Bernie Mac Smacks A Nerve


The Glamour Nail Salon is in a suburban strip mall 20 minutes outside Chicago. On this gray April afternoon, the clients are respectable, churchgoing black women of a certain age; they sit at the buffing stations, wearing sweat pants, reading Ebony and chatting quietly about their kids. Swinging open the glass door, Bernie Mac (né McCullough) disrupts this female sanctuary with characteristic brio: ”Whassup, you squares!”
Dressed in a black fedora, a houndstooth shirt and identically patterned slacks, the 44-year-old stand-up comedian — now the star of a hit sitcom on Fox — takes a seat. ”Let’s see what’s goin’ on ’round this demonstration,” he says. ”What’s your name?” he asks a 40-something matron next to him.
”Birdah,” she answers softly.

”Murder?!” Mac asks, almost leaping from his chair. He receives clarification. ”That’s good. I don’t need no trouble.”

Far from a Hollywood interloper, Mac is actually a regular at this salon, dropping by every week for a manicure when he’s not filming ”The Bernie Mac Show” in Los Angeles. This ritual even inspired a bit on his sitcom. In one episode, Mac’s upwardly mobile, stay-at-home dad is horrified to realize he’s bonding with the white soccer moms at his wife’s company picnic and retreats to the masculinity-affirming pep talks of his Asian manicurist. (”You’re a strong black man, Bernie Mac,” soothes the nail technician.)

As Mac sits in the waiting area, people drift over to chat. ”I’m coming to get some John Hancock,” a woman explains. When she then asks Bernie for some paper and a pen, he rolls his eyes. ”Lemme tell you about black people,” he tells me sotto voce. ”They come to get an autograph — don’t have no pen, don’t have no paper.” Mac looks to his right. ”And see my man on that cellphone?” he says, gesturing to the other male in the salon. ”He gon’ call somebody in a few minutes and tell him that I’m here, and then he gon’ ask me to speak to him.”

The man protests otherwise, but Mac continues undeterred. ”I’m not talking to nobody,” he says, shaking his head with false exasperation. ”Listen, I been black a long time, and blacks folks are the only ones who do that. They be like, ‘Say somethin’ to my cousin real quick!’ I don’t know your cousin!” The women bust out laughing. One lady asks to take a snapshot. ”Nah, I only take photos with white people,” Mac says.


Bernie Mac has pretty much earned the right to converse in such a manner in any black neighborhood in the country, all the more so here in his hometown. In a sense, he is in character, reprising the version of himself he made famous in Spike Lee’s 2000 concert film, ”The Original Kings of Comedy.” Mac provided an indelible finale: a google-eyed tirade from an aging black father who was fed up with marital demands, nosy neighbors and, most of all, today’s back-talking, undisciplined kids.
Mac’s ferocious, nerve-frayed glare revealed just a twinkle of irony as he trampled over P.C. niceties, promoting hands-on combat as the only effective self-defense against today’s out of control, ”sassy” toddlers — a riff that prompted his current role as the hapless patriarch of ”The Bernie Mac Show.”

The sitcom offers a Seinfeldian extrapolation on Mac’s actual life. (”I don’t think the people wanna see me play Clyde Johnson the architect,” he says.) The professional comedian Bernie Mac and his wife, Wanda, have taken in his drug-addicted sister’s children: 5-year-old Bryana, 8-year-old Jordan and the headstrong 13-year-old Vanessa, whom Mac refers to as the Evil One. (In real life, Mac took in his teenage niece and her daughter.)

As a TV dad, Mac skews more Ike Turner than Dr. Spock, but he always softens to reveal a hapless affection for his kids. Mac talks angry, and he can look it — but despite his fullback physique and mastery of the slow burn, he is clearly no tough guy. Mac’s blustery persona has charmed a wide audience. The show, which ends its first-year run this Wednesday, is Fox’s biggest hit of the season, reaching nearly 10 million viewers. It is one of the first black sitcoms since ”The Cosby Show” to develop truly mainstream appeal.

Here in the salon, however, Mac’s appeal is palpably more intimate. He chats amiably with a longtime acquaintance, who updates him on her misbehaving son. ”He’s the worst one,” she says. ”You know how you say, ‘You wanna bust him in the head till the white meat shows’?” she asks, quoting the show’s most infamous line. ”That’s him. He was just suspended out of school, and he’s only in the first grade.”

