How ‘The Bernie Mac Show’ Changed the Future of the Sitcom

By

“You know I ain’t lyin!”

“America, I tell the truth you can’t say!”

“Bust his head til the white meat shows!”

Bernie Mac was already an up-and-coming comedian when he starred in Spike Lee’s Original Kings of Comedy in 2000. Having risen through the ranks by way of Chicago, Mac made a name for himself during the Def Jam comedy years, as one of the funniest and most unflappable comedians on the tour. So by the time he was introduced in Spike Lee’s film, his confidence and persona was on full display.

From word one, he owns the crowd, making light of everything from his sex drive to the disappearance of grandmother figures to why he has no problem telling the truth about children. It’s in this last bit that a new avenue really opened up. Mac talks of how his sister has recently been arrested and imprisoned for drug use and how he has become the legal guardian of her three children. He then begins to go down a path which in today’s culture might be deemed offensive but in his hands is mined for humor: Children are evil and in need of a heavy hand with discipline, heavy enough to show the white meat. Within this routine, the seeds were planted for The Bernie Mac Show.

As told to The Champs podcast, series creator Larry Wilmore, himself a TV veteran, had the idea for the show from watching the movie and thought Mac’s story on raising his sister’s children was fascinating. At the same time, he had been mulling the idea of spoofing the still young but soon to be omnipresent reality-TV craze. By marrying the two ideas together, the general framework for The Bernie Mac Show was born. Mac would star and it would depict him struggling to raise children while at various times breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the camera in a sort of tell-all confessional. This framework in part laid the groundwork for what would eventually become an en vogue comedy style: the TV mockumentary.

The show, which debuted in 2001, came during a dry period for the single camera style in comedy. The top comedies of that time were all multi-cams, Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace. All extremely well done, funny shows but all still playing more or less within the common framework of the multi-camera setup. The lone exceptions were Fox’s Malcolm In The Middle, itself breaking new ground with it’s own 4th wall breaking and shows from other countries, chiefly, the UK’s The Office which would rapidly become the template for future shows.

Showing just how in touch he was with comedic culture trends, Mr. Wilmore would become involved in creating the American version of The Office some years later. However, when Mac debuted, it had the added twist of an almost all African-American cast and a head of household that straddled the line between urban sensibilities and common family situations. Bernie Mac was not your typical patriarchal figure as he enjoyed tormenting the kids as much as a good game of poker or a cigar. Rather than try to smooth away some of his “urban-ness”, the show allowed Bernie to really be Bernie, PC or not.

At the time there were other shows with predominantly African-American casts, namely The Hughleys, My Wife and Kids and The Steve Harvey Show but none of those gave a true depiction of their stars. In later years and in their standup, Steve Harvey and DL Hughley would often joke that America was always shocked when they cursed or went raunchy with their acts since on TV they seemed so polished.

Bernie Mac, however, doubled down on his persona, not re-casting him as a perhaps more friendly to suburban sensibilities doctor or teacher. Instead he WAS Bernie Mac, a successful standup comedian that people recognized out in the world. Even more interesting, the show flipped some of the typical household roles by having Bernie act as more the stay at home dad since his career enabled him to work more on his own time versus his wife who had a steady and successful 9-5. Bernie is shown being proud that he decorated his house, picked out the tile and furniture and enjoys cooking food, which in many sitcoms is not a sign of male power or masculinity.

Much of the early tension in the show involved Bernie coming to grips with being a true guardian to three kids after living a much simpler life with his wife Wanda. Almost every episode begins with Bernie in his den, giving his take on the world and trying to make sense of how upside down it has become. As is the case, Bernie puts up a tough front but is met with results that force him to re-consider and usually soften his stances. It’s a tried and true formula but what really pushes the show beyond the standard sitcom tropes are the way the show went about framing everything. Neither Bernie nor his family were ever really shown to be too outlandish or stubborn or “sitcom-y”, but instead were normal people with normal reactions to things. They weren’t always mouthpieces for jokes, aside from Mac, who WAS a comedian after all. Sure, the situations could be outsized from time to time as is the nature of TV but the show handled things in surprisingly realistic ways.

