Back in 1977, not long after Richard Nixon's slithering exit and the election of Jimmy Carter, the "Richard Pryor Show" envisioned America's first black president. The prescience of the skit is almost unnerving.
Calm and collected, President Pryor steps to the podium. The first questions cover the issues of the day: What will the president do to spread peace in an increasingly tumultuous Middle East? What's to be done about high unemployment? (Sound familiar?) Pryor calls on reporters from Ebony and Jet for a few jabs on race before moving back to the traditional, established, white news corps. Questions begin slipping from veiled to downright hostile. And unlike no-drama Obama, President Pryor finally loses his cool.
The piece was dreamt up by Pryor and his longtime writing partner Paul Mooney. "We already knew that was gonna happen," Mooney tells me by phone before a show in New York. "It's eerie. It really is. The questions that they were asking that we wrote then, it's like what they ask Obama now."
Politics are still every bit as disturbing to Mooney as they were back in the '70's, when he and Pryor were shoe-horning race into the national conversation. Obama's election, Mooney explains, has made race-relations worse.
"White people were nice until Obama got into office," he says. "That's when they got crazy. They're crazy now. It's a sickness. They've got the flu. Things that come out of white people's mouths, it's crazy. And black people, too, are just insane. When it comes to Obama, the things that come out of their mouthes are scary."
"In the political arena, they have no respect," Mooney continues. "That stupid woman from Alaska. That idiot that said 'Obama let America down.' They're idiots."
Aside from his political qualms, however, Mooney finds himself in a grounded, fulfilled and mostly peaceful place. He's a comedic giant who's moved effortlessly through the ages—from writing with Pryor and for Sandford & Son in the '70s through the '80s and '90s, working next to guys like George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison and Chris Rock, to the oughts where, through Chappelle's Show, Mooney was embraced by a new generation.
But of all of the comics he has seen and worked with, none were more influential than Pryor. "The experience with Richard has been the heaviest influence in my life," Mooney says. "My grandmother too, but Richard, creatively. I learned a lot from him and he learned a lot from me. I would never change that."
Mooney says Pryor taught him everything. "The art of comedy," he says. "The art of partnership. The art of working together. The art of creating. The art of having that insight about the future."
Though bursting with opinions, Mooney is calm and sage-like. He is fortunate, he says, as he knew comedy was what he wanted to do from the sweet young age of five. "I knew about comedy. I knew about timing. I knew what my destiny was. I knew what I was going to do. When I was growing up I told 'em all the time—you're getting jokes for free. Someday you'll have to pay."
By phone from a New York hotel room before a gig at the venerable Caroline's, Mooney spoke often about the integrity and honesty in comedy, something he sees becoming rare in a widening sea of hacks. Becoming a comedian, he says, is a compulsion and not a means to an end, be it moving on to be in films or famous.
"It's not for everybody," Mooney says. "But some people are just born to be comics. Some people, it's just in their marrow. They're a comedian wherever they go. That's part of them. You can't stop 'em from being what they are. They're just going to be there.
While he's seem them come and go throughout the years, Mooney is hard-pressed to point out any modern comics who share the same groundbreaking force as the Pryors or Carlins. "I've worked with the best," Mooney says. "I've worked with all of 'em, from the old school to the new school. I know my profession. I know it well. It's not like I read about it." Today's crop, Mooney says, are "all copycats."
Searching for a window back to that golden era, young performers often squeeze Mooney for stories and advice. "They drive me out of my mind," he says. "If I had a dollar for every time some young comic got in my face I'd be richer than Trump. It just goes on 24 hours. They have a hunger for it."
Part of that energy, Mooney believes, is misguided—twisted by celebrity worship and a desire for fame and fortune. "The TV and the movies and all that stuff," Mooney says, "they seduce people. It's like the carrot before the horse."
One of the seemingly-few black comics Mooney hasn't spent time around is Tyler Perry, who through TV, movies and live appearances has created a vast empire of slapstick, cross-dressing, and twisted takes on family.
"I'm not a Tyler Perry fan," Mooney says. "I'm not a fan. I'm thinking of my kids, for the future, and I don't like the kinds of things they put out. I don't like it. It's too dangerous."
"When black people do movies in America they have to be very careful because when it leaves the country it becomes a documentary," Mooney says. "People outside of America actually think black people are like that. They really do. If you leave this country, the way they treat you and talk to you, you realize that's what they think. They know that white people are not Superman. They know they're acting. If you had a black Superman and I would go to Germany or Sweden and the planes were flying, they'd say 'you can fly home, I saw you do it in the movies.' And that's for real. They really believe that."
Mooney's ire doesn't stop at Perry. "That 'Precious' crap is dangerous," he says. "All this stuff is dangerous for black people. I don't like it. I'm not talking about now, I'm talking about ten years from now. I want to protect my kids, my grandkids. I'm thinking of the future."
Mooney says he's never met Perry, nor had the chance to address the topic with him. Instead the veteran comic takes his feelings to the stage. There, Mooney says, everything is addressed.
"I'll address anything that's on the front page," he explains. "If it's on the front page, it's in my act." This all encompassing approach speaks to Mooney as an ever-present artist—albeit one who acknowledges his best days may be behind him.
"My whole thing—if I drop dead tonight—it's done," Mooney says. "I've got those videos and tapes out—Race is out, and Master Piece, Analyzing White America, Know Your History... it's done."
Nonetheless, Mooney remains hungry. Whatever happens, he'll keep on creating.
"It's a creative thing," he says. "It's not the money. It's not the fame. It's not any of that. I'm an artist and I do what I do. Whether they paid me or didn't pay me I would still do what I do. It's in the blood. It's in the marrow."