”Hmm,” Mac says sympathetically, furrowing his brow. Since the success of his show, Mac is often besieged for parenting tips, an odd turn for a character who often threatens to kill his children. But the fact that no one takes Mac’s threats seriously — least of all his kids — is part of what makes the desperate, kid-whupped character’s humanity all the more real.

Mac patiently listens to the hard-luck 37-year-old mom’s account of an errant child she fears is ”inmate bound.” It is not a happy tale, but he soothes her in the best way he can. He nods, clucks his tongue and, at last, offers some advice.

”Take him by the back of the head like you gonna hug him,” he says, suddenly reaching out and palming the back of my skull. As I try not to squirm in his bearlike embrace, Mac makes a fist with his other hand. ”Then put your middle knuckle out like this,” he continues, demonstrating. ”And knock him right under his right eye.” He folds his arms. ”Never have a problem again.”

After the laughter subsides, the woman heads for the door and bids Mac goodbye. ”You, too, baby,” Mac calls sweetly after her. He then offers a parting reminder. ”Right eye.”


In some ways, Mac’s comedy was perfectly poised for prime time. His most famous stand-up routine was all about family — the lifeblood of the sitcom. But its tone was several shades streetier and more explosive than anything Bill Cosby could imagine. He began by saying, ”When a kid get 1 years old, I believe you got the right to hit ’em in the throat or stomach.” He then raged about the fecklessness of under-age mothers. His fury was so comically operatic, however, that Mac managed to share a stark, neocon vision of black life without alienating his audience.
”The Bernie Mac Show” is as bold as his stand-up, if not as profane (Mac being one of today’s true virtuosos of lyric obscenity). Whereas TV’s other state-of-the-art dad, Ozzy Osbourne, governs his brood with a constantly bleeped mumble, Mac relies on an intimidating physicality. Periodically throughout each episode, he sits in his armchair and directly addresses the audience.
”Now America,” he asks, ”tell me again, why can’t I whip that girl?” In these confessionals, Mac, with his dark skin, short Afro and round, walleyed countenance, looks less like an avuncular Cosby than a mesomorphic Notorious B.I.G.

The fact that such an imposing figure could feel sufficiently bullied by kids to threaten physical violence was an inspiration of Larry Wilmore, the show’s creator. ”That’s how almost every good parent feels at some point,” Wilmore says. ”Of course, they’re not going to actually do these things, but they probably at some point want to. That frustration felt like a TV show to me.”

This theme wasn’t something that would appeal to only black audiences, and that was important to Mac and Wilmore. In the 90’s, networks like UPN went after black audiences by producing sitcoms heavy on hip-hop attitude and light on wit. This was not Mac’s idea of success. ”No disrespect to anybody, but I didn’t want the show to be labeled as a black comedy,” says Mac. ”You’re saying I only appeal to black? I’m funny.”

Mac’s assimilationist ambitions have less to do with personal politics than with a profound appreciation for his own craft. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he was raised on black comedy’s old school, catching live concerts by Dewey (Pigmeat) Markham, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley.

Mac decided he wanted to be a comedian, he says, when he saw his mother, who was sobbing one afternoon, distracted into chuckles by a comic on TV. Even now, he has a bluesman’s understanding of the art. ”Comedy comes from pain,” Mac says. ”Blacks have always appreciated comedy because of that.”

Mac himself endured his share of pain. He lost his mother and brother to illness by age 16, another brother to violence shortly thereafter and his grandmother shortly after that. Marrying his wife, Rhonda, in 1977, he began a run of lean years, performing in the Chicago subway and driving a Wonder Bread truck. He paid the ego-battering dues of the struggling black comedian. ”Black audiences are hard,” Mac says. ”They always think they’re better than you. So you got to come with a little extra to satisfy them.”

These audiences also honed a certain kind of virtuosity. Mac’s expressive power comes from years of entertaining black audiences who, he says, appreciate storytelling more than one-liners. Like Richard Pryor, he can conjure a character with the subtlest vocal or facial shift. In fact, some of the funniest moments of his sitcom are simple reaction shots, like the suspicious look Mac gives the headmistress of a kindergarten who trumpets her school’s ”gender neutral” philosophy.

“I think of Bernie as almost a silent comedian,” Wilmore says. ”You can turn down the sound and still laugh at what he’s doing.” That said, the show offers more than mugging and pratfalls. Wilmore, who heads a writing team that regularly consults with Mac, has created a show that mercilessly exposes the tensions of life in a modern, racially mixed suburb.

