Comedian-actor discusses his Hollywood success and his retirement from stand-up.
Comedian-actor Bernie Mac
Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Bernie Mac to this program. The award-winning comedian and actor of course starred for five seasons on the popular Fox series “The Bernie Mac Show.” This weekend, he’s back with perhaps the coolest crew in modern movie history, starring alongside George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, and Andy Garcia in “Ocean’s Thirteen.”
Next month, you can catch him in what is sure to be another summer blockbuster, transformers. But first, here’s a sneak preview of “Ocean’s Thirteen.”
Tavis: So Bernie, I was just saying to Bernie that it’s the summer of threes. You got “Pirates.”
Bernie Mac: “Pirates,” yeah.
Tavis: Third. Was it “Spiderman,” third time, maybe.
Mac: Yeah, and it’s our time.
Tavis: It’s your time.
Mac: Yes, sir.
Tavis: But the heat is on, ’cause it’s been some money made this summer.
Mac: Well, you know what? Everybody’s in the money and things like that. For me, Tavis, I’m into substance. And people don’t understand that. That’s why I choose – I try to really be smart and picking and choosing. I took a page out of Sidney Poitier. That was one of my mentors when I wanted to get into this business. I don’t want to do crazy and just movies just to be doing movies.
I want to do something that people can really say, “Hey, man, that was good, I’m proud of you, I’m proud of that.” Pride and “Transformers” and things like that. And you gotta go from A to Z; you don’t go from M to Z. I’ve done “Dollar Bill,” I’ve done all movies like that, and I’m very proud of each and every movie that I’ve done, because it helps me get better, it helps me get confidence with myself and things of that nature.
But you always want to elevate yourself, and that’s always been something I’ve been taught. My grandma always taught me. So I try to be very smart and very selective in what I do.
Tavis: Well, that’s the challenge of doing a movie for the third time around. That it’s got to build, it’s got to grow, it’s got to keep the interest of the audience. Looking at the trailer, I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like “Ocean’s Thirteen” delivers. It does?
Mac: Well, “Ocean’s Twelve” was booty, because (laughter) –
Tavis: Bernie just – that’s why you love Bernie. Bernie just came out and said it was booty.
Mac: It was booty. It pimped the people, it pimped the people, and that’s what Hollywood does. They pimp the people, they put out a good product, and then they come and they milk you to death. And that’s something, and “Ocean’s Thirteen,” my commitment was to the fellas. So it was really hard for you not to say, “I’m not going to be a part of that.” So “Ocean’s Fourteen,” I hope they don’t do that, but the luxury of doing it, if it’s going to be done again, is seeing all the guys. Because the set is just a blast, it’s so much fun.
Tavis: Yeah, how cool is that, hanging out with those guys?
Mac: It’s unbelievable, it’s unbelievable. Every day –
Tavis: Yeah, and then Pacino shows up this year, yeah.
Mac: Oh, man, it’s unbelievable. We work 20-plus hours a day, we always fraternize with one another every morning for breakfast. We drink the best liquor in the world, (laughter) smoke the best cigars. I’m just saying it’s out there. If you do it, that’s your right, you know what I mean? But it’s there for you. And the food is great.
Jerry Weintraub, the producer, he hooked us up real well. He created a lounge for us called Oceans. And he had the old Oceans versus the new Oceans. All the video of the old “Ocean’s,” Frank and the real Frank, and then us. And it’s so neat, they put it together real well, Tavis. It’s sweet. Everything is sweet, from the playing hoops, we fraternize after work together, everybody and their mama’s on the set at all time.
We travel together with the family, their family, Matt Damon, their family, everybody. It’s just a blast. And they compensate it for us, which is ridiculous, you know what I mean? (Laughter) So I mean that’s the luxury of doing a film of that nature. It’s not like you with a bunch of actors or actresses and then all of a sudden you go to the premiere to try to promote the movie to try to sell it.
