When comedian Bernie Mac died on August 9, 2008, of sarcoidosis, America lost another star. But Black America lost someone who redefined what it meant to play a father on television.
Mac's sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show, aired between 2001 and 2006, and throughout its tenure at Fox, the show struggled to keep its audience, usually through no fault of its own. When the series finally ended, it might have felt like a "good riddance" move for the network, which could not seem to get comfortable with the messages the series wanted to share. No one could see it at the time, but The Bernie Mac Show wasn't the failure Fox likely deemed it to be. Instead, it acted as a gateway for a new mode of sitcoms featuring the black family.
The Bernie Mac Show was, in many ways, the typical family sitcom in which the man of the house has to learn and relearn the trials of fatherhood. But there was one way in which The Bernie Mac show was different; it highlighted what it means to become a dad later in life, as well as what it means to become a father to children who aren't yours.
To be fair, there have been quite a few sitcoms about black families that feature alternative family units. There's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which consists of Will Smith's character being sent away by his mother from his Philadelphia home to live with his rich aunt Viv (Janet Hubert, Daphne Reid) and Uncle Phil (James Avery) in California. There's Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, which features Mark Curry's character, Mark Cooper, a former NBA star-turned high school coach who lives with his friend, Vanessa (Holly Robinson Peete), his cousin, Geneva (Saundra Quarterman), and her daughter, Nicole (Raven Symoné). And there's Steve Harvey's first television show, Me and the Boys, in which Harvey played a widower named Steve Tower who was raising his three sons with the help of his mother-in-law (Madge Sinclair).
But despite their differences, they were still created within the shadow of The Cosby Show. As one of the most popular sitcoms in America, The Cosby Show became the marker by which family sitcoms, particularly sitcoms about black families or other families of color, were judged. The goal for black family sitcoms post-The Cosby Show was to differentiate but to be still seen as part of the legacy created by The Cosby Show. To be successful, in other words, a sitcom about a black family had to, at some point, fall in line with the template set forth by Bill Cosby. Cosby, as patriarch Bill Huxtable, often had hilarious interactions with the kid actors on the show, particularly with Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), Kenny (Deon Richmond) and Olivia (a younger Raven Symoné).
Similarly, Mark Cooper would have fun interactions with Nicole and her friend Tyler (Marquise Wilson). Like Cliff and Clair Huxtable, who were among the upper crust due to their professions, Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv were also among the higher-echelon, elite members of society. They were the pinnacle of the black capitalistic dream. And, just like how Cliff Huxtable had to school his children with tough love constantly, Steve Tower was continually giving his boys advice whether they wanted to hear it.
However, The Bernie Mac Show was different in that it didn't try to be like The Cosby Show in any way. Yes, Mac as a character was still a father figure, and he was also well-to-do thanks to his living as a comedian, but he wasn't posh like Bill Huxtable or Uncle Phil. He wasn't goofy like Mark Cooper or a widower trying to make ends meet like Steve Tower.
First of all, the line between reality and fiction is blurred starting with Mac's character. There was little differentiation between the real Bernie Mac and the fictional Bernie Mac in the sitcom; both had the same full name, both were comedians, and both wanted to do the right by the family members in their lives. The boundary between reality and fantasy becomes even blurrier when you realize the basis of the sitcom stems from Mac's life experiences. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, "[t]he real Mac took in his niece and her daughter in 1994, although in his stand-up act he's melded that story with the tale of a friend who took in a nephew, niece and cousin after the friend's sister got hooked on drugs."
Secondly, The Bernie Mac Show features a dad who acts like a human. This isn't to say the other sitcom dads aren't well-written or empathetic. But sitcom dads usually know the right thing to speak at the right time. On the off-chance they don't, they try not to waste time apologizing for their errors. The Bernie Mac Show's Bernie, however, was a man who struggled with being a father and often didn't do the right things or say the right thing at the right time. He was a guy who was often in conflict with his niece, Vanessa, who undermined him because of her longing for her mother. He would continuously deride his nephew, Jordan, for being what he considered soft. As a father learning on the job, Bernie Mac as a sitcom father who made a lot of mistakes.
