Bernie Mac was born in Chicago in 1957, Bernard Jeffrey McCullough. He grew up in Chicago, in a rougher neighborhood than most others, with a large family living under one roof. This situation provided him with a great insight into his comedy, as his family, and the situations surrounding them would be what dominated his comedic perspective. Mac worked in the Regal Theater, and performed in Chicago parks in his younger days. Bernie became a professional comedian in 1977, at the age of 19. In 1992 he made his film debut in a small part with Mo’ Money. This started a string of small parts in a string of movies, mostly comedies, including Who’s the Man?, House Party 3 and Walking Dead. 1995 proved to be a turning point in his career. He did an HBO Special called “Midnight Mac” and took a part as Pastor Clever in the Chris Tucker comedy Friday. In 1996 he starred in the memorable Spike Lee movie Get on the Bus, and was very funny in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. About this time he had a recurring role in the TV series Moesha. Bernie Mac’s star was slowly rising from this point. His next couple of movie parts were more substantial, including How to Be a Player and Players Club. In 1999 Bernie got his most high profile part up to that point in the most excellent film Life, with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.
Note: This classic article from FamilyDigest.com’s archives was first published following an interview of Bernie Mac by Darryl L. Mobley (FamilyDigest.com’s publisher) in the early 2000’s. We are republishing it because Bernie Mac’s comedy and perspective on Black parenting are timeless and needed.
The new century saw Bernie blow up on bigger stages. During 2000, he was a featured comedian in the Original Kings of Comedy. This performance made him more of a household name. In 2001 he played Martin Lawrence’s Uncle in What’s the Worst That Could Happen? and later that year he was in the star studded remake of Ocean’s Eleven. However his biggest professional step was the “Bernie Mac Show,” which debuted in 2001, was an instant crossover success, and ran for five years.
I found Bernie to be refreshingly honest. And, it is clear that his honesty was the source of his enormous success as not only an entertainer – but also as a father and husband. As he and I chatted, I found him to be a person with views that many share, but that most are afraid of voicing. I also happened to agree with much of what he said. While huge success was a long time coming, he became a household name while remaining true to his vision. I hope you enjoy this look into a little-seen side of Bernie Mac. Bernie passed away in 2008. More on Bernie’s passing at the end of this article.
Darryl L. Mobley: The Bernie Mac show seems to be loosely autobiographical. Is this so? Why did you find this to be the right creative direction on which to base the show?
Bernie Mac: I just told the story from my perspective about the family. From the time I was a child until now. The truth is that we are all just regular people. People have many of the same problems, everywhere.
DLM: Your show’s message seems to highlight the uneasy relationship between parents and their children. Why?
Bernie Mac: First of all, children are one of the main ingredients to life. Today we’re having lots of problems with children because too many parents want to be friends with their children.
In the Bernie Mac show, Bernie and his TV wife Wanda (Kellita Smith) take his sister’s three kids in when their mother goes to drug rehab and their father goes to prison.
DLM: What’s wrong with trying to be your child’s friend?
Bernie Mac: That’s the cause of many of these problems with kids today. My mother and grandmother weren’t concerned with being my friends. They always said that, we’d be friends later on, when I was grown. And that’s the way it should be.
Parents create these monsters, and then they want someone else to kill ‘em when they’re out of control! Trying to be politically correct, we pamper kids. We excuse their behavior. We allow them to run over us. We reward kids for things they should do anyway. I remember when I came home from school with a B grade. My mother told me that she expected more from me and that I could have gotten an A. She was right!
DLM: So what’s the answer?
Bernie Mac: The formula is right in front of us. When we have these crazy family situations, we want to cry, beg and blame others. We are the problem. We all need to look in the mirror. That’s what I do on the show. I hold up a mirror and we all look at it, together. And people really appreciate seeing themselves in an honest way.
DLM: Was religion a part of your upbringing?
Bernie Mac: Today, spirituality is on the back burner. My mother insisted that I attend church on Sundays. I asked her why I should go to church, when she didn’t always go. She told me “When you’re an adult, you can make your own decisions. But I’m going to make sure that you have a good spiritual foundation for when you are old enough to make those decisions.” She was right.
“I’m here to tell you,” he tells us, “I’m gonna kill one of my kids. They’re too sassy … they talk back too much. And,” with voice breaking, “they’re not even my kids … I’m tryin’ to do the right thing, and sometimes the right thing may not be the right thing.”