We all like each other. Don Cheadle and everybody, we all dig each other. So it’s a blast. This is the best set I’ve ever been on, and no disrespect to the others.
Tavis: You know what’s funny about this – and this is going to sound strange to people who came to know you just a few years ago – but you and I have been friends for years, have known each other for years, and I used to always – I don’t want to say I felt sorry for you; that’s the wrong way to put it. But I used to be really upset about the fact that so many other comedians, your contemporaries, were getting TV shows – we ain’t gonna call no names.
But getting TV shows and other opportunities. And I’m like, Bernie is one of the funniest cats out. It took a while for your ship to come in, but when it came, it was a big ship. From the TV series to the stuff you’re doing now, it just took a while for your stuff to finally hit with mainstream America.
Mac: But that’s okay, because once again, it all depends, Tavis, on what an individual’s doing something for. I chose to do this when I was four or five years old. I never wanted to do it for superficial reasons – for women and money and cars, and stuff like that. All the time everybody was doing their thing, I was in the gym. I was in the gym 47 weeks out of the year, performing twice a night. I was selling out 13, 12, 14,000 by myself. And I was the best-kept secret for years.
Tavis: For years, exactly.
Mac: And I was my own person, I was my own man, I always thought for myself. It was no pressure on me. So when the television show, when all these other opportunities came, I was ready. And that was something that I’ve always been taught. It never, ever bothered me. People always tried to make things bother me, because how come this, how come that? I was always taught to run my own race, and I’m glad I was.
Because I saw other people, and Redd Foxx was the same way. Redd Foxx was in Vegas, at the Hacienda Hotel. He wouldn’t know where he was. They said he was too raunchy, he was too blue, he was too hard, and all that kind of stuff. But Richard Pryor was an upscale version of Redd Foxx. And they called him a genius. So you have to, as an individual, I tell people when I do seminars and stuff, you have to wait your turn.
Tavis: But you never took it personally, though.
Mac: No, it ain’t personal. (Unintelligible) I don’t look at it personal, I do my own thing. I’ve always been a reserved cat. When I play sports, there’s people used to get mad at me because I didn’t hang out and things like that. I’ve never been that kind of person. Nothing has changed in that regard. I’ve never been posse, and all that. I’m a quiet storm.
I like doing my thing and then when I get done I like being around people who I enjoy. Because as a little kid growing up, I was always forced to be around people that I had to, ’cause they lived next door to me or we went to school together. If I wanted to go outside, I said, “Big Mama, can I go outside?” She’d say, “Yeah, you make sure you stay in the front, don’t go off the block. And you play with Milton and them.” I never liked him. (Laughter)
Always broke somebody’s window and stole something, and we got in trouble all the time. I never dug him. Now, as an adult, I can pick and choose, Tavis, where I want to be. People get upset about it, but that’s okay. They’re always going to be upset hen you be your own person. I’m my own man.
Tavis: When you look back now at those five seasons, you hit the magic number – 100 episodes. When you look back on that series now, what do you make of it in retrospect, what do you think, to your earlier point, when you look back on your career, on your body of work? What did that TV show do for you? What did it mean for Bernie Mac’s career?
Mac: It was innovative, it was new, it was different, it was mine, it was my vision, it was my heart, it was my life, it was nothing fictitious, it was a true story, it was my humor, it came from my heart, and that’s why I felt so much. Being a different style of comic, my comic is wide open. I’m very open with my comedy. And what I mean by that, Tavis, is I’m not the type of guy to do punch line jokes.
I’m not the kind of guy to sit there and just talk about a topic just on the strength of trying to get a laugh. Everything that I talk about comes from here. I have experience, I’ve lived it, I’ve done it in some form, shape, or fashion. So when I take it to the stage, it’s ideal is that the people understand and they get a glimpse of it’s a part of them.
They see it coming from my heart. One thing people – especially the new comics – don’t give credit. They don’t give the audience credit. The audience is not dumb. You might get by, but you ain’t gonna get away. And that’s something the television show when I did that, they wanted a laugh track so bad. They wanted a multi-camera.
