Paul Mooney, the comedian, writer and actor known for his close collaborations with Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle, has died at the age of 79. Mooney died Wednesday at 5:30 a.m. at his home in Oakland, California, his representative confirmed to the Hollywood Reporter. No cause of death was provided.
Mooney’s official Twitter wrote to fans following news of the comedian’s death, “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.”
Dave Chappelle called Mooney “the best that ever did it” when speaking to TMZ soon after news broke of Mooney’s death. “His legacy will live forever. He did everything from Richard Pryor Show to Chappelle’s Show. He’s one of the first black people ever in the Writers’ Guild. Paul Mooney will be sorely missed and wildly remembered, I’ll see to that.”
“A comedy giant,” Ava DuVernay wrote on Twitter. “I recall listening to his RACE album in college and how formative it was. Yeah, the jokes. But more so, the freedom. He spoke freely and fearlessly about feelings and experiences others found difficult to express.”
Born Paul Gladney in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1941, the comedian — who adopted his stage name Mooney after Scarface actor Paul Muni — first worked as a ringmaster in the circus before moving into comedy. He was inspired after witnessing a Lenny Bruce performance.
“When I was like about 16 I saw Lenny Bruce taken away out of a nightclub in handcuffs and, you know, for using words,” Mooney, whose comedy like Bruce’s often courted controversy, told NPR in 2006. He first met Richard Pryor in Los Angeles in 1968; as Mooney often said, Pryor came to a party at Mooney’s apartment and tried to initiate an orgy, so Mooney “threw him out.”
Despite the awkward first meeting, the two became close collaborators, with Mooney and Pryor co-writing episodes of the sitcom Sanford & Sons together before the duo worked on the pioneering, controversial and short-lived variety show The Richard Pryor Show in 1978. Mooney is also credited with contributing material to some of Pryor’s Grammy-winning comedy albums like 1976’s …Is It Something I Said? and 1983’s Live on the Sunset Strip, as well as co-writing Pryor’s autobiographical 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.
When Pryor was recruited to host Saturday Night Live in December 1975, he insisted that the show hire Mooney to write sketches for the episode, resulting in the classic job interview sketch between Pryor and Chevy Chase:
In addition to his writing and stand-up work, Mooney carved out an on-screen career with notable roles in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story (where he played singer Sam Cooke), the Pryor-starring 1981 film Bustin’ Loose and a pair of entertainment industry satires, 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle and Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled.
Following a stint as head writer on Fox’s In Living Color — he created Damon Wayans’ popular Homey D. Clown character, among others — Mooney was hired on Chappelle’s Show as an actor and writer, where he starred in sketches “Ask a Black Dude,” “Mooney at the Movies” and the character Negrodamus. “You don’t fuck with Paul Mooney,” Chappelle said of working with Mooney (via Vulture). “You don’t fuck with his writing, his material, his sketches … and you certainly don’t tell him what to do! Trust me, I’ve learned.”
“I’m shocked at what comes out of my mouth. You know, I’m surprised,” Mooney told NPR of his comedy in 2009. “It comes from somewhere other than me because sometimes, I’m surprised at the things I say. People say to me, you know, you shock me. And I say, ‘I shock myself.'”