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Talking To Talent: `Bernie Mac’ breaks the mold

Feb 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Bernie Mac is fast becoming a television Everyman whose popularity crosses various ethnic groups and age categories.
And his success helps prove the importance of diversity in TV programming. For the most part, the networks’ track record on diversity stinks. Over the past two years there has been a lot of discussion about improving diversity in television programming. The challenge encompasses diversity in show running, directing, writing and casting. The subject can stir controversy-with the networks, producers and programmers as often as not dodging the question whenever it arises or mouthing platitudes.
But almost anyone you ask agrees there is a need for more diversity, particularly when studies indicate that what white viewers watch on TV isn’t necessarily what African Americans watch-sometimes to the extent that the top 10 shows for whites are the bottom 10 shows for blacks.
However, every now and then a television series comes along that bridges the gap, that appeals to a cross-cultural audience, and everybody’s happy. The new Fox crossover hit sitcom “The Bernie Mac Show” is such a series, and its star, comedian Bernie Mac, thinks he knows why.
Nothing but the truth
“I think what happens with a lot of players-especially minority players-[is] they just want to be on TV, and they take anything.” Mr. Mac told Electronic Media. “They have no power, they have no say. They don’t know what they want themselves. And you see the show, it’s foolish, and it’s off the air in four weeks. Well, to be proud of something is my main concern, and that’s where `The Bernie Mac Show’ comes in. `The Bernie Mac Show’ is my life. It’s the truth, and I’m not ashamed of a minute, an hour, or a second of my life.”
Telling the truth is what’s important, agreed Larry Wilmore, the creator and executive producer of “Bernie Mac,” and truth, he says, is what gives the show-about a man who finds himself all of a sudden raising kids-its appeal. “Truth is truth. If you feel a certain way, that’s how you feel,” he said. “This is not a black-white issue. It’s a generational issue, because whites grew up the same way too. Their parents were more authoritarian. It’s just the past generation that’s done away with it. It has nothing to do with white and black. I’ve talked to as many white people as black who say, `That is exactly what my parents used to say. That’s exactly how my parents raised me. I got spankings too, growing up.’ So I knew this had nothing to do with black and white; it had only to do with generational.”
The right network
Fox was not the first network Mr. Wilmore tried to interest in the Bernie Mac project. He took it first to ABC. Executives at ABC, which has been struggling for the past few years with poor programming development, didn’t recognize a diamond in the rough.
“I shopped it to ABC,” Mr. Wilmore said. “They weren’t interested. They just said they didn’t warm up to the idea. They didn’t understand it. That didn’t matter to me as long as somebody bought it-and Fox bought it in the room. Gail Berman [president, Fox Entertainment Group] said, `When are you going to be finished writing it?’ … They loved it from the beginning and were completely interested. … [Ms. Berman] was excited to be doing a project with both me and Bernie because she really believed in both of us.”
Mr. Mac also has a good relationship with HBO-he was nominated for a CableACE Award in 1995 for hosting the variety show “Midnight Mac”-and said the cable net was interested in his current series.
“HBO wanted it, but had I went to HBO I would have lost the originality,” Mr. Mac said. “Because what you’re going to see on `The Bernie Mac Show’ and what you’re going to hear, had we gone to HBO, it would have just been another HBO show-`Aw, that’s no big thing, that’s HBO. He can say that, he can do that.’ But by being on Fox, we’re pushing that envelope, we’re on the edge a little bit.”
With his success in comedy clubs and on the big screen (“The Original Kings of Comedy,” “Ocean’s 11”) Mr. Mac, who had a recurring role on “Moesha,” wasn’t very interested in doing more TV.
“To be honest with you, television is not something I’ve wanted to do, because of the politics,” he said. “I’m a student of the game, and I’ve seen what television has done to so many great … comedians. I’ve seen them take all their hard work, plus their style, and flushed it down the toilet. … The people come to see you, the person they fell in love with, but when they see you on TV you become a whole other character, another person, and they become disappointed, and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to me.”
What did lure Mr. Mac back to TV was the right project at just the right time. “Everything jelled,” Mr. Wilmore said. “I had seen `Kings of Comedy’ … and I thought Bernie’s things about the kids were hilarious. It was so funny. And I’d talked to Bernie a couple of years earlier about writing something for him, but nothing really came of it. … And I thought, man, this is hysterical, this thing with his kids … that would be a perfect character for this format-that character of him trying to raise these kids that are not his, and he’s got to tell us how he feels. And at that moment it all just jelled, and I knew I had something that seemed promising.
In tune
“I just wanted to do something different in television.” Mr. Wilmore continued. “And I was just kind of … I don’t know … kind of frustrated with the form of the sitcom. A lot of them don’t work because people are just so used to the form. It’s hard to surprise them anymore, to really be funny in a different way.”
