Tuned In

Bernie Mac, 1957-2008

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Comedian and actor Bernie Mac died early this morning of complications from pneumonia. I was more familiar with him from his Fox sitcom than from his standup, but Mac first broke through to a wide, national (read: white) audience in The Original Kings of Comedy, the concert film about the African American comedy tour. It was in a routine captured in that movie that Mac dared America to give him a sitcom: foul-mouthed, trash-talking, explosive Bernie Mac.

America did, and The Bernie Mac Show (created by Larry Wilmore, now of The Daily Show) adapted Mac’s pissed-off stage persona to a family sitcom, making him a cranky father figure who took in his sister’s kids after she ran into trouble with drugs. It wasn’t a Norman Lear-style social commentary, but it gave its family comedy the grit and realism that Mac brought to his in-your-face stage act. As he told me in a feature I wrote on him, the transformative moment in his career came when Redd Foxx told him, “‘Young man, you’re funny. But your problem is, you don’t want to be funny. You want to be liked.” Mac got over that, and he brought the same attitude to his tough-love family sitcom, where he—along the little-c conservative lines of Chris Rock—was a model of a parent who wanted to be a parent, not a friend.

Big, blustering, sweating, Mac seemed to physically work at his comedy, to strain and expostulate like a preacher, and that sense of full-on, bodily commitment made audiences all the more invested in his comedy. Mac went on to appear in movies like Ocean’s Eleven, but he was never so cuddly that he couldn’t be trouble; toward the end of his life, he made headlines again for telling raunchy jokes at a Barack Obama event. As he said on his sitcom: “Bernie Mac just say what you want to say but can’t.” Thanks for that, Bernie.