I came late to the Bernie Mac Show, so it makes sense that a week and a half after Bernie Mac's death, days after the world has moved on to the Olympics and South Ossetia, I'm still coming to grips with his loss. I didn't catch up with the show until after its five-year run in primetime; I watched it in its second life, in reruns. Two shows, back-to-back, every night, starting at midnight. Late or not, I was hooked. Soon enough, my paeans to this amazing new show I'd discovered became a running joke to family and friends. "The Bernie Mac Show? That went off the air years ago! Where are you watching it?" someone would hoot, adding, inevitably, "Man, you really need to get cable!"
Oh no I di'nt! Swamped by cable, I might never have found the show, or paused long enough to appreciate it. And in the wee hours, on my TV's limited menu, it glowed all the brighter. In fact, the show often reminded me of a part of the world I'd known a decade earlier -- Eastern Europe -- where fewer choices in TV channels and everything else were often a clarifying gift, and where dark humor was a national art form. To me, the Bernie Mac Show was a fractured fairy tale set in sunny L.A., streaked with the dark humor of the Brothers Grimm. In one of many brilliant episodes, the three nieces and nephews Bernie is fostering inadvertently spoil his Thanksgiving turkey. Stricken with food poisoning, Bernie fantasizes about how much better his life would be without those "pesky kids," and the episode spirals into a wacky animated sequence in which Bernie chases nephew Jordan around the kitchen, Jordan morphs into a small butterball, and finally, is trussed and shoved into the oven. The oven! America, that's dark. And funny. I can't think of any other television show in prime time that would have dared it.
Just as inspired was the episode where Bernie, home sick with the flu (courtesy of those same kids), is pressed into baby-sitting his younger niece, Baby Girl, after wife Wanda leaves for her job as a telephone company executive. Baby Girl wakes Bernie Mac early. Still groggy and definitely still sick, Uncle Bernie lies gamely on the family room floor, holding a Barbie doll, shaking it vaguely, but holding it upside down. The doll's feet poke up from his hands, and its mat of hair brushes the rug. "No, Uncle Bernie!" Baby Girl shrieks, "you're holding it wrong! Not like that -- like this!" The scene ascends to true brilliance when Baby Girl asks Uncle Bernie to sit with her as she reads a picture book aloud. As Baby Girl begins a painstaking reading, sounding out words and slowly turning pages, the camera cuts to footage of time-lapse nature photography -- ferns unfolding, flowers opening, etc. In the next shot, back in the living room, an ancient, white-haired actor sits in Bernie Mac's place, nodding like Father Time as Baby Girl prattles on. If you have ever, while in a sleep deprived state, experienced the physical torture of listening to a small child read a book aloud, this scene alone would make you a fan of the show forever. (And the show had a great supporting cast -- the loving but tart Wanda; the "pesky kids," who, for my money, fought, quarreled and annoyed each other more realistically than any siblings in the history of television; the superb Niecy Nash, who played Bernie's other sister, warm-hearted and party-loving to a fault; Bernie's nervous agent; his poker pals; the saturnine, chain-smoking priest down at the local parochial school; and not least, the retired comic who lived across the street, Don Rickles, playing himself.
And then there was the show's signature -- the part of every show where Bernie Mac sat down in his leather chair, facing the camera, and talked to the audience directly about whatever was on his mind. From the armchair, he vented, joked, boasted, preened, and also puzzled out his mistakes, and admitted when he'd been wrong. These were brilliant monologues, soliloquies, really. "America," the Mac Man would begin, and then he was off, thinking aloud about race relations, marital life, child rearing, the politics of joke copping (with Chris Rock, guest star, sitting beside him), you name it.
Taking in his nieces and nephew while their mother, his sister, struggled with drug addiction, the character Bernie Mac played was doing the hard thing, the interesting thing, and the right thing, but he was no saint. Life in the tumultuous Mac household was a far piece from the tranquilized house of Huxtable. (Bernie Mac did sometimes wear a multi-colored crew-neck pullover that his kids rolled their eyes at. It was sometimes identified as a "Cosby sweater" by the white marker pen that occasionally scrawled notes and arrows across the screen.) In the "belt" episode, Bernie Mac's character sang the praises of corporeal punishment, arguing that his mother, Big Mama's, enthusiastic use of the belt had only helped him. By the end of the episode, Bernie learned that dispensing terror in an attempt to quell terror turns you into -- surprise! -- a terrorist. But that lesson alone would have been too easy for real-politic of the Bernie Mac Show, Instead, it went a step further, as Bernie concluded that while actually using the belt is wrong, the threat of the belt could be an effective deterrent. It's hard to imagine the Brady Bunch carrying off a belt episode with such perfect pitch. This was a classic Bernie Mac -- exploring taboos, and getting out around them. Ditto Bernie's occasional threat, when pushed to the point of wild-eyed apoplexy by a misbehaving child, to "bust your head 'til the white meat shows." He never meant it, the kids knew it, and somehow, it was funny. But the most touching show, the one that left me in tears, was the one where nephew Jordan invents a wildly elaborate and unbeknownst to him, inaccurate life story for his absent father, and Bernie Mac, ultimately, decides to let the fantasy be.
Occasionally, late at night, savoring these things like a thimbleful of great single-malt, I noticed scenes where Bernie Mac's face looked puffy, and he seemed less bright-eyed than usual. I wondered at it, but chalked it up to the rigors of shooting a weekly sitcom. I didn't know that Bernie Mac had been battling serious lung disease for more than a decade. (In 2005, the final year of the show's reign on primetime, Bernie Mac announced the disease had gone into remission.) So, like a lot of other people, I was stunned when news of his sudden death came a week ago Saturday. How was it possible? He was only 50 years old. Hadn't he just spoken at that Obama rally in Chicago, and even earned himself a gentle reprimand from the candidate for working too blue? Shoot, I'd already been imagining Bernie Mac performing at an Obama White House, maybe even enlivening the somnolent Kennedy Center Honors.
That won't happen now. And America, that's terrible. It feels real bad. Feels like, well, like somebody hit me upside the head.