Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bernie Mac Dies with Pneumonia at 50

Today, when I returned home, my children told me the sad news before I even took off my shoes. Bernie Mac, the large, dark, and lovable funny man and Chicago native, died this morning at age 50. When I posted last week that Morgan Freeman and Bernie Mac had both been hospitalized, the thought crossed my mind that we may be suffering a loss soon, but I didn't think Bernie Mac would die, certainly not at 50 of pneumonia in a Chicago hospital.

He died due to complications from a fairly common illness that sometimes baffles physicians. However, Mac also suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that affects the lungs, but according news sources, the disease was in remission.

I first became aware of Bernie Mac when I watched The Original Kings of Comedy before he had his own TV show, The Bernie Mac Show on FOX. His humor was not for everyone. It was raw and often incendiary, but also honest. I laughed until I cried watching his "Kings" routine and then felt guilty for doing so. If you grew up in the south and black, you may have known someone who talked like Mac did in Kings, who shared highly non-politically correct opinions, and didn't give a damn whether his language offended you or not. He slurred his speech during the routine, part of the act, because if you saw him in interviews you didn't get that from him.

I confess, while some people would declare his humor to be in bad taste, his stories about about his sister's kids struck me as funny. Why? I've seen children who behave like that. He said the children hadn't had any home training and he took them in because his sister was a drug addict and his brother, who'd called him back to North Carolina to help, vanished when it was time to take the kids. (The Bernie Mac Show on Fox had elements of that routine.)

Listening to the blistering rhetoric in the stand-up routine about his nieces and nephew, the two-year-old girl who stared him down, the four-year-old girl who didn't talk, and his six-year-old, effeminate nephew (sorry, he did use the "f" word for the boy and that upsets some people in pc land), you might think Mac hated children or at least was crazy enough to want to fight a child, but Bernie Mac was a family man.
While promoting "Pride" in March 2007, Mac appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman" (CBS, 1993) and announced that he would retire from stand-up comedy after he completed filming "The Whole Truth, Nothing But the Truth, So Help Me Mac" in the fall of that year.

His announcement was met by saddened fans who had hoped to catch him on a stage or cable special in the future. But Mac insisted he needed a real life, choosing instead to focus on films and producing TV programs.

Part of the pull toward retirement was due to wanting to spend time with his family. Married to wife, Rhonda McCullough, the couple had one daughter, JeNiece, who was earning a master's degree in mental health counseling. (FOX)
I've heard interviews with him in which he praised his wife for putting up with him and spoke lovingly of his daughter. He made it clear that his marriage was important to him, and he loved his daughter.

If you aren't into comedy shows, then you may have seen Mac at the movies. He played Frank Catton in Ocean's 11, 12, & 13, the father in Guess Who with Ashton Kutcher, and had a cameo in last year's blockbuster The Transformers. According to IMDB, Mac left this planet with four other projects in post-production.

I found out the comedian was in the hospital through a political blog last week. The blogger lumped Mac and Freeman in the same article because of their support of Barack Obama. The post reported that Mac's humor at a Obama's fundraiser ruffled feathers. Today, in a report on Mac's death, I learned Obama's campaign gave a statement after the event that Mac's stand-up routine was inappropriate. Nothing new there. Like I said, he tended toward raw humor.

And now he's passed away at 50, in middle-life.

We're blessed enough in this age, in this nation, to believe that to die at 50 is to die too soon. We're telling ourselves, it's the new 40. In particular, when female celebrities reach 50 looking fantastic, such as Jamie Lee Curtis who turns 50 later this year, we celebrate with them, assuming many glorious years lie ahead. Their vibrancy reassures us. But then there's a death like Mac's.

If we're approaching 50 or its shadow's now in our rear view mirrors, news of a contemporary dying may force us to sit and think, to contemplate our own mortality. I may do that a little tonight as I sit with my aging children and my aged parents, a pair in their 80s. If I drank, I'd toast with a good wine or a rich bourbon the funny man we'll only have now on discs, and I'd ask, "What jokes get laughs in heaven?"

Heaven's got one hell of a show anytime its eyes roll downward. The richest source of laughter is us, how we love, hope, face our fears and pain, and how we stumble through the raunchier pits of life. Bernie Mac knew that.

Update to Post
This post is also cross-posted at While responding to comments there, I wrote another personal memory of Bernie Mac's work that I forgot to mention here:
He made popular the saying "You don't understand. I ain't scared of you, muthaf ... rs!" Mac was gruff on the outside, creampuff on the inside. I think he took advantage of how some people perceive large, tall, black men and played up the gruffness sometimes, and although I'm female I tapped into that once.

When I was going through a tough time in my life, a period battling one individual and struggling with both financial and health issues, I think I went a month saying "You don't understand. I ain't scared of you, muthafu ... rs" at least in my head, just to puff myself up enough to go forward each day, which was how angry and scared I really was. The routine in which he said that was related to sexual prowess. I was not going through anything related directly to sex, but the bravado of the phrase gave me the power and humor to make it through.
The title of Bernie Mac's book is also taken from that phrase. You can read the preface at GoogleBooks. In it Mac says he decided to become a comedian at age 4 after watching his mother cry, but soon after seeing her laugh uncontrollably at a Bill Cosby routine on the Ed Sullivan show. He decided to become a comic then and there and said to his mother, "Mama, that's what I'm going to be. I'm going to be a comedian--so I don't ever have to see you cry no more." (That' story's from I Ain't Scared of You: Bernie Mac on How Life Is, published in 2001)

Prince used a clip of Mac's voice saying that phrase at the beginning of his song "The Pope."

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