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Whoopi Stands Up and Delivers

There’s hardly a gig in show business Whoopi Goldberg hasn’t tried. She’s hosted the Oscars and won one, traded quips with Elmo on Sesame Street, starred in her own sitcom, taken over for Nathan Lane on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, written books, currently hosts a morning radio show, and for all I know is a chart-topping pop singer in Germany. The net effect of more than 20 years of stardom, however — which began with a legendary one-woman show of memorable character comedy — seems to be status as a punch line for a certain type of middlebrow pop-culture ubiquity. The allure, then, of her Bravo standup special, The Word According to Whoopi, was the promise of reconnecting a gifted performer with her roots as a take-no-prisoners, truth-telling comedian.

Performing before the cameras in an intimate stage setting in which audience members surround her on three sides, Goldberg doesn’t score many original laughs but somehow wins you over with some cheerily brutal honesty on a handful of topics: how she’s gotten less personable in middle age, how children these days start out less personable and only get worse (at which point the show starts to feel like a raucous PTA meeting in which an angry mom has somehow taken over), and how race has a funny way of both mattering and not mattering in our modern discourse. On that last subject she was obviously inspired by the dustup over the Michael Richards/Laugh Factory incident. In one of her best bits, never mentioning Richards by name, she sharply points out that for most people, an extreme epithet outburst involves deep rifling through the archives of your brain’s deepest recesses, but he seemed to have his a little too readily available to whip out.

Goldberg concludes the hour by preparing the crowd for a racially tinged shock-value joke that she almost gleefully teases beforehand will surely anger “the community,” a descriptor she delivers in an unmistakably Cosby-esque grumble. And in the moment before she tells it, the years of bad movies, forgettable celebrity stints and edge-sanding career choices seemed to fade, and for once I held nervous, excited anticipation about what Whoopi Goldberg was going to say next.