While a number of black sitcoms since the 70’s have featured a newly affluent family, most offered only the sketchiest of backdrops. The Jeffersons lived in an Upper East Side apartment, period. The Huxtables occupied a parallel universe in which everyone was black. The Macs’ social world is Encino, Calif., an integrated, upper-middle-class community. Humor often arises from Mac’s interactions with his white liberal neighbors, whose desire to confront his retrograde parenting rubs up against their unease over racial differences.

The scripts can be offhandedly shocking in pursuing such moments of social verité. In one recent episode, Bernie is angered by a huge phone bill; he jokingly admonishes his wife that they are not ”old-money rich” but ”nigga rich.” The ironic, adults-only crack is overheard by 5-year-old Bryana, who proudly repeats it the next day to her progressive kindergarten class, which soon brings Social Services to the Mac household.

”You’re not a bad man,” the social worker assures Mac condescendingly. ”It’s not like I’m here to take away the kids.” Mac responds: ”No, please take away the kids! It’s a great solution. I’m a bad man!”

After seven years, the Bernie Macs are movin’ on up. Not that their former residence in the Chicago suburb of Crete was low rent. But Mac’s fame has prompted a relocation to a more remote suburb, one where people are less likely to ring the bell at midnight and say, ”Yo, Bernie Mac live here?”

Out past miles of Illinois farmland, the new neighborhood’s manicured roads have names like Durham Lane and Dover Circle. Two moving trucks stand outside the front door of the huge, stylishly geometric house, while burly men carry boxes into the open double doors. Inside, Mac is sitting on a kitchen island, drinking bottled water and . . . supervising.

”I hate moving,” Rhonda says, tiptoeing through the boxes in the kitchen. She’s wearing an old Bernie Mac concert T-shirt and sweat pants. ”I hate it with a passion.”

”Every time we move, tempers flare,” Mac says. ”Last night, we had our first domestic. I had to clobber her. I hated to do it, but it had to be done. And you know? I felt bad. But I had peace.”

”Aw, yeah, right,” Rhonda says, chuckling. Clearly an adept straight woman, she seems content to let her husband adopt whatever domestic role he chooses — stern taskmaster, roving Lothario, wife beater — perfectly aware that they’re all performances. ”That’s all talk,” she tells me. ”Really, he is a sweetheart.”
The real-life inspirations for the kid-whupped Bernie Mac character are diverse and composite. In the mid-90’s, while raising the teenage Je’Niece, Mac and his wife also took in Mac’s 16-year-old niece, Toya, along with her 2-year-old daughter. Around the same time, a friend of the family took in her drug-plagued sister’s three children.
While Mac found the strong-willed Toya to be an occasional discipline problem, he was scandalized by his friend’s three adoptees. ”I came over one day,” he recalls, ”and they was talkin’ back to her, sassin’ her, and I just kinda took over. She was crying, saying, ‘Mac, man, I wish you could stay.’ And I told her: ‘Man, get a bat. Bust ’em in the head when they talk to you like that.’ She was crying, and that started making her laugh. And I started writing.”
I ask Rhonda how similar the TV Bernie Mac is to the one she has lived with for 24 years. ”Oh, yeah,” she says. ”He loud like that.” She cracks up. ”Most of what you see is true to him.” Rhonda insists that she, however, is utterly unlike Wanda, the AT&T executive played by Kellita Smith. Now vice president of Mac’s production company and previously a nurse, Rhonda was always more focused on family. ”I was a working woman, but my family was always No. 1,” she says.
”She’s talking about her mom,” Mac taunts.
”Oh, you know I–.”

”Watch your mouth!” Mac bellows. He turns to me. ”See, I’m the pimp around here.”

”Now what kind of mess is that for a middle-aged man to be talking?” Rhonda asks as she unpacks groceries. ”You ain’t no pimp.”

”I’m a bona fide pimp,” he declares.

Such folksy, gently off-color comedy runs deep in Mac’s household, just as it does in his performances. In the context of modern TV, there is something almost prelapsarian to Mac’s humor. The eye-rolling laments, the hangdog plea ”Y’all got to pray for me!” — they all seem part of an ancient, vaudevillian craft. Watching the unpacking, Mac continues his hoary boasts.
“‘Come on,” Mac says, goading his wife. ”Ain’t I a playa from the Himalaya?”