But the multi-camera, personally, didn’t fit me. The multi-camera didn’t fit my story. It didn’t fit the story that I was trying to tell. I wanted to not insult the audience; I wanted the audience to understand that I was coming at them. They knew what’s funny, they know when it’s time to laugh, they don’t have to be coached, they don’t have to be guided.
So when we did the single camera, I wanted to shoot it like a movie. And the single camera was interested in me, because the look was different. I didn’t want to be like everybody else. And they thought I was crazy at first, but that’s okay. But I fought for it. I stood strong on it. And one thing I can say, out of five years, regardless of how they took us off and how they played us because that show should have done everything.
Because that show was hot, that show was good. And that show survived for five years on its own. They moved us, we was on every time, date, every different day of the week for five years. People didn’t even know where we were. But our ratings were still top flight, top notch. And I’m proud of that. That’s one thing I learned, if you’ve got a true product, and if you stay true to yourself, Tavis, can’t nobody beat you.
Tavis: You know what’s ironic about what you just said, though, is that so much of what one could argue that perhaps the majority of what we get from Hollywood does dumb down the audience.
Mac: All the time.
Tavis: So I hear your point about not insulting the audience. But my own take is that so much of what we get out of this industry, though, does play to the lowest common denominator.
Mac: Because they want to insult you so bad. And our audience, you have to constantly educate them. It’s our job, like it’s your job, Tavis. It’s your job to up out the product and tell the truth. Because the media fabricates so much stuff, and they put up false fabrications. Just like people, when they always say, “It was in the paper. It was on the news.” (Laughter) And I’d be like, “So what?”
Tavis: So what, yeah.
Mac: What’s that mean, dude? You hear people arguing at the bars and the barber shop. “Boy, let me tell you something, (unintelligible), he did, he did. He (unintelligible) $15 million just for one commercial. It was in the paper.” (Laughter) That’s the most BS mess in the world. Coming from the streets of Chicago, sometimes when I come to Hollywood I feel like I’m in the street. ‘Cause I’ll be, like, (laughter) “Man, I’m from the street, dude.”
Tavis: I’ve seen this before, yeah.
Mac: I’ve heard this. I know the game. And they mess with the audience so bad. They put all this false information and stuff out, and that’s why I stayed so low-key. You’ll notice that me and you talk when we first came in, you been trying to get me for five years. But by you being on your own television show, I couldn’t get away.
Me and you been tighter than a pair of drawers. It’s nothing more that I would love to do and come and support, because we always been that way. But the point’s still you got to do your thing, I have to do mine. But it’s so hard, Tavis, telling the truth, because people don’t like the truth. And that’s something that I have a hard time with, so I don’t do certain things.
You don’t see me in Los Angeles a lot. I go back home. Because I can’t play the game. I can’t – my tolerance – I know I’m getting old; I’ll be 50 this year. And you know how I know I’m getting old? ‘Cause my tolerance level is low.
Tavis: (Laughs) I must be getting old, too, then.
Mac: You know what I’m saying? (Laughter) I don’t like (unintelligible), you know what I mean? I know I must be getting old; I had to look in the mirror the other day, man, my cousin called me. And he shot some game at me and I had to put the phone down, I went “Game.” “Game.” And you just want to – me myself, I’m legit.
I want to have fun. Life ain’t no dress rehearsal. I want to have fun. I’m a comedian; I ain’t no politician. So everything I do is with humor, with love. I ain’t trying to – I ain’t running for office. I ain’t running for nothing. Only thing I want to do is entertain the people, I want them to be proud when they leave and they can recite something that I said or tell a joke that I told, Tavis, I’ve done my job.
When I can make people smile when there ain’t no reason to smile, when they got test results that they scared, they don’t know what the answer’s gonna be, when they ain’t got no control over their kids, when they husband and the wife sleeping in separate rooms, and I can get everybody together and make them giggle for an hour and a half, a half an hour, whatever, that’s my job.