Everyone’s religious. You don’t believe me? We’re all going to die someday. And when the driver…
DLM: You mean the grim reaper?
Bernie Mac: Right. When he taps us on the shoulder the first thing we’re going to do is yell out, “Lawd!” Oh yeah, we’re all religious when it counts. Am I right Darryl?
DLM: I think you are as right as can be.
DLM: A lot of experts thought that your comedy would never be accepted by a broad audience. Obviously, they were wrong. Why…
Bernie Mac: I have just concentrated on telling the truth as I have seen it as a child and now as an adult. The truth is always the light. See, everybody’s afraid of saying something that’s not popular. Am I right Darryl?
DLM: So, you’re saying that truth attracts, ultimately?
Bernie Mac: Most definitely. Too many of us want validity from everyone for everything – when we are just wrong. All the stories you see on the show are true. They’re me.
DLM: What about your real-life family?
Bernie Mac: My wife (Rhonda McCullough) and my daughter (Je’Niece McCullough) are what it is all about for me. My wife is my best friend. We’ve been married for 27 years. But you have to know that I didn’t become a man until I was about 30 years old. I was a kid for almost 30 years. It took me that long to grow up!
DLM: Tell me about your life growing up?
Bernie Mac: There were 10 of us kids in the house growing up. Brothers and sisters and cousins. We called ourselves the Mac family. My mother didn’t have a life. Her life was us kids. And that’s the way it is for parents.
DLM: You told me that you had very little interaction with your father. Could you say more on this?
Bernie Mac: My father wasn’t around when I was growing up. I saw him a total of 12 times in my life. Not having him around was the best thing that could happen to me because it taught me to be a man. Because he wasn’t there for me I was dedicated to being there for my daughter. I wanted to tuck my daughter in at night. My daughter went to the gym with me while she was growing up. She and I went everywhere together. All of this interaction with my daughter came because I didn’t get it from my father. I choose to take the positive out of the negative.
DLM: And the negative that led to the positive has led to what?
Bernie Mac: My wife, daughter and I are as tight as a pair of drawers! My daughter just got married and she’s grown. Now we’re friends. Just like my mother said it would be. I like my family. I like being around them. I like going home to them. I’m a better man because of my wife. My vision and focus are sharpened and larger because of the influence of my wife and daughter.
“Mi casa es mi casa,” Uncle Bernie says to his new brood. “In my house is all my stuff, and you are not to touch my stuff. Don’t touch my TV. Don’t touch my DVD. Don’t touch my dual-deck VCR. And most definitely don’t touch the remote that works my TV, my DVD and my dual-deck VCR. When you walk past ’em, close your eyes.”
DLM: How do you feel about where you are personally and professionally?
Bernie Mac: I’m at the appreciative stage of my life. I appreciate what I have and where I’ve been. I have only a few friends. I don’t have the “Hollywood” friends. All of my friends have been with me for years.
DLM: Just how much of what we see on TV is real?
Bernie Mac: On the show, I took my sister’s children into my home. In real life, I took my niece and her kid into my home.
DLM: How does your real family feel about seeing their life on TV each week?
Bernie Mac: Originally they hated my jokes about the family. I use to get into arguments all the time with members of my family. But things have changed. See, first they were saying, “Don’t you dare talk about the family on the stage or on TV.” Then that changed to, “I’m tired of your jokes.” Stage 3 was, “Everyone keeps coming up to me telling me how funny you are.” Now it’s, “Bernie, I’ve got some things to tell you about the family that your audience will really find funny!” Now my family members love the TV show because they are part of the story.
DLM: Why do you think your comedy has been such a major success – even among non-African Americans?
Bernie Mac: I’ve got to be truthful to you. I don’t know any particular formula for the success of the show. I do know that the truth cuts through to all groups. Plus, I’ve really studied my craft. I studied Pigmeat Markham, Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Don Rickles, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Moms Mabley. I’ve worked hard to become good at what I do.
DLM: Let’s continue on this path for a bit longer. There was a time when you thought that you and your comedy might have been too “Black” to ever get your shot on a TV show. How did you keep moving ahead against those odds?
Bernie Mac: I never listened to the voices. I let my heart follow my vision. I stayed true to the truth that I knew.
