America needs to get its priorities straight. Next month they’re going to make us all remember 9/11. There’s a lot of big time events planned to mark the date. Even Bush has reared his ugly head, and not to let us know there’s going to be few more weeks of winter, but to remind us of this most momentous occasion.
Are you kidding me? The day thousands of innocent people got killed is not one for celebration unless you’re celebrating our enemies getting over on us (internal or ex).
I don’t celebrate Death. On the day King or Malcolm or Bruce Lee were taken away from us I look at those days as days when I got robbed. Like somebody broke in and violated me. I know I’ll also do the same with the passing of Ali, Mandela and Samuel L Jackson. August 9th I’m doing it with Bernie Mac.
Three years ago we got ripped off. Yeah, yeah, we all gotta go, but some leave a greater void than others. (I didn’t see too many of you shedding salty tears when Amy Winehouse left our midst). Some people are special. Comedians revered Bernie. Like Chris Tucker and Katt Williams, comedians do impressions of Bernie. That’s how you know you’ve made an impact – when your peers either make mockery of you or pay tribute. In Bernie’s case it was the latter.
So a tribute to Bernie Mac is what I was asked to write. Tall order and I’ve never been known as a tall guy. In any case I thought about what Bernie meant to me. I met him in a Chicago bar after a show I did there in the mid-90s. We had a few drinks with another comedian and talked comedy. Like most comedians I was a colleague, but a fan at the same time. I liked his work; “HBO’s Def Jam”, “Midnight Mac” and films. To me, no black movie in the 90’s was a true black movie unless Bernie was in it. “The Lord is my shepherd. He knows what I want” still has me rolling as he looked at a bent over Mrs. Parker in “Friday”.
I later discovered Bernie was classier than most of our ilk. When I wrote my first book, “Black Comedians On Black Comedy” Bernie was ill. His people said he wanted to be a part of the book, but couldn’t talk. He would however answer any questions I submitted if I didn’t mind getting the responses back in writing. Mind?! The fact he’d consent to do anything in his condition was cool as hell. I never forgot that gesture. It showed me that Bernie was really down for comedy and its legacy. Most people would’ve passed on my request and thought nothing of it. So I was very grateful to include what I considered to be a living legend.
See, Bernie represented what was good about comedy. It’s without saying he was funny. Uproarious is more like it. But beyond that he was a role model. Comedians looked up to him because we knew his struggle. Bernie cut his stand-up teeth in Chicago’s subways telling jokes for spare change. Before becoming a household name he worked as a coach, pro mover, scrap yard worker, steel mill worker, cook, UPS worker, Wonderbread worker, on the beer crew at Soldier’s Field, physical director, painter, janitor and all around laborer. He joked with me that he was also a pimp, but he didn’t have any money. All his workers were on welfare.
Then when things finally started to look up the business kept rocking him. He was one out of two candidates in contention to host “Def Jam” after Martin left and lost out to Joe Torry. Then there was the incident when the Obama people kicked him out of a fund raising event for being too blue (aka being Bernie Mac). And it obviously would’ve taken him longer to get a show had he not spoken up on camera while shooting the Kings of Comedy movie and challenge Hollywood to give him a show saying they were too scared of Bernie Mac (like Damon Wayans once said that he was). Bernie took it as all part of the job and kept it pushin’ .
However, the thing that always struck me about Bernie Mac was how you liked him and really didn’t know why. He was one of those entertainers you routed for because you knew he wasn’t going to blow it. He wouldn’t be the guy you’d shake your head about later and murmur, “What a waste” or “”how could he be so stupid?”. Bernie was a man in the mold of James Evans. Chicago veteran comedian Evan Lionel and Bernie Mac protégé says as much. “Bernie believed in manhood. He used to say, “No punks up in here” He was old school. Even when he was young he had an old man’s philosophy. He was about disciplining young comics.”
Bernie tried to unionize Chicago comedians. He tried to point out that they should establish a base rate across the board, but once he saw it was everyone for themselves he had to abandon the idea, but that didn’t stop him from trying to bring professionalism to the craft from those around him. Evan goes on to say, “He used to tell me to take stand up seriously. He was very professional. He’d say, ‘man’s gotta have a job. My job is comedy’. Bernie would go to clubs on time. He knew the show wasn’t going to start on time, but he treated comedy like a business. Another thing, he was determined to do comedy his way and not Hollywood’s way. He hated his other jobs, but he had a family to feed. He could hardly wait for his comedy to take off and when it did he never looked back.”
