'Til the White Meat Shows
The Bernie Mac Show is about a wealthy African American professional who raises an assortment of cute children and wears colorful sweaters. But, Bernie Mac wants us to know right from the start, it’s nothing like The Cosby Show. In the first scene of the show’s debut, Bernie is reclined in a leather armchair, puffing away at a huge cigar, before turning to face the camera and declare, “I’m gonna kill one of them kids.” Cliff Huxtable, he is not.
Yet the comparison exists, if only because The Bernie Mac Show, like any prime-time, major network sitcom with a black cast, stands in the lengthy and successful shadow cast by Cos. While some have questioned whether that show spoke to black audiences disproportionately denied the Huxtables’ class standing, it cannot be argued that The Cosby Show did appeal to a large (read: crossover) audience and retained that appeal over a long period of time—the Reagan Years. The Huxtables’ material wealth coincided perfectly with Reagan’s “color-blind,” laissez faire economic policies. The show offered a televised image of conservative thinking, demonstrating how success in America is available to all, regardless of race and without the help of pesky government regulations like affirmative action.
Around the same period, images of and jokes about fabulously wealthy African Americans were also available in the Will Smith vehicle, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Both Cosby and Smith presented black versions of affluence and ascendancy, and provided a sharp contrast to the sitcoms popular in the previous decade, the 1970s: Sanford and Son, What’s Happening!, and Good Times all took place in “ghettoized” settings (Fred and Lamont Sanford went so far as to live in a junkyard).
Black sitcoms that failed to negotiate either end of this economic spectrum (presenting either a fantasy of privilege or stereotypical poverty) were met with lower ratings and, frequently, cancellation. Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, whose main character was a high school teacher, is just one example of a discontinued series that portrayed the black middle class. Other shows found marginal, if consistent, viewership on minor networks, like UPN’s Moesha, starring singer Brandy Norwood. The popularity of Family Matters, attributed in large part to viewers’ brief and inexplicable obsession with suspendered geek Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), is perhaps the most long lived sitcom that showcased African Americans in neither grinding poverty nor material wealth.
Bernie Mac, however, strikes a kind of balance between the two historically successful settings for black sitcoms. His show’s premise, in a notably Seinfeldian turn, is taken directly from Mac’s stand-up act, part of which is recorded on film in Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy (2000). During his act, Mac discusses his recent difficulties caring for his drug-addicted sister’s three children after she is incarcerated. In the show, Bernie Mac plays a version of himself, a highly successful comedian and actor whose sister’s legal troubles lead him and his wife Wanda (Kellita Smith) to adopt her children. Though firmly planted in the upper class of Los Angeles celebrity, Mac’s attitude toward his new housemates reflects the same biting, at times venomous, wit and sarcasm that have propelled the comedy in older sitcoms about African American life in the lower class.
Much more than the sweet-tempered Cosby, Mac’s crotchety sentiments often recall the ever-grousing Redd Foxx in Sanford and Son. He complains about spending all day at home with the youngest child, Bryanna (Dee Dee Davis): “She’s dull as a rock.” And during an argument with the surly eldest child, Vanessa (Camille Winbush), Mac’s exaggerated anger takes the form of a unique threat: “I’ll bust your head ‘till the white meat shows!” In retaliation for this and other tyrannies, Vanessa reports Uncle Bernie to a local social worker. The resulting visitation by social services is another reminder that Bernie is ridiculously unfit to care for children, at least on the surface. Despite this fact, however, Mac eventually convinces the worker to allow the kids to stay.
Such a mix of comedy and cruelty has a long history in U.S. culture generally, and in black sitcoms specifically: in Good Times, Mr. Bookman (Johnny Brown), the overweight maintenance man, was called “Buffalo Butt,” and in What’s Happening!, Curtis and Re-Run played the dozens with each other about their mothers. Insult humor in black sitcoms allows characters facing various forms of social disenfranchisement (economic, racist), to assert themselves through snappy characterizations and comebacks. Implicit in this kind of interaction is an aggressive, if playful, posturing, where it’s every man, woman, and in Bernie Mac’s case, child, for themselves—nobody is immune from insult, nobody is above reproach. And Mac’s attitude toward his children certainly seems reproachful.
Beneath the surface, of course, he loves them. The show wouldn’t be much of a comedy otherwise. Yet, very little time is spent on Mac’s peaceful cohabitation with the children, and more focus is placed on the many creative ways he can express his frustrations with them. As in his stand-up act, the comedy here is driven by Mac’s outrageous verbal and physical expressions. Bernie Mac, in other words, makes Bill Cosby look like Ward Cleaver—he’s a foul-mouthed, fire-spiting egotist who doesn’t toe the line of “traditional family values” as Cosby did (nothing about Mac’s relationship with the children could be deemed “traditional”). Mac’s wealth, furthermore, isn’t displayed, as Cosby’s was, within the brackets of good citizenship and moral decency. Bernie is unrepentantly abrasive and joyously self-centered.
Bernie Mac, for his part, is comfortable with his role as the (funny) angry black man. He revels in his iconoclastic turn as the anti-Cosby, free to be rich without fitting pre-set, conservative (read white) standards of behavior, free to say what he truly feels without the threat of disenfranchisement. Bernie truly is the master of his domain, both his home (“Mi casa es mi casa,” he quips) and his show. He also knows that he speaks for others, some of them his viewers. Addressing “America” as he does frequently in confessional-type turns to the camera, Bernie Mac says at one point, “Bernie Mac just say what you wanna say.” Sometime later, he officially resigns himself to sacrificing his good name for the sake of comedy: “I don’t mind,” he tells us with a big smile on his face, “I’ll be the bad guy.”