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In Praise of Bernie Mac

The anti-Bill Cosby is making a play for Wednesday nights. He's better--much better--than you think.

11:01 PM, Feb 26, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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BERNIE MAC was the one stand-up comic featured in the movie "The Original Kings of Comedy" who at the time didn't have regular television work. Steve Harvey had his own show as did D.L. Hughley, while Cedric the Entertainer was a regular co-star on Harvey's show. During an interlude between the standup performances in "Original Kings," Bernie Mac, seen at times bouncing off the walls for attention, begs into the camera for his own show. This season Fox granted Mac's wish, and his Wednesday night sitcom is now a critical success and a commercial hit with both black and white audiences. Meanwhile the WB has ended "The Steve Harvey Show" and D.L. Hughley's show exists only in a Monday-night, UPN lineup of four black shows in a row.

Actually, "The Bernie Mac Show" is nothing like these interchangeable, bargain-basement productions. Fox appears to have invested in "The Bernie Mac Show," one reason the comedian may be escaping the indignities suffered by Steve Harvey. "The Steve Harvey Show" on the WB was a straight-out-of-the-box sitcom, the kind of show a network can produce on the cheap for an instant share of the black TV audience--though apparently that wasn't enough. Harvey played a bland high school teacher, a nice guy totally untroubled by any desire or passion or peculiarity known to any educator anywhere.

Such was the flimsy construction of character and situation that no theme or idea could survive the oncoming traffic of cheap jokes and overbearing, look-at-me cuteness. Reruns on the local WB station this week tout three of the show's best episodes. Last night's greatest hit was a pious tribute to Black History Month that had nothing to do with the great history of black comedy. Harvey discovers that the school janitor is actually a down-on-his-luck jazz legend and convinces him to stop hiding his light underneath a bushel. In turn, Harvey receives some help writing the song he promised for the school's black history assembly. The episode exemplified the dumb comedy of conflict resolution and its trite and easy lessons.

It was Bill Cosby who set the template for the wholesome black sitcom. And although his show's mainstream success has eluded many of its successors, its basic formula of children's foibles resolved by the magic elixir of adult wisdom has not. It was "Father Knows Best" for the growing black middle class and a good-news newsflash to the guilty conscience of white America. The purest expression of the sitcom's edifying pretensions was found in the Cosby wife played by Phylicia Rashad. She was the power behind the throne, the wisdom behind Bill's wisdom. But all this posturing finally undermined the smart observational material that made Bill Cosby rightly famous and left the black sitcom smug and unwatchable.

Bernie Mac is the anti-Bill Cosby. Talking straight to the camera, addressing himself to "America," the much put-upon head of the household tries to tell it like it is. The show's premise: His drug-abusing sister had to be put away and he, a married entertainer without children, has to care for her two daughters and son. The story is apparently based on Bernie Mac's life, but it's not delivered as social commentary. His is just another screwed-up family and this is how things are panning out.

The challenge of playing daddy loads the plot gun, and his lack of preparedness heightens the stakes. The show is ironic, personality-driven comedy in which a descendant of Ralph Cramden imagines he's king of his castle only to be revealed a servant. And Fox fuels the antics with much-welcome, over-the-top special effects. In a recent episode, Bernie's monologue was interrupted when he realized his hands were connected to puppet strings held by his niece standing above him like a giant overlord. Bernie Mac does not know best.

And his show is not a comedy of conflict resolution. When his weakling nephew complains of getting beaten up at school, Bernie teaches him to fight back, blessing the child's naturally maniacal tendencies and turning him into a bully. When his passive-aggressive niece says she needs more privacy, Bernie and his wife skip her gymnastics meet, pretending not to care. The action scenes alternate with monologues in which Bernie Mac's eruptibility takes center stage. There he muses about what a retard the boy is and the mind games the older sister plays. Last week found him reflecting on murdering the two older children and covering with the youngest by saying they'd run off to join the circus.