by Alan Sepinwall/The Star-Ledger Saturday August 09, 2008, 12:18 PM
Whatever pain Bernie suffered over the years -- from racism or family turmoil or his chronic battles with sarcoidosis -- is gone. He died today in a Chicago hospital due to complications from pneumonia. He was 50.
Though I discovered him relatively late in his life, I was a Bernie Mac fan, whether it was on his Fox sitcom, or in the "Ocean's Eleven" movies, or even less-successful projects like "Mr. 3000" (which I own on DVD). But rather than tell you why Bernie was cool, I'll let him tell you himself. After the jump I'm including the full text of a profile I wrote of him in April of 2002, midway through the first season of "The Bernie Mac Show."
Bernie Mac, like many male celebrities, has a tendency to refer to himself in the third person:
"Bernie Mac is happy." "Bernie Mac don't sugarcoat." "Bernie Mac just says what you think but are afraid to say."
This sort of third-person pose ordinarily comes across as hubris, but it makes sense for Bernie Mac, since there are really three different Bernie Macs.
There's Bernie Mac, the angry, hard-edged comic made famous to black audiences as part of the Original Kings of Comedy revue. There's Bernie Mac, the cantankerous suburban dad at the center of Fox's popular new sitcom of the same name. And there's Bernie Mac, born Bernard McCullough, the 44-year-old Chicago son who has spent his entire life preparing for the popularity of his two alter egos.
All three Bernie Macs look the same, talk the same and dress the same, favoring billowing silk shirts and shiny suits. They often act the same. The stand-up routine is loosely based on Mac's real life. The sitcom is a kinder, gentler version of the stand-up act. You could call the comic the id, the TV character the ego and the man the superego, but however you categorize them, Bernard McCullough likes to keep the three Bernie Macs separate.
"I've created Bernie Mac," he says, "the guy who'll go out and say any g- damn thing. So when the people wrote (about the Original Kings movie), 'Bernie Mac was hard, Bernie Mac was blue, Bernie Mac was raunchy,' I didn't get angry, I didn't get upset. Because I knew it was another side of Bernie that you all just had no idea of knowing.
"When I put the mic away, I'm done with that guy. That guy that you're talking to now is not the guy on stage. It takes me 15 minutes to get into that guy. It takes me 30 minutes to let go, because he's so agressive, he's so non-stop. Bernie Mac is relentless. That's one thing I like about him. He's not PC. He doesn't care what you think. He's going out there to please that audience."
Mac has been pleasing audiences for years, but it's only in the last two that he's gone from Bernie Mac: Popular Black Comedian to Bernie Mac: Phenomenon.
"I love making people happy," he says. "That's what got me in this business."
One Sunday night when he was four or five, Mac found his mother crying in front of the television. She refused to explain the cause of her tears, and before her young son could press any further, Bill Cosby came onto "The Ed Sullivan Show" and started doing a routine about snakes in the bathroom.
"And my mother started laughing and crying at the same time," he says now, the story so frequently told that he could probably do it in his sleep. "And when I saw my mother laugh, I started laughing, and I wiped her face and said, "Mom, that's what I'm gonna be. I'm gonna be a comedian, so you never have to cry again.'"
He did his first comedy routines in his childhood bedroom, using an empty shoe polish bottle as a microphone and keeping his brothers awake with corny jokes and impressions. His mother and one of his brothers died within a year of each other, both while Mac was a teenager, and he can recite the details of his mother's fatal battle with breast cancer with the same passion and precision he uses on stage.
"My comedy comes from pain," he says. "I can't stand to see someone hurting."
Always a below-average student with the potential to do better, Mac buckled down after his mother's death, but comedy was calling. After high school he began a string of odd jobs all designed to sustain he and wife, Rhonda, while he chased his stand-up dreams.
He was a janitor, a professional mover, a schoolbus driver for handicapped children and a fast food restaurant manager. He briefly spent his days telling jokes and doing impressions on the El trains, but despite a daily take that he estimates at $400, he gave it up "because I felt like a bum."
At the end of a long day's work, he would go to a comedy club, write his name on the board and wait for his turn to come. For years, it either wouldn't come at all or wouldn't come until there were two people left in the building - "Me and the janitor."