DLM: Will you and your TV wife “Wanda” ever have on-air children of your own?
Bernie Mac: We’re talking about it. I’m not going to give it a way, but we’re looking at an idea that fits into who we are and where we are in life.
DLM: Before you made it big with the Kings of Comedy and the Bernie Mac show, what did you do for a living? What was it like during the early years?
Bernie Mac: I got married at 19. I did comedy at night. But I needed money and so I did what I had to do to make it. I went to work. I worked at General Motors. A community center. A grocery store. UPS. A mover. A painter. A laborer at the scrap yards. A cook. A store manager. A gardener. I was a sales rep for Wonder Bread. I drove a school bus. I was in the beer crew at Soldier Field in Chicago. I was a clown doing kids’ parties. I did whatever it took. At night I did my comedy thing.
DLM: So many jobs…
Bernie Mac: I couldn’t say that those jobs were beneath me. I had a dream to make it as a comedian. I wanted people to see me and say, “Hell yeah! He’s a comedian!” My journey has never been about money. It was about finding myself.
DLM: What was the closest you came to giving up on your dream?
Bernie Mac: Oh yeah! I got booed in 1982 while I was on stage. I was the closing act that night. Arsenio Hall was on before me. My wife and all of my family were there. That was the longest 10 minutes in my life. I was supposed to be on stage for 30 minutes, but they booed me off the stage in 10 minutes! I looked at the faces of my family while the crowd was booing me and they just felt so bad for me. And I was crushed. Darryl, it was devastating. It was so bad that I didn’t get back on stage for over a year. I was afraid of the microphone. I was scared!
DLM: What did you do?
Bernie Mac: About a year later I was watching TV one night and I saw Arsenio Hall on stage. Then I saw another friend of mine on the Johnny Carson show. That made me look in the mirror and decide that I wanted to be a comedian. I had to stop listening to the voices that were telling me to give up on my dream. I decided to give it another try. And, I have never looked back.
DLM: What did you learn from the journey?
Bernie Mac: I learned that sometimes when you win you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win.
DLM: What advice do you have for those who are or wish to be parents?
Bernie Mac: I’m not an expert, but I do know this. You have got to be a real parent. A parent is someone who’s trying to cultivate a kid into a beautiful flower. As a parent you have got to live by example. You have got to tell kids the truth. A parent is not afraid to say “no” to the child. A parent is someone who may not be popular. Parents must be the leaders of the family.
DLM: What is Black America’s greatest challenge?
Bernie Mac: Ourselves. The biggest challenge we face is us! Once we master ourselves, we’ll be able to do anything. And, we have to start at home. We have to fix our own families.
DLM: What are our greatest strengths?
Bernie Mac: We are a talented people. Very talented in so many ways. We’re also extremely spiritual. These are great strengths that allow us to create an incredible future for ourselves and future generations of our families.
“Kids will lie. Kids are just small adults. And adults are just grown-ass children.”
DLM: What advice do you have for husbands?
Bernie Mac: Whew! That’ll take me about 4 hours to answer that question. I’ve got a lot to say. I’ve never been asked that question before! Do you have the time to get into it now?
DLM: Actually, I’ve got to catch a plane. Why don’t we cover that in the next interview?
Bernie Mac: Definitely!
DLM: Bernie, I wish you continued and massive success. Indeed, you have taken the positive from the negative. Your comedy. Your TV and movie gigs. Your relationship with your wife and daughter. Your views on our families. Your brand of edgy truth can set many of us free to be better parents, husbands, wives, and children.
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Bernie Mac’s Passing.
Bernie Mac and I never got around to that “next interview.” In 2008, Bernie was admitted to the Northwestern Memorial Hospital in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. After a week of unsuccessful medical treatment, he went into cardiac arrest and died during the early morning hours of August 9, from complications of pneumonia. In the final three years of his life, Bernie publicly disclosed that he suffered from sarcoidosis, a disease of unknown origin that causes inflammation in tissue. Sarcoidosis frequently attacked Mac’s lungs. Bernie Mac’s public funeral was held a week after his death at the House of Hope Church with nearly 7,000 people in attendance. Notable mourners at Mac’s funeral were Chris Rock, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Samuel L. Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Don Cheadle, the cast members from the Bernie Mac Show and his Kings of Comedy fellows D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey.
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