Bernie Mac: The serious side of a funny man

When I was a little girl, seeing Black people on television was still a big deal–and a rare occurrence. I guess that’s why when programs such as The Flip Wilson Show came on, many Black families, mine included, treated it like a special occasi

When I was a little girl, seeing Black people on television was still a big deal–and a rare occurrence. I guess that’s why when programs such as The Flip Wilson Show came on, many Black families, mine included, treated it like a special occasion, a not-to-bemissed event.

We’d all gather around the screen like we were watching a dear brother or uncle performing. I’d crack up at Wilson’s antics, his gut-splitting Geraldine Jones imitations, and think, “Wow, I’m really proud of this Black man’s success.” It wasn’t lost on me, even at that young age, that just a few years prior, Wilson would not have had an opportunity to practice his craft on prime time. It was truly remarkable.

Bernie Mac used to watch The Flip Wilson Show, too, as a child growing up on the South Side. When Bernie looked at Wilson, he not only felt pride but thought, “That’s going to be me someday.”

And sure enough, Bernie made it happen. Before his tragic death at the age of 50 from complications due to pneumonia, Bernie made a name for himself as a national celebrity, one that filled African Americans in this city with a well-earned sense of pride for what he accomplished on and off the screen.

For his family and friends, surely his loss has been unbearable. We all hate to hear about a life taken away from us too soon, but it is all the more tragic when that individual had led such an upstanding and stand-out life as Bernie Mac.

Last weekend at the House of Hope on the South Side, Bernie’s fans and friends came out to honor one of our favorite sons, a man who stayed grounded even while his career skyrocketed. Throughout his life, he was a devoted husband and father, and he never forgot the city where he became famous.

Bernie’s life story took him from a tiny apartment at 66th and Blackstone to Hollywood sitcom star, from small time jokester to comedy club king. Bernie hit it big later in life, at the age of 43, after starring in The Kings of Comedy. After that, we had to share Bernie with his growing national fan base. But Bernie always felt like ours, didn’t he? He was so well-known and beloved by so many people in this city. He never abandoned Chicagoland for Tinseltown. He stayed right here with us.

Bernie was worthy of every drop of pride this city oozed out for him. He was a shining example of how an individual can rise above his circumstances, how setting goals and mastering a skill– whether it’s comedy or carpentry– drives success.

Bernie knew he had what it takes to make it, but he also knew that comedy was about more than telling jokes. In an interview with NPR a few years back, Bernie analyzed the peaks and pitfalls of the comedy game like a business executive discussing a company’s strategic plan. All jokes aside, Bernie took comedy seriously. Through reading, watching and studying the masters like Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Red Foxx, even Jack Benny, Bernie said he found the recipe for success.

“I was a student of the game,” Bernie said of the comedians who came before him. “I watched what made them different. I watched what made them all successful in their own way. And what made them all successful was style. They all had a unique style. You see one comic today and he gets hot, and that’s what everybody wants everybody to be like.”

In 1987, almost by accident, Bernie hit upon his own style. At a particularly tough Chicago performance, Bernie came out of character to take on a heckler, reducing him to silence with a few hilarious riffs. The audience loved it. Bernie’s gruff, razorsharp style was born. But not long after that, Bernie said in an interview that the legendary comic/actor Redd Foxx took him aside and told him, “You’re a funny guy. But you don’t just want to be funny. You want to be liked.”

Bernie took that advice to heart and let his personality shine through to shape a comic style that spoke to everyday issues, such as when a son gets bullied at school, or a daughter loses her favorite doll, or when a loudmouth tries to control a room.

One thing’s for sure, Bernie won the hearts and admiration of thousands who didn’t just like him but loved him, especially here at home, in Chicago, where Bernie was like a brother, a dear uncle and truly remarkable.

Cheryle R. Jackson is the president of the Chicago Urban League. She can be reached at


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