A mighty sitcom bursting with juicy ideas and energy, The Bernie Mac Show (premiering Nov. 14 at 8:30 p.m.) may remind you how puny and derivative most comedies have become. Mac is a Chicago-based stand-up comedian in his 40s whose ferocious act has made him a favorite among black audiences; whites might remember Mac as the heavy hitter who batted cleanup — after Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, and Cedric the Entertainer — in the 2000 concert film The Original Kings of Comedy. There, as a big-shouldered man stalking the stage, spewing jokes in a shotgun spray, conveying outrage by opening his large eyes until they seemed ready to pop out, Mac was like a truth barometer. He spoke candidly about male-female relationships and the need to discipline unruly children; he worked the arena by heckling late arrivals and ad-libbing profane reactions to the crowd’s genial catcalls.
Where all three of Mac’s fellow Kings have starred in sitcoms, Mac was biding his time, waiting for a vehicle that could showcase such hotheaded talent in the cool medium of television. Working with writer and executive producer Larry Wilmore (The PJs), Mac has found it. The Bernie Mac Show has the comedian playing a married-without-children L.A.-based comic named Bernie Mac who takes in two young nieces and a nephew when their mother (Bernie’s unseen sister) develops a drug problem.
Sound grim? Not the way Mac and Wilmore frame it. They have Bernie address the audience; looking into the camera, he demands that we identify with him. ”America, let’s talk,” he says. ”Yeah, my sister’s on drugs, that’s okay. Some of your family members’re messed up too.” Bernie’s wife, Wanda (the curvy, sharp-tongued Kellita Smith), a vice president at AT&T, doesn’t want to play mommy to these castoffs, and is skeptical of her husband’s ability to become a daddy. ”What does Bernie Mac know about raising children?” she asks us, cutting her eyes to the camera. ”He tells ‘Yo mama’ jokes.”
Indeed, Bernie proves to be a terrible parent: He’s grumpy, too strict, and clueless (it takes him most of the premiere to comprehend that the middle child, Jeremy Suarez’s 8-year-old Jordan, has an asthma condition). But the kids — in addition to Jordan, there’s sullen 13-year-old Vanessa (Camille Winbush) and adorable 5-year-old Bryana (Dee Dee Davis) — aren’t victims; they’re cunning little adversaries. Bernie may talk big about how he wants to slap some respect into these kids, but he’d never do it. He thunders commands for old-fashioned values like good manners, but doesn’t set an example to earn them.
Like Malcolm in the Middle, Bernie is a filmed, no-laugh-track show. And where Malcolm’s heritage can be clearly traced back to ’60s suburban shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, Bernie, with its breaking-the-fourth-wall style, echoes even older oldies such as The Jack Benny Show and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show from the ’50s.
The difference between Bernie and those others is its star: a middle-aged, well-to-do black man whose inner life is marvelously vivid. The scripts nail Bernie’s generation, as when he says, ”The last time I was sick, the Ohio Players had a hit,” and our flu-stricken hero croaks a few bars of 1975’s ”Love Rollercoaster.” Some of the funniest, most endearing scenes occur as throwaway moments, as when Bernie strolls down a hallway improvising a self-affirmation funk vamp, with lines like ”Strong, healthy black man! Whatcha gon’ eat? Somthin’ healthy? Hell, no! Cake!”
By letting Bernie be Bernie, underpinning his anger with moral certitude, and surrounding him with a deft cast that can sass him with believable effrontery, The Bernie Mac Show instantly distinguishes itself from other series lumped together as ”black sitcoms.” When Bernie fixes you straight in the eye and says, ”America…y’all got to pray for me,” you’ll want to do it — if only to help him compete against the competition on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. In fact, taking a cue from Bernie’s food predilections, I think Fox’s new slogan for the show should be ”Less West Wing, more chicken wings.”