Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley: The Trailblazing First Female Comedian and Her Legacy

comedy shows in montreal - Jackie 'Moms' Mabley The Trailblazing First Female Comedian and Her Legacy

Who Was the First Female Comedian?

The Montreal comedy scene features many hilarious women. There are many women who have played pivotal roles in shaping the history of stand-up comedy. But who was the first? Let’s take a look at the life of the world’s first female comedian, how she got her start, and the legacy she paved for later generations.

Early Women Comedians

When you think about women pioneers of comedy, you likely think of names like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. These were certainly remarkable talents that left their mark on the comedy scene. However, they were nowhere near the first female comedians. Both of these got their start in the 1950s, several decades after the first female comedian initially took the stage.

Female stand-up comics in the 1950s were among the first to be given the name “comedian.” Prior to the 1940s, that term was reserved solely for male performers. Women were largely not viewed as serious comedians and typecast into roles that often required singing and dancing to be successful. However, one entertainer in the 1920s was able to make her mark as a comic.

Jackie “Moms” Mabley & the Chitlin Circuit

If you haven’t studied about black history in the United States, you likely won’t recognize the term Chitlin Circuit. This was a grouping of performance venues from the early 1900s to the 1960s that encouraged performances by African American musicians and entertainers.

The Chitlin Circuit included performance spaces in the eastern, southern, and midwestern United States. They were an important source of performance at a time of segregation where black people were not allowed to perform in many venues. Named after chitterlings, a popular dish with ties to black southern cooking, the Chitlin Circuit helped give rise to many art forms, perhaps most notably Blues music.

During the 1920s, a young comedian by the name of Jackie Mabley began working on the Chitlin Circuit. Originally named Loretta May Aiken, she had a difficult childhood. Both of her parents died in separate accidents when she was young. As a young woman, she made her way to Vaudeville and began performing on the circuit.

Defining Her Schtick

Mabley earned the nickname “Moms,” which may sound strange for a performer that was quite young. In reality, this nickname was in relationship to her onstage persona. She cultivated a character that was largely framed after her grandmother, the one stable force in her early life.

As the first female comedian, Mabley’s onstage character was that of an old lady. She would present herself with loose fitting, old clothing, a funny-looking hat, and form her mouth in a way where it looked as if she did not have teeth when she spoke. This appearance served to create a very comical look. However, it also had another important benefit for Mabley.

By performing under the guise of an old woman, she had much more freedom to discuss topics that were taboo. Her act typically addressed different aspects of life at the time including racism, political satire, and sex.

Prior to developing the maternal grandmother character, Mabley did many of her sets about sexuality and sexual orientation. She had come out as a lesbian in 1921, just a year after making her comedy debut at Connie’s Inn in Harlem. While she drew a name for herself quickly, it was the Moms Mabley character that catapulted her into stardom.

A Career with Many Accolades

As the first female comedian, Mabley performed stand-up comedy at a time where women were not given the opportunity. Rather, women in the 1920s would see comedic performances limited to roles in Vaudeville song-and-dance acts rather than traditional stand-up. She proved that she had strong comedy chops, seeing her career takeoff. In 1939, she became the first female comic to be invited to perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.

In the 1960s, at the time when segregation was nearing an end, Mabley began to achieve crossover success. She performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1962 and began to be featured on many television and radio shows. She was a regular guest on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour program.

While her act had been traditional stand-up comedy, she did begin to venture into music later in her career. She began adding singing as a regular part of her act. In fact, Mabley even earned a Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1969 with “Abraham, Martin, and John,” which peaked at No. 35. This made her the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit in the United States, which she achieved at the age of 75.

Mabley, the first female comedian, continued to make regular appearances on television programs and recorded several popular comedy albums. In 1971, at the age of 77, she opened for Ike & Tina Turner at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre. Her final addition to her resume was serving as the leading role in the film Amazing Grace in 1974. She suffered a heart attack on the set but returned three weeks later after receiving a pacemaker to finish shooting. Mabley passed away the following year.

The Legacy of the First Female Comedian

Mabley was a trendsetter in stand-up comedy. As a black, lesbian comic, Mabley was able to achieve extreme success while paving the way for others to follow in her footsteps. She saw crossover fame amongst a wide demographic of audiences with her non-threatening grandmotherly character allowing her to address more taboo topics at the time.

Mabley’s Moms character has since been portrayed by other comics including Whoopi Goldberg and Wanda Sykes. The character served as the inspiration for Grandma Klump in Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor. Her mark on comedy can still be seen today, most notably in her popular character that she portrayed for most of her career.

As a popular venue in the Montreal comedy scene, Comedyville Comedy Club is happy to share the history of our craft. We hope that you have enjoyed learning about Moms Mabley as the first female comedian and that you will join us for an upcoming show. Whether you are a guest or a local, you are sure to enjoy Montreal comedy.


Post by Eddie Case, exclusively for, All rights reserved.
Comedyville is a Comedy Club located in Downtown Montreal. 

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