Man Out of Time

R.I.P. Bernie Mac, a comedian born of the old school.

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We actually don't know yet what killed Bernie Mac, born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough in 1957, so it's hard to say just yet what lessons grieving fans should be reading into the comedian's demise. (Keep your weight down? Rest? Eat right? Take your statins? None or all of the above?) Mac did suffer from an inflammatory disease, sarcoidosis, that disproportionately affects African Americans and that is known for riddling the lungs with disruptive, granular growths, but preliminary reports have claimed his pneumonia was unrelated to the chronic illness.

In the absence of a cause of death, our fears about our own lives rush into the breach and among the grinding, type-A entrepreneurs networking at the L.A. film festival I attended this weekend, the "worked himself to death" thesis was particularly popular. Mac's fate was a ghost-of-black-Hollywood-future scenario reminding some folks to protect and cherish their inevitably limited time on Earth.

The need to find reasons for what are often unexplainable turns in a life story can be so strong that we will lay measures of blame at the feet of the dearly departed themselves. There's something fundamentally hard about such a reaction (it's hard but fair, as my colleague at The Root, Jimi Iz, might put it). But, given how much Mac's comedic persona relied on precisely that tension between hard and funny and fair, one imagines Mac himself taking a certain grim, goggle-eyed pleasure in it. The rollercoaster ride of discomfort, recognition and then laughing release was the heart of Mac-ian schtick, and if anyone could have found a comedic opportunity in this story—which is to say, a chance to connect with an audience around something difficult or potentially off-putting—it was Bernie Mac.

From his early days in the late '70s as a street comedian working Chicago's South Side, to his long '80s and '90s marathon through the nation's black comedy clubs, to his break-out appearance in Spike Lee's Original Kings of Comedy (2001), to his iconic role as "exasperated dad" on Fox's The Bernie Mac Show, Mac's underlying comic gambit was, as he put it in Spike's film, that he was only saying what "you think but are afraid to say." That wasn't always true—Mac won Image Awards and Emmys (his accolades from women's groups were probably lost in the mail), but even when he stepped out onto a shaky rhetorical limb he had a knack for making it seem exciting out there. Mac's comedy was pointed and relied deeply on a heap of shared context with his audience, as the recent dustup over some off-color punchlines Mac delivered at an Obama fundraiser indicates. But it also relied on the idea that the comedian was somehow old (if not necessarily wise) beyond his years.

At age 50, Mac was too young to die. Now think of him on stage 10, 15 years ago. Back then he was even younger, but his tics and cadences, his rounded, rolling vowels, were designed to signal to audiences that the man on stage had a middle-aged man's soul, no matter what his birth certificate or driver's license might have said. Mac's comedy could be profoundly, outrageously mean, but it was softened by the fact that his first object of ridicule was always himself. His bug-eyed, can-you-believe-this-ish expressions and steam-rolling riffs that so expertly flirted with sputtering inarticulateness, suggested a man out of time, a man of the old school.

Malcolm Lee, who directed what would turn out to be Mac's last film, "Soul Men," remembered him in a statement precisely for that unexpected streak of courtliness that lay hidden behind the cantankerous persona. "Bernie Mac was a gentleman. Besides being wildly funny, inventive and talented on stage, on television and in film, Bernie was one of the most sincere people I've ever met. Bernie cared about you whether you were his best friend or a total stranger. And that care was genuine. "

Life is not usually kind to such men, with their tastelessly anachronistic suits and rants about the need to bring back "beating these children." But life had been good to Bernie Mac, bringing him fame and wealth and the literal millions of people who paused in their day with a gasp when they heard he had died.

Students of the black entertainment game focus a great deal on the recent success of the Tyler Perrys of the world. But we'd do well to remember that black comedians have been crossing over from black-filled theaters and comedy club rooms to continent-sized venues for decades, be it on TV or in the multiplexes. Perry does important work serving a certain movie starved black audience, but there is also something to be said for the comics who reach for national audiences and resonances. Bernie Mac was one such comic, and his loss makes all of America poorer.

Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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