For Alfred Hitchcock, it was, "Good evening." For Bernie Mac, his greeting to the television audience every week on his hit TV show comes down to one word: "America." In every episode of his self-titled sitcom, Mac plops himself down in his favorite chair, stares into the camera, and repeatedly addresses the community he refers to as "America." This is his sanctuary, where he can tell the audience exactly what he's thinking, no matter how un-P.C. it may sound. More than that, the device is Mac's way of playing host to his audience, a role Mac takes seriously.
"I've always been a host," said Mac in a recent interview with BSW. "My grandmother taught me that; she was a great hostess. When you open the door, you mean it. If you don't mean it, don't invite people to the party."
Mac means it. As The Bernie Mac Show prepares to enter its third year, the sharp sitcom and its star show no signs of slowing down. A critical favorite when it premiered in 2001, Bernie Mac was heralded for its innovative storytelling—in addition to Mac's interstitials, the show features no laugh track and doesn't always go for the quick joke. The subject matter alone is daring enough: In a premise paralleling Mac's real life, his alter ego suddenly finds himself raising the three young children of his junkie sister. Not exactly ordinary television, especially considering that the show stars a standup comedian best known for supporting parts in programs like Moesha or films such as Life and House Party 3.
The gamble paid off. Among the show's many triumphs is a 2002 Peabody Award for excellence. At the 2002 Emmy Awards, the program's pilot episode scored a writing award for creator Larry Wilmore, an honor almost unheard of for a freshman series. This year, Mac received his second consecutive nomination for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series, the first African-American to be nominated in the category since Tim Reid for Frank's Place in 1998. (An interesting side note: Reid guest-starred last season as Mac's combative father-in-law.)
Outside of television, Mac is even more in demand. In addition to starring in films such as Ocean's Eleven and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, he currently has no fewer than five films in the works, including a race-reversed remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? with Mac in the Spencer Tracy role and Ashton Kutcher as his potential son-in-law.
TV or Not TV
The television graveyard is littered with the carcasses of shows built around standup comics who failed to convert their material into a quality program. For every Seinfeld there are a dozen Boston Commons. So how did Mac find a way to translate his humor into a hit show?
"By watching those that failed," Mac replied bluntly. "And I saw the transition they made: They did it for money instead of telling the story from their heart. It's not about dollars and cents, because television will wreck you. People forget what got them there. Hollywood didn't get them there."
According to Mac, it was when he realized he didn't need stardom that the town came calling. "I saw what happened to other people, and I went in and told the networks, 'I don't need Hollywood. I can always go back to the mike.' I built an audience when they didn't even know who I was, and that's the luxury I have. That audience was already there before I got on television, and those people made me."
Initially, Mac was wary of what he referred to as the Johnny-come-lately mentality he found in dealing with the industry, particularly when people would suggest trying to change his image to help him "cross over." Said Mac, "They're always jumping on the bandwagon, saying, 'Ooh, you're great.' Then they'll try to take everything that you've built and turn it into this big fairy-tale television show. You don't talk like that, you don't sound like that, and the people who have been following you for 20 years don't know you like that."
America first got to know Mac as a standup comedian, his profession since 1977. In the early 1990s, Mac was opening for such names as Dionne Warwick and Redd Foxx, and began to make appearances on Def Comedy Jam and in films such as Mo' Money. But it was The Original Kings of Comedy, Spike Lee's documentary/concert film following the wildly successful tour of Mac and fellow comics D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Steve Harvey, that many regard as Mac's breakthrough. Shortly thereafter he was tapped by director Steven Soderbergh for a major role in Ocean's Eleven the same year his sitcom debuted.
But Mac doesn't credit any one project for his current success.
"I think it was a barrage," he reasoned. "I think it was from the beginning to where we are today. From the comedy clubs, from going on the road and building that process and making my fans and going on Def Jam and doing movies like House Party 3. I don't think it was a specific thing."
Mac was raised and still lives in his beloved Chicago, which he credits with keeping him sane.