Then came the reality shows, and Mr. Wilmore got an idea.
At the beginning of 2000, he recalled, “`Survivor’ was at its peak of popularity … and I was wondering what was it about reality shows that was really connecting with people. … I thought the real entertainment value was the unpredictability. … So I came up with this concept, this show: making it seem like we’re eavesdropping on the situation, really using the camera as a storytelling device.”
Mr. Mac too wanted something different. “I didn’t want a television show where I could not keep my voice. I didn’t want a television show where they had that fictitious laugh track. I didn’t want those kids who look nothing similar to me, and [Larry] was on the same page.”
But that’s not to say that Mr. Mac and Mr. Wilmore were in agreement about all elements of the show. For example, there was the confessional, so named by Mr. Wilmore because in those segments Mr. Mac speaks directly to the camera from the intimacy of his den. “The confessional I wasn’t too keen about,” Mr. Mac said, “because I’d seen `Titus’ do it, and I’d seen `Dobie Gillis’ do it. And I’d seen George Burns do it. And I always patterned myself on being different.”
But as it has turned out, the confessionals are some of the more amusing and revealing minutes of the show-a fact not lost on Mr. Mac, who has warmed to the concept.
“I like the fact that I’m in tune with America,” he said. “I love the fact that instead of me being in America’s living room, I’m bringing you into mine. I’m sharing my point of view with you. And the confessional is gonna get better because you’re going to see the truth, honest[y]-something that everybody can identify [with]. When you look at it … you get a conversation thing going. … It’s something that you always wanted to say-like America has always been waiting on someone to start it off. We want somebody to start this fire. You know, we’ve been wanting to say this and do this for a long, long time. And I think `Bernie Mac’ does it.”
Mr. Mac attributes the show’s universal point of view to the writing process employed. “The writers are so … brilliant, genius. I think they’re so innovative. They sit and listen and we talk,” he said. “We sit down and I tell stories. I tell them background, I tell them experiences-and those, those stories are real. These are real stories … things that have happened and occur in everybody’s life, but it’s not a black
show.”
That’s because the stories are about child rearing-and all its comical difficulties. Bernie Mac plays essentially himself, a professional comedian and actor who takes in his sister’s three young children while she recovers from a drug addiction.
On the surface he’s all gruff old-school discipline, but underneath he’s overwhelmed by his sudden new-school family and gets caught up in comical situations as he tries to outsmart the kids.
Bernie’s foibles and tribulations have struck a chord with America, black and white alike. Of Fox’s 26 prime-time shows, “The Bernie Mac Show” is the No. 3-ranked program among women 18 to 49, a hot demo for advertisers. Of all 144 prime-time shows, the series ranks No. 25 in that demo. And in homes with an African American head of household, the show is No. 1 in adults 18 to 49.
Old-school vs. new-school
Listen to Bernie Mac give a capsule description of the show, and it’s no wonder it’s so popular: “I just got these kids! My life was popping, OK? … Now I got these kids, man. They’re from the projects; my sister did nothing with them. We have to start over. I don’t have the answers, but I’m old-school … and I’m making these old-fashioned-ass decisions … but they work. That’s the key. They work.” Fox, he says, not only “gets” the show’s edginess, but gives him, Mr. Wilmore and the writers creative freedom.
Bernie Mac’s methods could indeed be described as unfashionable. A threat he issued to one of his charges, the sullen, smart-mouthed teen-age Vanessa, that he would bust her “head till the white meat shows,” was a shocking, funny and extreme expression of a frustration many parents recognize.
With the success of Bernie Mac’s latest foray into television it seems many things came together at the right time and in the right mix for the moment. He gives credit to the cast, Kellita Smith, who plays his TV wife, and Camille Winbush, Jeremy Suarez and Dee Dee Davis, who portray the children. “The directors did a fantastic job of selecting the players,” he said, “and each player brings something different to the game. … Kellita Smith, Jeremy-Jeremy’s just unbelievable. Dee Dee is such a heart stealer, and Camille is something that all these young teen-agers can identify with.”
Bernie Mac has carefully laid the groundwork for avoiding the fate of other comedians who have ventured into the sometimes treacherous sitcom waters. “That’s the fun part of it. Being able to create a character [but] play yourself,” he said. “So years from now I don’t have to hear people calling me J.J. People still be calling me Bernie Mac.”
Mr. Mac is clearly excited by the show. “We’re pushing that envelope,” he said. “We’re on the edge a little bit. And people’s reaction is, `Did you hear that? No he didn’t tell her that.’ See, see-that’s the comedy.”