Tavis: Let me jump in here. I don’t want to get too deep, but I –
Mac: Well, that’s okay.
Tavis: If you want to get deep with anybody, Bernie Mac can submerge with you. That said, I was just in a conversation the other day with my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Cornel West. And we were talking about love, and whatever happened to the notion of love in our public discourse? Whatever happened to the notion of love in our comedy, in the work that we do?
Whatever happened to this notion of love for everyday people? You’re the first comedian I think I’ve ever talked to, in all the interviews I’ve done, that used the word love anywhere in the conversation. I want to come back to that, because that didn’t get lost on me. When you throw the word love out in this conversation where your work as a comedian is concerned, what does that mean? When you say, what do you – how does love factor into what you do?
Mac: It means the world. It means every (unintelligible) in your being. It means that you cannot do it without having that type of passion. That’s an emotion, man, that you can’t find on no shelf. That’s something that’s within, and everybody’s doing it for fictitious reasons, for dollars and cents. You have to love what you’re doing. Everybody call theirself a doctor. You can’t be a doctor if you don’t know the entire parts of the body.
You can’t half do nothing. I love what I’m doing. I never – I’ve dreamt of it, I never thought that I’d be doing it on this level. I saw Bill Cosby. That motivated me to be. My mother was dying with cancer and was crying. I tell that story all the time. And I climbed on my mother’s lap and I was wiping the tears off her face. And I asked my mother, I said, “Mama, why you crying?” And she said, “Nothing, Son.” At that same moment, Ed Sullivan said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Bill Cosby.”
Bill Cosby came on and he was doing a routine about (unintelligible) bathroom, you see, he was talking to the people, and he was sitting up there, and my mother started laughing and crying at the same time. And I sat there and I saw my mother laughing; I started laughing. And at the end of Bill Cosby’s segment I said, “And I’m not messing with you.”
I said, “Mama, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m going to be a comedian.” She said, “I believe you, Son.” I said, “So you’ll never cry again.” Ever since then, the next day they had a thing called Kiwi shoe polish, it was in the garbage can. We had to ask for everything that we wanted. And I said, “Big Mama, can I have this?” It was Kiwi shoe polish, liquid shoe polish, you just rub on your shoes.
And she said, “What you gonna do with it?” “This is going to be my microphone.” And I used to walk around the house ever since then, and I used to go in my brothers and sisters and cousin’s face, “How you do in school today?” “Mama, he doing those stupid jokes again, he’s doing those stupid jokes.” “Yeah, stupid, you stupid, that’s why you failed your English test.”
And I’ll be doing little household jokes. I went from that to this. I learned how – I watched everything on television. I learned how to write through watching Alfred Hitchcock. I watched Rowan & Martin. I watched Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson. I watched all the – Andy Griffith. I used to sit on the TV, man, like glue. I could tell you what the joke they was getting ready to tell, that’s how good I was becoming.
I used to get the “TV Guide” on Sunday and read it, see who was going to be on Johnny Carson, ’cause he always had a comedian on there. And I used to sit there, man, when I was (unintelligible) when I got older, I was a street performer. I performed from ’76 to ’77. I didn’t have a coupon. And I was making maybe – I made more money on the street than I did in the clubs.
I was making maybe $200 to – $100 a day. People thought I was crazy when I quit, because Tavis, I felt like I was better than that. It was killing me. I wanted to be legit. I wanted them to call my name. I wanted to be like Redd. I wanted them to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage.” That meant more to me. They were throwing money in the box, I felt like I was begging. I was doing the ells of Chicago.
Tavis: That’s the train, ya’ll.
Mac: Yeah, the train. And then when I went into the clubs in 1977, I was on amateur night for four years. They booked me all over the place. Thomas used to tease me, (unintelligible).
Tavis: Bernie, how you stay on amateur night for four years (laughs)?
Mac: Because Thursday and Sunday was the only time that I got stage time. Because you had to go to opening night, opening act night and stuff like that, and then you tried to work yourself up to opening act. It was a procedure.
