Bernie Mac: Two Sides, but One True Self

The two Bernie Macs: Above, the
The two Bernie Macs: Above, the "hard" stand-up comedian, and right (with Dee Dee Davis), the family man depicted in his Fox sitcom. He and his wife were married more than 30 years. (By Aynsley Floyd -- Associated Press)
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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

Backstage at what was then MCI Center, Bernie Mac was breaking it down, explaining how the bug-eyed, raspy-voiced, apoplectic brother onstage at the outrageously successful "Original Kings of Comedy" tour had absolutely, positively nothing to do with who he really was. There were, he insisted, two Bernies. Not in the "Three Faces of Eve" sense, but in the protect-yourself-and-your-career sense.

"The two sides of Bernie, that's a quiet weapon that I have," he explained, all earnest and introspective, leaning in close to make sure I got the point.

It was a glimpse into the unique mind of Mac, who died of pneumonia on Saturday. He was 50.

"People say, 'Bernie hard, he tell it like it is, he curse.' They like for me to tell it. If I came out doing Bill Cosby or Billy Crystal, they'd have a fit. One thing I do understand is, this is an act. I'm acting. When I get offstage, I'm done. That man is dead. When you're offstage, that's the footprint. That's the man God's gonna judge."

The man ostensibly being judged now -- let's call him Offstage Bernie -- was quieter than you'd expect, a churchgoing Christian who dropped the J-word as frequently as Onstage Bernie dropped those curse words. Offstage Bernie stayed married to his high school sweetheart for more than 30 years, and liked to brag that he had "no outside kids." ("That's rare for a black man," he cracked to Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show.") He and his wife raised a daughter, then took in his 16-year-old niece and her 2-year-old daughter. Later, that served as material for his highly acclaimed Fox TV sitcom, "The Bernie Mac Show."

Onstage Bernie, who starred in many films, from the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise to 2007's "Pride," had a strong current of old-school African American conservatism running through his comedy: You take care of family, no matter what. Work is just that -- work. Do your job and shut the [expletive] up. Children are to be seen and not heard, and if they are heard, don't be afraid to open a can of you-know-what.

As he would explain in his closing monologues on the TV show, "Bernie Mac just says what you want to say, but can't." (The man had a habit of referring to himself in the third person.)

If Onstage Bernie evoked images of your crazy cousin cutting up at the family barbecue, that's because Mac was channeling his own crazy uncle and cousin. They, not he, were the funny ones, he explained during that interview in 1999. (I was starting to think that the man protesteth too much.)

He recalled the time he decided to go onstage and just be himself. You know, do Offstage Bernie. He bombed. He never made that mistake again. A fan waited for him backstage, eyes filled with tears, to tell Mac that he'd lost his touch. In retelling that story, Mac's own eyes welled.

"Comedy comes from pain," he once said, and Mac certainly knew pain: His mom died of breast cancer when he was 16; within a short time frame, his grandmother and two brothers also died. His best friend was killed.

Which is to say, Bernie Mac was the blues. Not that rarefied stuff that they serve up in museums and at effete folk music festivals, but genuine Chicago back-alley blues -- urban, raw and real, greasy and gritty. Even as a young man, he always had a bit of the retro vibe about him, both in outlook and in demeanor. He was a little bit vaudeville, a lot chitlin' circuit. Which makes sense, when you consider that one of his early career breaks was opening in Vegas for the bluer-than-blue Redd Foxx.

In the mid-1990s, you could see him performing in his home town of Chicago, filling up the cavernous Chicago Theatre or selling out a 100-seat venue like Milt's. He was already enjoying some success on the comedy circuit, had already stolen the spotlight in the Ice Cube comedy "Friday," and famously told a hostile "Def Comedy Jam" audience, "I ain't scared of you [expletive]."

Mac (born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough) put on a performance that was more variety show than pure stand-up, as he played a scatological Ed Sullivan to a host of talent: a 10-piece band (the Mac Men), seven dancers (the Mac-aronis) and a group of singers (the Mac Sweethearts). After the show, a big spread of fried chicken, collard greens and biscuits was laid out for all who wandered backstage -- friends, relatives, colleagues. It was a family affair, because that's how Mac rolled.

Last month, at a $2,300-a-head fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Mac ran afoul of the PC police with his expletive-laced observations, throwing in a couple of references to the "hos" for good measure. The senator from Illinois told Mac to "clean up your act," adding, "I'm just messing with you, man." (Later, an Obama rep did the standard reject-and-repudiate thing.)

Ultimately, Mac was the epitome of the stand-up brother that Obama was talking about in his Father's Day speech: a man who took care of family, first and foremost, complaining and cracking jokes, but taking care of business just the same.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company