A big reason for showing Mac as an accidental dad is to show just how tough it is to raise kids, regardless of if they're yours. Being a parent isn't as easy as sitcoms can make it out to be. There is a lot of trial and error, and you are going to make mistakes. At some point, your kids might not like you, even though they still have love and respect for you. And at some point, you will have to apologize for your wrongdoing as a parent because you have to realize your children's feelings also matter as much as your adult ones.
A lot of this trial and error process was cleverly utilized in the segments of the show in which Mac would directly address his audience, "America," while discussing the parenting issues of the day. He was talking to the viewers, but more importantly, he was talking directly to the parents who had been where he'd been and understood the challenges he was facing. These were like fireside chats in a way; it was as if Mac was telling everyone who has been responsible for another person they were all in this thing together. They were all going to make mistakes, and they were all going to want to reach out to "America" to see if someone else had these same issues. Mac's character might have been calling out to the country, but the real Mac was letting every parent know that it's normal for parents not to have any idea of what they're doing.
It's sad, then, that The Bernie Mac Show didn't do as well as it should have. One potential issue was that the show was going up against My Wife and Kids; if Wikipedia is anything to go by, it asserts that perhaps the Damon Wayans-led family sitcom, which was much more traditional and Cosby-like in its approach, might have hurt The Bernie Mac Show's ratings. There's also the problem of Larry Wilmore's firing.
Wilmore was the initial showrunner for The Bernie Mac Show but was fired by Fox for not making the series as funny as the network felt it should have been.
"The show's bucking of typical sitcom traditions (whether those traditions belonged to family, black or star-vehicle sitcoms) led to network interference," wrote LaToya Ferguson for The A.V. Club. "The Bernie Mac Show won an Emmy for writing in its first season, but by the middle of the second, Larry Wilmore was fired for creative differences with the network. Fox reportedly clashed with Wilmore over the show not being enough like a typical sitcom, for not making the show (which was fearless in its depiction of the realness of its episodic situations) 'funny enough,' and for not having more than one plot in most of its episodes."
In short, Fox was seemingly worried about the show because it wasn't following in the same Cosby trend of a relatively peaceful family home with parents who have the rulebook on raising kids. Fox lost faith in a series daring to be different instead of embracing it as a sign of the changing times in sitcoms.
Fast-forward several years later, and we have possibly the spiritual descendant of The Bernie Mac Show in Black-ish. Like The Bernie Mac Show, Black-ish has a lot of influence from Larry Wilmore, who served as an executive producer. Take a look at the similar way Mac and Anthony Anderson's character, Dre, address the audience. Both look at their viewers as people who will sympathize with them, who need to know everyone has the same types of concerns and fears when it comes to parenthood. Dre and Mac also aren't always the best dads. Dre, for instance, has belittled his son, Junior (Marcus Scribner), to the point where whatever the joke was supposed to be isn't that funny anymore. Dre can also act petulant and immature despite being someone who is an executive at an ad agency. But, once again, Dre shows that parents are still people, and sometimes parents need to mature alongside their kids. That's a lesson Mac also taught on his show.
Mac's politically incorrect nature also lends itself to another sitcom favorite, The Carmichael Show starring Jerrod Carmichael, Loretta Devine, Lil Rel Howery, David Allan Grier and Amber Stevens West. The show was an issue-of-the-week situation, but it also didn't talk about hot-button issues in a highly manicured way. Instead, it presented the much more realistic and often boundary-less way people who are either ignorant or naive talk about topics such as divorce, xenophobia and mental health. The upcoming sitcom Rel, starring Howery, will also deal with today's political and social climate not from an aloof perch but from the perspective of someone who is living amid the ramifications and repercussions of the issues in the news.
The Bernie Mac Show might be gone from our television screens, but it, and the memory of Mac himself, still live. Thanks to Mac and his fearless portrayal of an accidental father, other family sitcoms can be less afraid of showing how messy parenthood can be.