Bernie Mac died much, much too young. Sure, he starred in and created a terrific TV sitcom that took black life away from the buppie perfection of The Cosby Show and the working-class stereotypes of Good Times. He also got to at least enjoy fame a little, stealing scenes from George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven, knocking Ashton Kutcher upside the head in Guess Who, and going toe-to-toe with Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.
All the same, this hurts. Bernie Mac’s onscreen, onstage persona was black masculinity personified. In Spike Lee’s Original Kings of Comedy, he outshone everyone but Steve Harvey simply because he was willing to offend, to risk drawing fire. Several of his jokes about a gay nephew are beyond crass, and his punchlines about his children, family, and his lack of interest in sex are mean, too. It’s a meanness, though, that’s borne of frustration with himself. Bernie Mac is the butt of half his jokes. For all his manly bluster, he still takes care of and loves the gay nephew. For all his harrumphing about being the “man of the house” in The Bernie Mac Show, it’s his wife Wanda who’s running things, and it’s his niece Vanessa who goes over on him time and time again. For all his DIY swagger and bromides about taking care of your own damn self, his onstage/onscreen personas are unusually generous to others, especially children.
Somehow, he’s charming. David Denby captured some of why this is so in his Original Kings of Comedy review:
Bernie Mac, tall, handsome, stentorian, and fearless, says he’s past his prime in bed; we don’t believe him for a minute, but it’s a gracious admission of mortality.
Indeed, what makes Mac hilarious is that he says all this shit, and it’s perfectly obvious (to us more than to him) that it’s a lie. That meanness conceals a softie—a loyal family man, an honest breadwinner, an effete clotheshorse. (Did Bernie Mac ever, and I mean ever, look less than awesomely styled? If I strike it rich, I’m hiring his personal tailor.) The characters he played tend to be selfish, crude louts on the surface but tender once you dig down into them. It’s not, however, that the crudeness isn’t funny. In fact, it’s refreshing even when it’s offensive, because it indicates that Bernie Mac might be a softie but he’s no sucker. I loved the family bits of his stand-up material, even when my jaw was on the floor, because he was daring to be unsentimental about children and what a pain in the ass they can be. He doesn’t genuflect toward his single mother—in itself a major mark, as black men idolize their mamas beyond all reason—but cracks wise about her. Instead of gangsta swagger about sex, Bernie Mac riffed on how much work sex is, and wonders whether lovemaking’s even worth the trouble.
Most of all, he comes across as exasperated by all this extreme behavior: the chaos of his family life, the over-the-top indignities. He tries to fashion a middle way between Richard Pryor’s coked-to-the-gills insanity and Bill Cosby’s social-conservative gentility, but keeps getting tripped up by life. His frustration, ironically, leads him to rashness of his own. He feels pushed, so he pushes back harder. The funniest, truest episodes of The Bernie Mac Show are those in which Bernie’s anger at, and subsequent reactions to, a problem snowballs until he’s in fact the one causing the biggest trouble for everyone around. He becomes the extreme that he started out mocking.
So, the Mac wasn’t always likable. Neither was his predecessor Robin Harris, who died in 1990 at age 36, also before we could see everything he could do. Both were Chicago boys, talking openly and meanly about the black American experience in that irascible, cocksure, but somehow bemused and loving way that both enthralled and enraged audiences. Harris’s unsentimental “Bébé’s Kids” sketches about terrible children resonate in the Mac’s later stand-up.
And, just as I still miss Robin Harris’s ferocious comedy, I’m sure I’ll still be missing Bernie Mac eighteen years from now.