"I don't have any Los Angeles buddies or friends; I'm not in that little world, and I'm glad I'm not. I'm glad that it took me 25 years to even get noticed. My chops come from a different place. It's not where I had to be part of a clique; I was self-made. That's the blue-collar mentality that I have from being in Chicago."
It's the same mentality Mac often brings to his roles, whether as the straight-talking (and scene-stealing) brother of Chris Rock's presidential candidate in Head of State or as his TV persona every week. When Mac first brought the idea for his series to Fox Television, he had one goal.
"I stressed to them that I don't want money, I want respect," recalled Mac. "When you tune in, I want you to say, 'That's a good show.' I don't want to do fart jokes or beat somebody down to build myself up. You've never seen that on the show, and you never will. I'm not going to belittle somebody or wear a dress for a laugh."
Instead The Bernie Mac Show finds its laughs in a more universal place: raising a family. "It's about universal parenting," noted Mac. "It's not about a black family, a white family. It's about a guy who, in the privacy of his own home, talks about what's on his mind. And he tells the truth—what you want to say."
That frankness comes across in lines like the now infamous "I'm going to bust your head until the white meat shows," one of several threats Mac makes to his television children. (He also frequently promises to "kill those kids.") There was some early criticism that the show was making light of child abuse, a charge Mac dismisses.
"I haven't heard anything like that," he said of the criticism. "Maybe they said it to the reporters. But one thing I'm glad I've grown up with from watching shows like Lost in Space, Beverly Hillbillies, I understand it's television. It's a little truth, a little fiction. When I saw a cowboy jump off the roof on television and I was playing cowboys, I didn't jump off the roof, I jumped off the third step. Because common sense kicked in."
And anyone who has seen his show knows better than to question Mac's parenting skills. In a rare feat, the program manages to maintain its edgy humor while featuring some genuinely touching moments. A recent episode featured the children going on strike against Mac, living in a tent in the yard until Mac bribed them with food and television back into the house one by one. When Vanessa, the eldest girl, finally caved, she grumbled to Mac, "You won, OK?" Mac reminded her that she was the winner—she was living with people who cared for her and finally had a future after years of being raised by an addict mother. It was an amazing moment, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it's true. "That really happened," said Mac proudly.
Indeed, Mac estimates that more than 90 percent of the stories on the show are true, tales from his own life, only lightly fictionalized by the show's writers. Perhaps this is why he bristles when the subject of Wilmore's dismissal is mentioned. After winning the writing Emmy for the pilot, Wilmore was fired in March by Fox over "creative differences." While Mac doesn't focus on the skirmish, he is tired of the press concentrating on how Wilmore's absence might affect the show.
"Larry was instrumental in the show, but he didn't create my life," said Mac. "And that's something I wish people would stop saying. That story was told in 1994, and I was telling it for years. Can't nobody tell my story better than me. I lived that life. So what changed?"
Judging from recent episodes, some of which have been the strongest in the series history, nothing. Mac is still charming in his outrage, and the show still features one of the strongest casts on television, from Kellita Smith as Mac's wife to the three remarkable child actors (Camille Winbush, Jeremy Suarez, and Dee Dee Davis) who portray his adopted brood. And Mac is still practicing his tough-love brand of parenting, something the real-life Mac strongly believes in.
"I'm tired of that modernized you-can't-say-that-P.C.-give-them-a-piece-of-candy-and-let-them-stay-up-late-you-don't-want-to-hurt-their-feelings parenting," Mac said. "Then they grow up to be big chumps and punks and sissies. And like a vampire, you can't drive a stake through their heart, because you created a monster."
There are many factors that Mac credits for the show's success, but every good comedian knows it's all about the timing.
"When this show came on, people were lusting for it the same way they did with Sanford and Son. People had been dying for Redd Foxx, and when Sanford and Son came out, Hollywood couldn't understand who this old man was everyone was going crazy for," said Mac. "Whatever we do, timing is important. It wasn't time for me before. That's why I run my own race; I don't think or worry about what somebody else is doing. I focus on what I'm doing, I try to do the best every day. That's my success for me, and it works." BSW