This is clearly an old routine. ”Yeah, yeah,” Rhonda says, chuckling. ”You got a woman in Cleveland that you always be leavin’,” she recites. ”A woman in Alaska who do anything you ask her.” She pulls a box of Kellogg’s Smart Start from a moving crate. ”Pfffft,” she says. ”You ain’t no pimp.”

As he steps farther into the haute-suburban hinterlands, Mac faces a challenge that has undermined many urban-identified artists: how to resist the homogenizing effects of America’s minivanned cul-de-sacs and stay connected to his career-making muses — the bus stops, barbershops and general hurly-burly of the old neighborhood? Maybe that’s why, later the same day, Mac and I end up standing at a counter at Chuck’s Gun Shop near the Chicago ghetto neighborhood of Harvey, selecting sidearms for target practice.

Mac tells me that he has been coming to this shop for 10 years, amassing a collection of pistols, rifles and shotguns for target practice and some hunting. ”They call me the Peaceful Hunter,” Mac deadpans. ”Because I never kill anything.”

Once inside the shooting gallery, however, Mac doesn’t look so peaceful. Wearing headphones, he takes a wide-legged stance and with deafening blasts destroys the man-shaped target at the end of his lane. He may get manicures, but Bernie Mac seems happy to demonstrate he is no cream puff. When he was recently up for a film role as a cop, he found studios slow to imagine him in any role that doesn’t involve adorable children.

”Seven years ago, I was raunchy, I was blue,” he says. ”Now I’m the perfect father. Figure that out.”

Back at the front counter, Mac chats with the salesman, casting an occasional glance toward the front window. Since our arrival, a peanut gallery of black kids at the window has grown. Faces pressed against the glass, they giggle, jumping up and down when he waves. Leaving the store, we’re greeted by screams: ”Bernie! Bern-ay!” ”Can I get a autograph?”

Pushing his rectangular sunglasses back, Mac obliges, signing for Tameka, Rashonda, Tasha. ”Our names used to be simple,” Mac writes in his book, ”I Ain’t Scared of You,” which was published last fall. ”Betty.’ ‘Cynthia.’ ‘Lamont.’ Then ‘Roots’ came out, and everyone lost they mind. ‘Zaqueeda.”’

Soon the entire neighborhood is turning out, summoned by cellphones and runners. Bigger youths in Rocawear are strolling over. Cars are pulling up at the sidewalk. Mac tries to satisfy everyone as he stands in front of a sign that says, ”It Is Illegal to Buy Ammunition or a Gun for Someone Else.” Eventually we move to Mac’s Mercedes, where Bernie sits in the back seat, window down, and continues signing. ”Let me take care of these kids, y’all,” he tells his driver as he takes in a threadbare basketball to sign.

Before driving off for home, we pull the car up a half block to It’s My Secret, a weather-beaten beauty salon. Some older ladies who can’t compete with the crowd want to say hi, too. Mac jumps out, hugs the crowd — and scores some moisturizing lotion. After all, a hard round of shooting can leave one’s hands a bit chafed.

Back in the car, Mac laughs. ”See, them seeing us at the gun shop, that gave us kudos!” he says. ”They gonna run all through the neighborhood, like” — he adopts a grave-faced, serious tone — Bernie Mac, man, he ain’t fit to be messed with, O.K.? I saw him at the gun shop!”’

He chuckles. ”Blacks get off on your realness,” he says. ”Why do people love Richard Pryor so much? ‘Cause he had problems.” He looks out the window and adopts the voice of an approving ghetto dweller. ”Damn, he’s on drugs, he shot his car. He ain’t forgot where he came from! He real!”’ Mac laughs. ”Blacks feel that they’re a part of you. So they can come up and say anything they want to. That’s how close and attached they feel.” He seems amused at the absurd presumption, but clearly relishes the connection.

In fact, he seems touched for a moment, this tall, broad-shouldered man smoothing aloe vera between his mitts. And as he rides down Route 83, Mac repeats the old stand-up aside that inspired his armchair chats with ”America”—transposing his frank, sympatico relationship with a black crowd to the entire viewing audience.

It’s a line that, in Mac’s hands, somehow seems to refer to more than black people. ”We family,” he says with a smile. ”We family.”



© 2002 by Chris Norris