At the premiere of Queens of Comedy, a younger Mo’Nique walked the red carpet with her co-stars. But on that night in 1991, everyone wanted a moment with the future Oscar winner; even legendary comedians that the Baltimore native looked up to such as Richard Pryor. Although the legendary stand-up comedian was living with multiple sclerosis at the time, Pryor didn’t want to miss that night.
“He was in a wheelchair,” Mo tells ESSENCE of the moment, “and he pulled me into him and he whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t you ever change.’ Well, when it’s coming from him, ain’t nothing you can say to me.”
Mo’Nique, who’s now starring in another Showtime comedy special, Mo’Nique & Friends: Live from Atlanta, seems to have taken Pryor’s advice and turned it into a mantra for her career at age 52. It doesn’t matter that she might frustrate Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels, Mo’Nique says it was “the best advice” she’s ever received. And it’s why she continues to make headlines for doing exactly what she wants—even if it rubs some of Black Hollywood the wrong way.
In her first special in 10 years, which she’s also executive producing with her husband-manager, Sidney Hicks, the comedienne struts onto the stage in a glittering navy blue floor-length gown. It’s a far more elevated look than the burnt gold leather suit paired with an orange bustier and black studded choker that the Queen of Comedy donned when telling jokes about “skinny bitches.”
In her thick Baltimore accent that slides between a southern dialect and a city sound, Mo’Nique opens Live in Atlanta with her signature vulgarity that made fans fall in love decades ago. “It’s been a motherf-cking long time since y’all don’ seen a bitch onstage,” she says in the special. “Oh! I’m gon’ enjoy this motherf-cker right here.”
“It’s been 10 motherf-cking years…but a bitch is back, baby!” she continues to applause. “You can’t keep a good bitch down.”
If you thought time, wifehood, or motherhood made Mo soft, think again. She’s still cursing and still telling it like it is. Filming her latest special in her own backyard, having moved to Georgia to be “a wife and a mommy,” Mo’Nique is still very Baltimore. And in Baltimore, anything goes. Instead of calling out “skinny bitches,” she’s now turned her attention to calling out Hollywood heavyweights. In fact, one of her opening jokes includes one about Perry. (Don’t worry; no spoilers.)
In case you missed it, when Mo’Nique began getting Oscar buzz for her role in the 2009 film Precious, she also made headlines for butting heads with writer and co-producer Daniels, who wanted the comedienne to promote the drama during the Cannes Film Festival. When his pleas didn’t work, he enlisted the help of co-producers Perry and Winfrey, but Mo didn’t budge. Instead, there were rumors that she was “difficult” and later blackballed in Hollywood. It didn’t help that years later she had public spats with EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg and former friend Steve Harvey.
“My show had…started becoming so free because I’ve said some things on some stages, baby, where the little voice inside of me said, ‘Did you just say that?’ So now [I’ve taken it to] a different place because I’m an older woman,” she reflects. “It is such an honor. It’s such an honor and…I’m not taking it for granted.”
In Live in Atlanta, filmed inside the southern city’s Variety Playhouse, Mo’Nique introduces us to Prince T-Dub, Tone-X, Correy Bell and Just Nesh. She also shares her stage with Chappelle’s Show star Donnell Rawlings.
Nesh tells ESSENCE that Mo was “such a joy to be around. She’s honest as well. We had a couple of conversations where she brought me to tears, because she can relate to whatever we’re going through as young comedians in the game, young female comedians in the game, specifically.”
The 35-year-old Chicago comedienne knows it’s not easy being a Black female comic. And Mo’Nique has famously tried to make that road just a bit easier to travel down, especially when it comes to pay equity. Back in 2018, Mo called on her fans to boycott Netflix after she believed she was lowballed for a possible comedy special, reportedly only being offered $500,000 despite her resume. When the Oscar winner pointed out that the same streaming service reportedly gave Chris Rock $40 million and Dave Chapelle $60 million, she eventually went on to sue Netflix, according to NBC News, for giving her a “biased, discriminatory” offer for a one-hour comedy special.
What Showtime said was, ‘We’re not afraid to deal with good business.’
A Netflix spokesperson tells ESSENCE in a statement, “We care deeply about inclusion, equity, and diversity and take any accusations of discrimination very seriously. We believe our opening offer to Mo’Nique was fair—which is why we will be fighting this lawsuit.”
Despite that, Nesh says Mo’Nique’s latest power move “was important and appreciated by me and hopefully other Black female comics.” It was also lauded by many Black women who know what it’s like to work hard and get overlooked; work hard and get underpaid; work hard and get passed up for promotions. It seemed that Mo’Nique was finally singing our song, even if it meant she was disinvited from the red carpet.
“You got to pay me according to my resume,” Mo says. “Please don’t misunderstand me. When you start saying, ‘You have to pay me accordingly. You have to pay me fairly and equally,’ that’s when the problem sets in. And what I can’t do, sis, is waiver from that position because of the women that came before me and the babies that will come after me.”
So did Mo’Nique feel Showtime paid her fairly for this special?
“What I will say is we made a good deal with Showtime because we own our image,” she hints. “Most of us don’t own our image.”
“What Showtime said was, ‘We’re not afraid to deal with good business. Though we hear the rumors and the perception of what people believe Mo’Nique and her husband to be, we’re not afraid of it because we did this amazing show,'” she adds, referencing Queens of Comedy, which was also released by the network. “So when they called and they said, ‘Hey, we want to do a Mo’Nique and Friends,’ it made sense. Like I told people [before], whenever you see me back again, it will have made sense. This made sense.”
Mo’Nique adds that just “because people didn’t see me in Hollywood, people just automatically assumed I was just sitting home.”
“I’m a stand-up comedian. So because you didn’t see me in Hollywood, didn’t mean I wasn’t on stage in Chicago. It didn’t mean I wasn’t on stage in Mississippi. It didn’t mean I wasn’t on stage in Kansas City. So I’ve never gotten off the stage.”
During her special, Mo quips, “Being a boss bitch had me being a lonely bitch.” But she’s just joking. “Because the community said, ‘Hey, sis, we’re standing right here with you.’ And when your community says, ‘We’re standing right here with you,’ that’s all you can really ask for,” Mo’Nique reflects. “The people make the difference.”
It’s why the comedienne’s tagline, which she repeats often, is “I love us forreal.” Mo’Nique says she repeats the refrain because she knows the love is real.
“You don’t have a 30-year career with a community that does not stand with you. So when I say, ‘I love you all forreal,’ [I’m talking to] that community that has gotten me through some moments, baby. When I walked up on that stage and we laughed together, they weren’t laughing at me. They were laughing with me.”
Mo’Nique & Friends: Live from Atlanta is available now on Showtime’s On Demand.