No matter how many people were left in the audience, Mac would get on stage and do his routine. The hard work literally paid off in 1990, when he won $3,000 in a local comedy contest. At the time, he was working as a sales rep for Wonder Bread, but the more popular he became on the club circuit, the less he wanted to push bread to pay the bills.
On the day before Thanksgiving, his thoughts were consumed by the three standing ovations he'd received the night before. He dumped his entire load of bread at only five stores - "They had bread in the frozen food department, that's how much bread I gave them all" - called his boss and quit.
With his attention fixed on comedy full-time, Mac's career flourished. An appearance on the TV show "Def Comedy Jam" caught the attention of Damon Wayans, who cast him in the movie "Mo' Money." He found regular film and television work after that, usually in small roles, but the part he always felt most comfortable playing was himself.
He likes to tell the story of the night he watched from the wings as Flip Wilson bombed in front of a club audience. As Wilson's jokes failed, someone in the audience yelled, "Do Geraldine!" Wilson reached into his coat, donned the wig he used to wear as the most famous character from his variety show, and said, "Y'all want to see Geraldine? You got her, honey!"
The Geraldine bit drew laughter and applause, and Wilson quickly got off stage. Mac approached him and told him how great he was.
"You thought so?" Wilson asked, holding up the wig. "This bitch got more laughs than I did."
While the Bernie Mac who appears on stage is an exaggerated, angrier version of the real thing, he's still Bernie Mac, and most of the stories he tells in his act have roots in Bernie Mac's life.
His most famous routine, and the one that serves as the basis for the sitcom, has Mac becoming the guardian to his junkie sister's three kids. In reality, the story is a blend of two real incidents: Mac briefly took in his gang-banging niece Toya and her daughter Monique; while a friend of his had to raise her junkie sister's children long-term.
"My sister's really mad at me to this day, because people think it's her (in the act)," he says.
Mac refined his material, always walking the knife edge between comedy and tragedy, and in 1997 he teamed up with Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer to form the Original Kings, a traveling revue that, with scant press attention, became the highest-grossing comedy tour of all time and inspired a hit movie version in 2000 directed by Spike Lee.
In the movie, like most nights on the tour, Mac was given the honor of the closing spot, a testament to the power of his material and the fact that nobody wanted to go on after him. While his three partners all had TV shows at the time, it was always Mac's politically incorrect material that audiences came away talking about.
In addition to the stories about his "sister" and her kids, the jokes covered Mac's desire to bring back capital punishment ("I'll kick my kid in his sleep," he joked) and the ubiquity of a particular swear word in black culture.
At one point, he joked that people in the TV business were "afraid" to give him a series, a comment that caught the attention of comic/producer Larry Wilmore ("The PJ's"), who after laughing hysterically at "Kings" desperately wanted to do a series with Mac.
Mac and Wilmore, who had met on the set of the Eddie Murphy movie "Life," set about adapting Mac's old-school family values into a series for Fox: "Bernie Mac," the best black family sitcom since "The Cosby Show" and one of the most innovative, appealing sitcoms of any color in recent years.
In every episode, Bernie tells his troubles to the unseen audience - "America, you see what these kids put me through?" - an idea adapted from the way Wilmore saw Mac speak to his stand-up audience.
"He really treated the audience like they were in his living room and talked to him like they were his family," Wilmore says. "As far as Bernie's concerned, the audience is family. They're not even guests in his house. They're more family than the kids."
The show has been one of the few bright spots in a rough television season, and Fox executives have been so pleased with its performance that they gave Mac and Wilmore permission to literally take the show on the road for the season finale, a one-hour episode that will be filmed on location in Mac's hometown.
Mac recently made another big-screen splash as one of the thieves in "Ocean's Eleven" - the scene where he complains that blackjack should be called "whitejack" often gets the biggest laugh in the film - and has released a book, "I Ain't Scared of You: Bernie Mac on How Life Is." He thinks his long climb to the top has prepared him for the tough task of staying there.
"I want to come in every week, every single week, and I want to show you all that Bernie Mac is not a fluke. And I mean that. And I'm gonna show you that."
Alan Sepinwall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name and hometown info.