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Bernie Mac brings real life, laughs to television

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Bernie Mac likes to talk about Bernie Mac in the third person. That fits "The Bernie Mac Show" just fine.

Mac speaks directly to the camera in his new show's "confessional" scenes. It's just one of the devices that distinguishes this show that's filmed in the more expensive single-camera style (no laugh track, no studio audience).

"I'm not here to talk about cigars," cigar-chomping Mac says in tomorrow night's premiere (8:30 p.m., Fox). "I'm here to tell you: I'm gonna kill them kids ... talk back one more time, snap their neck off."

Sounds harsh, but it's not a literal death threat. Mac, who in the show takes guardianship of his drug-addicted sister's children, is simply frustrated.

"When I say I want to kill those kids, you know what I mean, I don't have to explain," Mac says. "Bernie Mac just says what you wanna say but can't."

Mac is best known for his stand-up comedy, particularly the 2000 concert film "The Kings of Comedy." Other comedians in that film -- Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer -- already have worked in television, but this is Mac's first lead role in a series.

"I wanted to do something different, I wanted to utilize my voice, and I wanted to share my point of view," Mac said at a Fox press conference in July. "That's the whole key to anything: Don't be afraid to fail. And Bernie Mac is not afraid to fail."

Executive producer Larry Wilmore ("The PJs") sought to transform Mac's stage persona into a TV character by removing the most extreme profanity from his stand-up act. Then he spent three days with Mac at his home in Chicago.

"I wanted to get to know who he was, as a guy, more than who the public persona comedian was," Wilmore said. "That's what I wanted the show to be about, who's Bernie Mac, the individual."

The real Mac took in his niece and her daughter in 1994, although in his stand-up act he's melded that story with the tale of a friend who took in a nephew, niece and cousin after the friend's sister got hooked on drugs.

"When I went on stage, I just started talking about it," Mac said. "The one thing about comedy, making it become a part of you, the audience loves it, because you become part of them."

And so the legend of Bernie and his extended family grew until Fox offered him a series based on his partially real-life experiences.

"The Bernie Mac Show" breaks new ground because it comes at a time when comedies with a predominantly African-American cast are usually filmed as three-camera sitcoms. "Bernie Mac" is a high-gloss, single-camera show that relies on comedy rooted in reality instead of the broad humor that gets yuks on "The Parkers" but draws condemnation from some within the black community for perpetuating stereotypes.

"I definitely don't want to look stupid or buffoonish in any kind of way," Mac said. "I want this to be a smart show. I want this to be a fun show. I want people to be able to talk about it when they go to the workplace: 'Did you see 'The Bernie Mac Show' last night? That's what I want to do to my nephew!' "

Mac certainly doesn't see his series as "a black show."

"It's not a black thing," he said. "Everybody can sit there and identify with what we're trying to say."

Mac said his parenting philosophy -- he also has a 23-year-old daughter -- was inspired by his grandfather, who raised him.

"We thought he was so cold," Mac recalled. "I looked at everybody in our family ... and how we all turned out, and it was because of his tough love. He told you like it was. And I think that's something that's missing today. We want to be 'friends' instead of parents.

"We always say, 'I want to give my kid more than I had.' Well, more is not better. I'm going to be a father [figure] to these kids ... and when they're wrong, I'm going to tell them they're wrong. And when they do something right, I'm going to commend them for it."

Wilmore said it was important to him that Bernie be "the mother" on the show. He's certainly the stay-at-home parent as his wife, Wanda (Kellita Smith), goes to work every day as a vice president at AT&T.

"It's important that Bernie emotionally be the mom," Wilmore said. "I had to have a character who was very independent and focused on what she had to do but was not distanced from the kids. It just wasn't her primary responsibility like it was Bernie's because they're his blood."

As for the style of humor, which might rub some viewers the wrong way, Mac says if they're able to get past the language, they'll realize Bernie is not a bad guy.

"Bernie is a chump. Really, his bark is bigger than his bite. You can see he's soft," Mac said. "We're so politically correct, we take things so seriously. It's a joke. I don't want to kill no kids. ... I'm not trying to hurt anybody -- that's the last thing Bernie Mac wants to do. When I go onstage, I want to relieve your mind, your pressures. I talk about things that you only wish you could say. That's what's the success of Bernie Mac, and it's paying off now."

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