As a baby boomer, I’ve listened to black comedians use the pain of social commentary as part of their acts for decades. The routines of the late Richard Pryor are legendary, as are the yesteryear performances of Dick Gregory and the late Godfrey Cambridge. It was therefore an evening of spiritual and intellectual impact when I saw Bernie Mac at the Warner Theater in 2000 in Washington.
I had been hired by a radio producer to secure audience interviews following the show. The producer needed those quick sound bites featured in commercials promoting upcoming performances in other cities.
After taking my seat four rows back from the stage, I was blown away by this comedian whom I had enjoyed in Hollywood films, now unleashed like a lion from a cage. Bernie Mac literally roared that night as did his audience.
Then like a lion, the King of Comedy deftly but powerfully delved into his brand of social commentary. According to Bernie Mac, his sister had abandoned three children to foster care due to drug addiction. He explained how he and his brother planned to step up and take charge of the children. However, when it came time in court for the stepping, Bernie Mac was the only one up. He promised that if he ever saw his brother again, “there would be a misunderstanding. … Some furniture would be moving.”
He went on to use his humor to describe the various traumas suffered by his nieces and nephew. He said the youngest, the ringleader, was an old soul, who had returned as a “shepherd” of the Devil. The middle child, a 4-year-old girl, he assumed had been getting high with her momma because she didn’t speak a word, just stared. And, the oldest, the 6-year-old boy, Bernie Mac characterized as “homosexual” because of his effeminate mannerisms.
As most of what Bernie Mac called “Ameri-cah,” knows, his immensely successful TV show was based primarily on that routine. I say primarily, because the nephew was moved to the middle child and references to homosexuality were dropped. The youngest niece lost her job as a shepherd and the 4-year-old niece became a moody adolescent.
The show won the prestigious Peabody and Humanitas Awards, an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, three NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series and was honored by the Television Critics Association for Outstanding Achievement in a Comedy and for Individual Achievement in a Comedy.
In addition, Bernie Mac was nominated for Emmy and Golden Globe awards two years in a row, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his work on the series.
Still, Bernie Mac was quoted in a 2001 Associated Press interview as saying that television “Handcuffs you, man. Now everyone telling me what I can’t do, what I can say, what I should do, and asking, are blacks gonna be mad at you? Are whites gonna accept you?”
The night that I worked for Bernie Mac, I interviewed some two dozen black people. They loved his wild routine, which was heavily laced with sexual references. (Also that night, this baby boomer learned a new term - “off the hook” - as in “That Bernie Mac is off the hook!”) However, several black men also experienced a deeper reality, commenting: “Bernie Mac is real,” “he’s the truth” and “Bernie Mac, he brought the pain.”
To me, that said Bernie Mac had gone beyond making us laugh, and into the realm of making us think. He used humor to lay bare several critical aspects of a plague that has sliced deep social wounds in black and white America, in that an addicted woman could not function as mother, the trauma that her drug abuse rained on her children, and how many members of the black community in particular are wrestling with the aftermath of similar situations.
My guess is that if Bernie Mac had not been handcuffed and had lived to have the same type of venue accorded performers on cable outlets, “Ameri-cah” would have gotten a much stronger dose of his social commentary. The fact that his sitcom won awards for writing despite the handcuffs, indicates that if the Lion King had again been unleashed, he would have roared into our homes with thought-provoking humor and undiluted truth designed to spur us into taking advantage of opportunities to step up and stop the pain of addiction in our lives and its brutal consequences in our communities.
Bob Hainey, a former D.C. radio journalist, is a media relations manager at Pepco Holdings Inc.