He also never stopped learning about comedy; especially the business end. Chicago comedian Daran Howard explains. “ Bernie was tight with Arsenio Hall. They used to run together so when Arsenio got his show he had Bernie on after people kept asking how come he wasn’t. Then when he was sitting on the couch talking they were bringing up people they both knew. At one point Bernie started talking bad about a promoter and Arsenio stopped him. ‘No man, we don’t do that on this show’ Bernie was in a new league and Arsenio was schooling him and Bernie was taking it in.”
Bernie Mac was old school. Evan tells about his influences. “Bernie was influenced by a lot of older comedians like Pigmeat Markham. One of his biggest though was Robin Harris. Bernie would fly to L. A. and check Robin out at the Comedy Act Theater. They used to hang out together. As a matter of fact when Robin died, Bernie was one of the last people to see him that night in Chicago (after Harris’ concert). Yeah, Robin was Bernie’s greatest influence.”
Bernie was comfortable in his skin. Just so happened that skin was black and Bernie’s people loved him. Daran Howard – not so much. “Bernie had a club, the Cotton Club. I had been used to doing white rooms. So I go to do the Cotton Club and I bombed so bad that Miss Cotton Club came up on stage and got me off. When I got back to Bernie he said, “It’s a shame when a man can’t perform for his own people.” I was determined to come back and show Bernie and Miss Cotton Club they were wrong so I worked out doing black spots and went back one year later and ripped that club. Miss Cotton Club was there, but she acted like she didn’t even remember me. Bernie just nodded.”
The difficult thing about doing a tribute for a man like Bernie Mac is there’s just not enough time. To do him justice you’d have to talk to his birthing doctor, nurses, kindergarten teacher, high school coach, family members, classmates, neighbors, old girlfriends, running buddies, club owners, the person who hired him at Wonderbread, scores of comedians, Miss Cotton Club, Spike Lee, Larry Wilmore, FOX network executives, film directors, Samuel L. Jackson, his wife Rhonda and millions of fans. And it’s that last one that threw me off schedule.
So instead of using up all my frequent flyer miles I decided to ask some of Bernie’s Facebook fans what they thought made Bernie Mac so special?
Harold S. Reed Jr. … Mac put his everything into his act. Won’t no way you weren’t gonna laugh when he was on stage. Try if you want … He won’t scared a you mutha-phukkaz!!
Rosalind McCoy – I met him in 1996 when he used to have a Tuesday night show at Milt Triniere’s Jazz club in Downtown Chicago. He was quite possibly the nicest person I’ve ever met, both he and his wife, Rhonda.
Ku Egenti He had no fear and he was a COMEDIAN’S COMEDIAN and I hope to achieve just a bit of his great career..rip KING
Bigg Nez Triple Threat One of the reasons why i do comedy. And he had a huge heart!!
Rod Clinkscales – I FOLLOW HIS “DONT BE SCARED TO SAY IT” APPROACH!
Shareen Chester – He is my favorite comedian, he earned that position with the Kings of Comedy . I thought i would never stop laughing even as I write this I’m laughing. They say the good die young and I agree. I am happy he got to do what he loved.
Aida Rodriguez . . .What wasn’t special about a man that epitomized comfort in being himself and never pandering. I love Bernie, every time I think about the odds against me, I think of him.
All good tributes to the man, but I think Stephen Mandel Joseph said it best;
Bernie was more than just a comedian, he was a human being, a loving and devoted father and husband, loyal to his true friends. You can tell from watching his show on TV that he really cared about people; as a whole, not just as a race. His values were old school and his message to the young people of today’s generation was straightforward. We lost a prophet and man of God, who did more for people than make them laugh. Till this day, his is the only death that still leaves me in disbelief. When you see him in a movie or TV show it’s like he’s still here among us…and that is both deep and powerful. God bless Bernie Mac.
By Darryl Littleton
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