By Ken Tucker
December 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

He’s the man who recently told his TV audience, ”I ran the ’70s — I told Earth, Wind to get some Fire; I told Kool to get a Gang!” He’s the man who, playing a blackjack dealer sensing racism in the gambling-casino industry in Ocean’s Eleven, tells a blinking Matt Damon huffily, ”They should call it whitejack!” He’s the man who’s just published a cheerfully profane autobiography called I Ain’t Scared of You. And you know what? He’s really not. Because right now, Bernie Mac is The Man.

This year, the 44-year-old once-and-future stand-up comic seized the throne implied by the title of his 2000 concert film, The Original Kings of Comedy. The Bernie Mac Show, in which Mac plays Mac, a boisterous comedian who’s suddenly put in charge of two mischievous nieces and a sniffling nephew, is the surprise hit sitcom of the TV season, top-rated among Wednesday-night 18- to 34-year-old viewers at 9 p.m., clipping some West Wings.

Born poor in Chicago, where he still makes his home, Mac does not lack for confidence: ”When I get in front of the camera, I know how to make it come to life. I don’t need comedy writers. Larry [Wilmore, creator of the TV series] and I talked about that. I need stories, and then I tell the jokes, my jokes about that situation — stories that have some meaning.”

It’s this brashness and this commitment to reality — to meaning — that have made Mac a favorite among African-American nightclub audiences for more than two decades, and that are now bringing him a crossover audience on TV and in the movies. What’s next? After he finishes taping the first season of his Fox TV show, he’d like to shoot a concert film he’d call Up Close and Personal With Bernie Mac. And he hopes to star in a movie he’s written for himself. The title? ”Deadbeat Dad Detective. I’m gonna beat the s — – out of some guys that walk out on their wives. It’s gonna be real funny, with some truth in it.” All in all, sounds like it’s good to be a king.