Why ”Bernie Mac” is today’s ”Cosby”
On the surface, it would seem that this TV season’s new hit ”The Bernie Mac Show” (Fox, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.) and Bill Cosby’s classic ”The Cosby Show” (1984-92) don’t have a lot in common. Over the years, ”The Cosby Show” has taken on a golden hue of nostalgia, and we remember ”Cosby”’s Cliff Huxtable as a sweater-wearing, often grumpy but always loving dad.
Bernie Mac, in contrast, is far more in-your-face; his show revolves around the idea that TV-Bernie is NOT a real dad — he’s taken his two nieces and a nephew into his house because his sister is battling a drug problem, a story premise we cannot imagine ”The Cosby Show” tackling. Bernie frequently addresses the TV audience directly (in this, he’s more of a throwback to Jack Benny and George Burns than ”Cosby”’s far more traditionally structured sitcom). The only time Cosby looked us in the eye was when he was doing one of those charmingly silly dances to the new theme music his show would introduce each season.
In fact, however, there’s a lot of ”Cosby” in ”Bernie,” and vice versa. In his invaluable history ”Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television” (2001), scholar-critic Donald Bogle proclaimed ”The Cosby Show” ”television’s first full-fledged depiction of African American middle/upper-middle-class life.” He was right, and the sad, startling fact is, ”The Bernie Mac Show” is only the second one. After all the intervening years, there’s been no other successful black sitcom about well-to-do blacks (shows such as ”The Hughleys” and Damon Wayons’ ”My Wife and Kids” take pains to depict their male stars as men who rose up from working-class backgrounds to run their own businesses — i.e., lower-middle/middle class). Where Cliff Huxtable was a doctor, Bernie Mac is Bernie Mac, a highly successful comedian. Both characters live in big houses and are comfortable with their status in life.
What Bogle observed of Cosby’s show is true now of Mac’s TV family: ”The Huxtable family never had to discuss being Black… because their Blackness was something so much at their core that they didn’t have to dramatize it.” This is a crucial element that enables both shows to be so different from other sitcoms, which too frequently use hip-hop slang and jokes about being poor or having a rough life as a way of both minimizing the misery of many African Americans throughout our history while consigning them to stereotypes of the jivey joker. Both Cosby and Mac reject such categorizing.
Instead, ”The Cosby Show” and ”The Bernie Mac Show” take pride in presenting what Bernie described with comic boastfulness in one episode as a ”strong, proud black man.” It was couched as a joke — both Mac and Cosby regularly make themselves the butt of humor, outsmarted by their wives and children due to an excess of pride — but that doesn’t mean that, week after week, they are not indeed strong proud black men, coping with life quite well.
The other quality both shows share is a common sense approach to child-rearing with a deep suspicion of permissiveness. Mac’s notorious pilot joke to one of his charges — ”I’ll slap your head ’til the white meat shows!” is actually just an update of one of Cosby’s lines to his kids, uttered in funny frustration: ”I am your father — I brought you into the world, and I will take you out!”
Another similarity: a love for music that’s not of this era. For Cosby, it was jazz — at one time or another, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie, Nancy Wilson, and Joe Williams were among the performers featured in ”The Cosby Show.” One of the ongoing delights of ”Bernie Mac” is his passion for ”old school” R&B and funk.
What both of these shows offer is not just first-rate comedy, but a worldview — more than that: a worldview shared by millions, yet which is rarely depicted on TV.