Bernie Mac was fearless
OPINION: The comedian had confidence and a ferociousness that made him one of the best ever.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
I believe that there are two types of stand-up comics. Some are reliant on their material and need to be meticulous about the placement of every word and every pause. Jerry Seinfeld, Anthony Jeselnik and Chris Rock are like this—they’re wordsmiths who are precise about timing, diction and everything. Then there’s another sort of comic who just has a hysterical spirit and comedic-sounding voice. They can go onstage and read the phone book and make you die laughing. In this group, I put Paul Mooney, Robin Williams, George Carlin and the incomparable Bernie Mac.
Mac had well-written jokes, of course, but he was like a tornado of energy onstage, a torrent of words said in ways that kept you on the edge of your seat and dying with laughter. There was a musicality to the way he talked that was endlessly compelling in and of itself. There was a way he had with certain words that destroyed me. Like when he said “son of a bitch” but made it sound more like “sum-um-um-a-bitch.” Or when he slurred his way through “mother-–-r.” His pronunciations slayed me.
There are actually two other types of comics I think about—people who need the audience’s approval and seem unsure as to whether or not they’ll get it, and people who are fearless. They don’t seem to care about our approval. They tell jokes to see if we’re sharp enough to get them. They act like they don’t care if we don’t laugh—as Dave Chappelle once said, “I get paid for the attempt.”
I’ve interviewed a lot of comics and not all of them are fearless. Many get nervous before they go onstage. Even seasoned comics bomb sometimes, and you never quite know when a bad show is coming. But the ones who are fearless walk out like Michael Jordan walking into the NBA Finals. Some comics say they will purposely say something that they know will cause them to lose the crowd, like dissing a local sports team, so that they put themselves in a difficult situation so they can see if they’re good enough to dig themselves out of the ditch and win over the crowd again. That’s confidence. You only do that if you know you can crush the crowd. Bernie Mac had that kind of ferociousness. He rolled onstage like a gangster and then killed comedically.
The first time I realized Mac was a comedy monster was when I saw that legendary bit from Def Comedy Jam. As the story goes, Mac knew how important doing a good slot on Def Comedy Jam could be for his career. It was a high-stakes night. But the comedian who preceded him got booed. According to the man behind the Mac documentary, I Ain’t Scared of You, Bill Bellamy told Mac, “This audience is tough!” Mac said, “I’ve been going at this too long! I’ve worked too hard! I ain’t scared of them!” And he went out and started his set with “I ain’t scared of you mother-—rs!” and then he spat his jokes with a forceful energy and punctuated his set by repeatedly telling them, “You don’t understand! I ain’t scared of you mother—rs!” Each time he said that the laughs got louder. That repeated line more than any joke he said that night told us all that Mac was hysterical but more importantly, he was fearless and ferocious. That’s what I love. He was a comic with good jokes, but he was someone who was funny no matter what he said, and he was someone who had sky-high confidence. That’s thrilling to watch. Bernie Mac was one of the best ever.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.
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