I just heard about Bernie Mac’s passing. Man, that’s rough.
I knew Bernie. He was the genuine article. In my 15 years as a stand-up comic, no one else electrified an audience the way Bernie did.
If you’ve ever known a comic, you know they don’t laugh much. Especially at other comics. But, watching Bernie, I was as much an audience member as anyone in the room.
The night I was invited to work Bernie’s show at Milt Trenier’s jazz club in Chicago, I sat in awe as he opened the show with a 45-minute riff about a gig that he and his band, “The Macaronis” had done in Gary, Indiana the previous weekend.
It was completely unrehearsed, and flawlessly hysterical. This was a funny man, straight to the core. His show at Milt’s was a variety bill. After his smokin’ set, he brought up a beautiful woman who looked and sang like a pre-crack Whitney Houston. Stunning.
I was fully immersed in the show when my friend, Ali LeRoi, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “you’re next, blood.”
It was only then that I realized I was the only white dude in the club. Bernie and I had never even met. “Fuck,” I thought. “I hope I’m funny.”
Bernie did another amazing 5 minutes after Whitney. Then he got serious with the crowd… like a preacher to his congregation.
“Ya’ll know that Bernie Mac’s show is about love, right?”
A few crowd members muddled back agreement.
“And anyone I invite on this stage is family.” He preached. “And you got to respect them like family… Right!?”
“That’s right… Mmm, hmmm…”
I was getting nervous. Obviously there’d been an incident in the past. Some ‘white comic’ hole I would need to dig out of before winning this crowd’s respect.
“And that means no heckling… and no shoutin’ out!” Bernie continued.
Holy shit, this hole must be deep.
“This next bruthu comin’ to the stage is gonna make you laugh. Show some respect, ya’ll… Kevin Rogers…”
The Macaronis played me on. Nine pieces of hard funk symmetry… horns blaring, bass thumping, drums popping… As I approached the crowded stage, I was struck at how natural Bernie looked up there under those lights, in front of that band, with that music pumping.
I was out of my league. But, I wasn’t about to let the crowd know it.
Bernie gave me a big hug as I hit the stage and said, “teah it up, bruthu.”
The band sounded so good. This figured to be as close as I would get to living my “anyone in history” fantasy. You know the one where someone asks, “If you could be anyone, anywhere, at any time in history… who would you be?”
My answer is easy. I would be James Brown playing a packed club in Augusta, GA around 1963. Right before his career broke mainstream and took him out of reach of the people. And at the height of the civil rights struggle in America.
Imagine being James Brown, and lifting a few hundred audience members up out of their harsh realities for a few hours, freeing their minds of all the bullshit waiting outside. Pounding that revival funk until everyone was ready to collapse. Imagine what a soul-cleansing steam bath of a gig that had to be. That’s true religion for any performer.
Standing on stage with Bernie’s Macaronies, I wanted to touch that energy, if only for a second. So, I looked at the drummer, held my arm in the air, and dropped it in time with the beat. Bah…
Then 2 beats later… Bah, bah, bah!
The band was amused, and obliged my fantasy. The crowd chuckled at the site of a long-haired white boy trying to lead Bernies band. The ‘white comic’ hole was filling in nicely. I only had to get the first laugh quickly to get back on even ground. Then I’d have a chance to kill.
“Thanks, Bernie… He thought I was here to sell weed until like 30 seconds ago.”
The audience roared as if I’d read their minds. Mission accomplished.
After my set, I was ordering a drink at the bar when Bernie came rushing past and said, “Follow me, Son.” I tailed Bernie into the men’s room and 4 other guys came in behind me. This could go either way, I thought.
Damn, did I crossed the line up there?
Bernie was like a mad man, those wild eyes looking me up and down.
“Who found this crazy ass dude?” Bernie looked around. “Ali, this one of your friends?”
“Yeah, I booked him.” he answered.
“This Motherfucker is funny!”
Ali looked relieved. “Yeah, I told you man.”
I breathed a relaxing sigh as Bernie went on telling Ali he wanted me booked on his upcoming HBO show. Saying, “Funny’s funny, man… I want him on.”
The offer was flattering, but I wasn’t about to let high hopes ruin a perfect night. I went back out to my seat at the bar, and aside from an occassional handshake with passing audience members, I fell right back under the spell of Bernie and the show. I walked home on air that night.
My time in comedy came to an end just around the time Bernie’s career was really taking off. Every time I’d see those wild eyes peering out of my TV, or from a movie poster, I felt glad that the Hollywood horror machine got it right for once.
No one deserved to be performing for people (and getting paid large for it) more than Bernie Mac. If you ever saw him live, you were lifted higher – and for a little while, forgot about all the bullshit outside.
Rest well, Bernie. You worked hard.