“Bernie Mac is the guy you don’t wanna follow. Ever,” Chris Rock says at the beginning of a new episode of Unsung Hollywood featuring comedian Bernie Mac. The TV One series kicks off its second season Wednesday.
A titan among his peers, the Chicago comedian—born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough Oct. 5, 1957—is best-known today for his hit TV series The Bernie Mac Show and the historic Kings of Comedy tour, which was made into a film directed by Spike Lee. Mac’s rise to fame wasn’t all laughs, but his journey remained triumphant and inspirational, even as it reminds us of how selective stardom is in Hollywood.
“He was just our comedian,” Cedric the Entertainer explains. “He was just the black folks’ comedian and he was a secret.” An open secret. Mac’s talent—as his fellow funnymen; industry insiders; widow, Rhonda McCullough; and daughter, JeNiece, along with other family members and childhood friends, attest—was undeniable long before Hollywood paid any attention.
For years the married father of one worked various jobs, ranging from janitor to cook and moving man, to make ends meet while pursuing comedy stardom. Initially, his edgier brand of funny found a home in Chicago’s rougher South Side venues. His first big television break, on HBO’s game-changing Def Comedy Jam in 1992, helped make him a viable comedian, proving that, even in one’s 30s, dreams could come true. But his second performance changed contemporary urban comedy forever.
Standing before a hostile New York City crowd that had relentlessly booed the previous comedian despite rolling cameras, Mac famously let them know, “I ain’t scared of you muthaf—kas,” and right there, a comedy legend was born. After that, Mac was in demand all over the country.
By the time the Kings of Comedy tour launched in 1998, there was no denying he was the people’s champ. Even among his fellow “kangs,” Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer—all of whom had, at that point, enjoyed mainstream television exposure—Mac was the king of kings.
Hollywood should have taken notice of the star of a tour that sold out Madison Square Garden and other mega-arenas across the country. But because the audience was primarily black, it did not. Unsung Hollywood doesn’t dwell on this bitter reality, but it doesn’t go unmentioned, particularly by Walter Latham, the promoter who conceived the tour.
As badly as Mac wanted his own show and knew he deserved it, he never watered down his act to win Hollywood’s favor. He was as unapologetically black in Hollywood as he was sweeping floors in Chicago.
“I don’t think they opened the doors for Bernie; I think Bernie kicked the doors down,” comedian and friend Joe Torry says.
Mac’s casting in 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Don Cheadle, was a major breakthrough, but The Bernie Mac Show, which premiered on Fox on Nov. 14, 2001, was, arguably, his most cherished professional achievement. Not only did he make it, but The Bernie Mac Show set records, attracting as many as 10 million viewers in its early seasons.
And it was his talent that inspired the show in the first place. During the Kings of Comedy tour, he hilariously joked about taking in the kids of a crack-addicted sister. Although unmentioned in Unsung, the details of the routine were not his own, but the circumstances and emotion of the situation proved universal. That’s just how astute Mac was as a professional observer of life.
Unsung Hollywood: Bernie Mac is far from perfect. More than a few areas could have been tightened up, and there are plenty of instances where more information would have been useful. That the voice of one particular big-name peer is missing from the episode will not go unnoticed, with viewers no doubt wondering what the backstory behind that is.
Still, in a short period of time, lots of ground is covered, including the teasing that Mac endured because of his dark complexion, Bill Cosby’s surprising influence on him to pursue comedy, the effect his mother’s death had on him, how Hollywood’s slight really did bother him and how he died far too young.
Ultimately, the portrait that emerges is one of a good man, a tough-talking teddy bear who valued being a faithful husband and devoted father, who believed in putting out good in the world and who loved his native Chicago. By the time the credits roll, there’s no hiding how much Bernie Mac enriched us all and how truly missed he is.
TV One will air Unsung Hollywood: Bernie Mac on Wednesday, July 22, at 8 p.m. EDT.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.