Likewise, the show enjoyed the freedom of a single camera setup by playing with timelines and shooting in a variety of styles not commonly seen on sitcoms. For instance, early on in the pilot, there’s a shot where Bernie addresses the camera directly and then has to leave the room because he hears yelling. Rather than cut immediately to the action outside, the camera lingers on the empty chair a moment, to hammer that this is some form of heightened documentary and not a planned cut. Also, the use of little footnotes throughout each episode adds punchlines to many events, serving as a sort of framing device and precursor to using a narrator a la Arrested Development. The single camera also gave some of the framing a more cinematic feel and often would show various angles not possible in a traditional multi-cam setup such as the view through a thermostat on an episode revolving around a broken air conditioner.

One early standout episode, “The King and I”, demonstrates the overall mission statement of the show perfectly, as it depicts Bernie struggling to control his two younger kids who defer to their older sister Vanessa over Bernie. Vanessa has spent much of her life already taking care of her siblings and as the pressures to just be a teen are weighing in, she pulls away. There are misunderstandings, fights, even a pants dropping by the younger brother at a slumber party full of Vanessa’s friends.

In the end everything turns out well enough as Bernie and his wife determine Vanessa needs her space and freedom to just be a teen. The episode culminates with the realization that being a parent with a teen means an uneasy alliance at all times, that you need to both give power and space to receive it back in kind, a surprisingly deep message for any show, not just a network sitcom.

The first season of the show was met with almost universal acclaim, including Emmy awards and a Peabody, but there was unrest behind the scenes as the show creator had issues with the Fox executives. Mr. Wilmore was quoted at one point as saying, “We actually get notes where they say – and this is not an exaggeration or a reinterpretation – ‘No more poignancy.’” Elsewhere, Wilmore added that the studio just didn’t find the show to be funny enough and reflecting on it later thought the real issue was that they just didn’t “get it.” The show was constantly struggling to hold its own in a landscape that wasn’t really ready for the in-your-face nature of the show or the quiet moments of reflection that it also included. When put up against joke-a-minute multi-cams like the aforementioned Friends and Raymond, The Bernie Mac Show must have seemed like it came from another planet.

The strangest complaint of all though was that it wasn’t doing well enough in the ratings. In its first season, it finished as the #63 ranked show in the Nielsen ratings, while it’s second it jumped a bit to #60th. In these days, it was pulling in nearly 10 million viewers which would make it a bonafide hit in today’s TV landscape as well as being nominated and winning awards. For 2001 Fox though, it just wasn’t enough.

As Mr. Wilmore points out, he thinks there was perhaps a deeper issue the execs had with the show as he noted that another perennial TV darling, Arrested Development had even worse ratings but was constantly getting the backing from the studio. As season two concluded, Mr. Wilmore was fired from his own creation. The network cited “creative differences” though as he put it, “I was creative, and they were different.”

The show would run for three more seasons with it constantly being moved around the TV lineup and pulled from the big audience-grabbing sweeps months, eventually just making it to the holy number of 100 episodes, which meant syndication. It would be cancelled having reached 104 in total. The show is currently available on Netflix though only the first season as of yet has been given a DVD release, probably due to music licensing issues. The show used a lot of heavy hitters in its soundtrack including several Stevie Wonder tracks which gave it a further urban feel but also heightened it above the normal TV soundtrack.

Looking back, as Mr. Wilmore gets set to return to TV on Comedy Central in January, The Bernie Mac Show stands as an underrated but vital part of TV history. In light of all the issues swirling around Bill Cosby as well, it could perhaps be held in that same light as the original Cosby mega-hit of the 80s, minus a lot of the baggage now involved. As the Peabody committee wrote when it awarded its honor to the show, the series proved that “family transcends race, that race determines social perceptions, that all children need to be firmly disciplined… and that it’s as much a plea for help as it is a lesson about sweet television tykes.”

Regardless of race, creed or gender, sometimes raising kids really does make you want to bust them in the head until the white meat shows. Out of love, of course.

Devin Klos is an actor and writer in New York. Check out his blog/podcast: Iworkinproduction.com and twitter account: @Devinklosprod.