story (1978), had small roles in Pryor’s Which Way Is Up? (1977) and Bustin’ Loose (1981), as well as Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Pauly Shore’s In the Army Now (1994), Spike Lee’s blackface satire Bamboozled (2000), and his own comedy show Judge Mooney (2004). He was also frequently seen doing standup on programs like Showtime at the Apollo, BET awards shows, and his own comedy specials.

But Mooney was just as well known for his activities AROUND the comedy world, like leading a famous strike at The Comedy Store, for starting a public dialogue with Michael Richards following his career-killing use of the N-word, and for his epic carousing with Pryor. He’s a comedian who crossed the line many times, offstage as well as on, but we’ll avoid talk of his lapses, real or alleged, on this occasion. Paul Mooney is dead of a heart attack at age 79. Now, he’s wherever Pryor is and now they can REALLY raise hell.

BTW, his stage name was adapted from that of screen actor Paul Muni, star of the original 1932 version of Scarface.