Stan Lathan Remembers Bernie Mac

Bernard Jeffrey McCullough grew up on Chicago's tough South Side, where he knew from an early age that he wanted to become a comedian. Bernie Mac wrote in his memoir, "Maybe You Never Cry Again," that the choice was essentially made for him when he saw how a Bill Cosby routine made his mother—who moments earlier had been crying—laugh. She died of cancer when he was just 16, but the ambition stuck: while still in community college, the 19-year-old Mac started telling jokes on Chicago's L-train platforms. While logging hours as a furniture mover, UPS agent and bread-delivery sales representative, he perfected his act—all deadpan delivery and impeccable timing—ultimately taking it to the stage of Def Comedy Jam, where he earned a reputation as an intimidatingly no-nonsense funny man.

After a few bit parts in movies through the '90s, Mac's big break came in 2000 with Spike Lee's "The Original Kings of Comedy," which documented a stand-up tour featuring Steve Harvey, D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and a show-stealing, exasperated Mac. He'd go on to star in his own sitcom, "The Bernie Mac Show," from 2001 to 2006, which played to his strengths as a tough-talking family man. He appeared in more than 25 movies (including the "Ocean" trilogy, "Transformers," "Bad Santa" and the cult classic "Friday"). One of Mac's last two films, coming out later this year, will be "Soul Men" with Samuel L. Jackson and Isaac Hayes, who died Sunday. Stan Lathan, co-creator and executive producer of "Def Comedy Jam" and a former director of "The Bernie Mac Show," spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ashley Harris about Mac, who died Saturday at age 50, from complications of sarcoidosis. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So, how did you and Bernie Mac first get introduced?
Stan Lathan:
I first met Bernie Mac in 1991, when he came to New York to perform. Bob Sumner, the legendary comedy talent scout, used to recruit young African-Americans, and he hipped us to Bernie. The routine was, we would go to the cities and follow the people who had the most loyal followings in the city, and Bernie had a pretty strong following in Chicago. We brought him in, and he killed each show.

How so?
In a very good way. I'll never forget the night he came on after one young comedian who bombed. Just bombed. It was so bad, the audience, which was known to be pretty ruthless, booed this comedian off the stage. We had a very strong, very urban audience. We recruited the most urban audience we could find. It was a show that you could turn on at midnight, and see a show you would never go to because it felt so raw. And the audience was pretty unforgiving. So after the comedian left, Bernie came out to a Kid Capri beat. He did a little shuffle dance and came out and said, in his trademark voice, "I ain't scared of you motherf-----s" and the audience went bananas. People literally were rolling out of their chairs. He just had that charisma. It was a triumphant moment for him, and to this day that phrase is what any Def Jam enthusiast will say and people instantly know who it is.

What about his personality was so captivating to the audience?
Bernie was an interesting guy. He was a very confident man. He had a way about him that reminded us, with Southern family and roots, of family. It was a genuine homespun personality. Not to mention the man was just funny, period. The best way to describe it is old Chicago blues, urban but deeply rooted in the South.

Def Jam is noted for having the largest pool of pure African-American comedic talent. Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chapelle, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Chris Rock have all graced the Def Jam stage, and all of them have gone on to be incredibly successful in their own right. Did Bernie have an impact on these comedians?
It would be hard to say he had an influence on his contemporaries, but they did have a great deal of respect for him. But there are a lot of comedians that have come up since then, that mix the coolness, and swagger that Bernie had. You can see it in their sets. He commanded the stage every time he went on. It was magic. When we were on tour [for Def Comedy Jam], we were selling out every city, the show just kind of flew by. We had a bunch of great acts on the tour. He would always lift it even more. He was the perfect coach for other comedians.

You knew him pretty personally, when the lights dimmed, how was Bernie Mac off stage?
He was very introspective and a very sensitive man. He was very compassionate. He cared about others and what he was doing for black people, and he was very proud of his show.

Did his death come as a shock to you?
He was pretty robust, he was an avid golfer for a while, and he enjoyed sports. I was never too aware of his health problems until a few years ago, with the well-published problems with his lungs. So, it's just terribly sad.

The charm to "The Bernie Mac Show" is that it really seemed like it was an extension of him. Do you think that's what resonated with viewers?
I think that he was one of a kind. He stayed true to who he was, as a comedian and even culturally. He didn't compromise, he didn't sell out. The Bernie Mac on television and in the movies, is the same Bernie Mac in life—the same wit, and audacity. He brought that to the screen and on stage. He was one of the few with natural talent, he had a gift. You couldn't teach his timing or his charisma. He didn't compromise at any stage of the game. He stayed true to what worked for him, and eventually, the public became more and more aware.