Bernie Mac, 1957-2008

Bernie Mac holds court
Look here, America: Bernie Mac in 2000 (Photo by Bob Fila)

Though death is never timely, the demise of comedian Bernie Mac, 50, early Saturday morning in his hometown of Chicago, was startling in its abruptness, even considering that the humorist had been ill in the hospital with pneumonia, from which he ultimately succumbed. (Earlier word held that he was “expected to make a full recovery” and would be out soon, adding to the cruelness of his sudden end.)

Of course, now his dying will also always be linked with that of legendary singer / composer Isaac Hayes, who passed away the next day, in Memphis TN, from yet-to-be-determined causes.

“I can’t hold back.”Like many outside of Chi-Town, I first learned of him during his Def Comedy Jam, “I ain’t scared of you motherf#%@ers!” salad days. I honestly thought the man was just aight back then. He kind of struck me as a low-rent imitation of the late Robin Harris, a similarity to which even Mac himself played in House Party 3, right.

Of course, it’s all clear in retrospect that Bernie Mac was imitating nothing but the angular comic arrangements in his own mind, now so clear in these clips. If Bill Cosby’s legendary timing is jazz, Mac’s was akin to modal jazz, working off of odd riffs and blurred notes to give his humor an aggressive verbal tint and semantic jiu-jitsu.

I think Hello, Babar‘s Jalylah Burrell best captures some of the subtle shift in my own feelings, over time, about the Mac Man. Though I never had the racial disdain Burrell bore, and to which she speaks in her obit—early on, she considered his performance style similar to “classic minstrel”—I, too, watched, with some delight, at the sophisticated quality of his The Bernie Mac Show, doing so after my wife had become a fan.

Burrell speaks accurately of Bernie Mac as

hysterical, credibly Black and spot-on silly. Mac’s movement lacked the glossy artifice and hokey ways of some of those other post-Heathcliff Huxtable Black fathers. The sitcom never was a vehicle for spouting his stand-up act, rather it was repurposed. The outsized anecdotes Mac conveyed on stage relayed on the small screen reflexively but unselfconsciously. You never felt that The Bernie Mac Show was trying to explain the corporate us to a clueless and curious them.

“Gimme some love…”He was, as she concludes, “a smart and complicated talent.” Now, besides the loss of a husband to his wife, Rhonda, right, a father, and a grandfather, the world has been deprived of his intelligence and complexity, both qualities all to rare in this world.



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