Mac: You went from opening act to emcee, from emcee to feature. You (unintelligible) from feature to headline. And it took years.
Tavis: Took a minute, yeah.
Mac: Yeah, it took years for you to become that.
Tavis: I was just thinking of your mama – you mentioned your mama a moment ago, almost brought tears to my eyes – if your mama had had her way, we might be calling you Beanie Mac.
Mac: Beanie, yeah.
Tavis: Instead of Bernie Mac. Mama called you Beanie.
Mac: Called me Beanie. I have a bean head. (Laughter) And she always – when she passed, she wrote a 13-page letter to my aunt telling her what to do with us. And she had in the letter, “Don’t worry about Beanie. Beanie gonna pass everybody.” And she knew before I knew, because I worked so – I had the love for it, man.
They used to punish me, that’s how they punished me. “You know what, the teacher called me today. Did you write that on the blackboard?” “Yes, ma’am.” We couldn’t lie. We was always told – we just couldn’t lie. “Okay, well, you know what that mean, don’t you?” “Yes, ma’am.” “You can’t watch TV. No comedy; none of that.” That was a killer.
Tavis: Yeah. Messed you up.
Mac: Man, that was a killer. I rather went and did 30 months.
Tavis: Than miss Carson, yeah.
Mac: Yeah, man, (unintelligible). And at least do two months or something.
Tavis: Speaking of it was in the paper, don’t slap me but I read in the paper – it was in the paper that you were going to retire from doing stand-up. Now, is what I read correct, that you’re going to retire from doing stand-up?
Mac: Yes, I’m going to retire.
Tavis: ‘Cause I read it in the paper.
Mac: (Laughs) It was in the paper, it was on the news.
Tavis: It was on the news.
Mac: Well, what I’m going to do, Tavis, and I’m going to tell you why I’m going to do it, for number one, I’ve been on the road for so long, this is my – this June it’s 30 years I’ve been in this business. And stand-up means so much to me. I’m older, I missed out on a lot, and comedy has changed. Comedy has now gone all the way over here, and by me being on the road, 47, we saw the year, I should be on eight to 10 planes a week.
Living out of hotels and things of that nature. I’ve done my thing. I finally got my life where I want it to be. I want to enjoy some of it. Only difference is I won’t be doing stand-up twice a night like I was. I’m still going to be doing corporate dates. I’m still going to be hosting, emceeing, but I won’t be living that comic life like I did. Redd Foxx and them had to keep doing it, keep doing it. They didn’t have a television show or something of that nature.
They had to still be in Vegas and things of that nature. I still could do that, but I opt not to. I’m a grandfather now, seven months in. I missed out on a lot of things. I’ll be married – my anniversary is 30 years this year, along with my career. Those are honors that you – those are badges that you wear well.
Tavis: I don’t know what it means that you start telling jokes the same year you got married, but that’s another issue. (Laughter)
Mac: Well, I dated my wife, and me and my wife, we’ve been together for 32 years. And when I was trying to talk to her, she was 15, I was 16, and I kept asking her out. And she kept telling me no, man, you too dark. (Laughter) And I said, “Okay.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “Girl, I’m going to be a comedian. (unintelligible) keep on. You’ll see.
‘Cause I ain’t gonna ask you out no more.” And I said, “Besides being a comedian, I was thinking about being a pimp.” No, I didn’t tell her that. (Laughter) But I came to her and I’ve always been that humorous guy.
Tavis: Bernie has a lot to celebrate, and I revel in his success, I revel in his humanity, I revel in his love for people, and for what he does. He wasn’t lying, for five years – as long as we’ve been – we’ve been friends for many, many years, but for five years we’ve been talking back and forth, trying to get a date when he could do the show, when I was in town, when I was taping and he was here.
And it took us five years to finally make this happen. It was worth every minute of the wait to sit and listen to Bernie empower and entertain us. You can catch him starting this weekend in “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Bernie Mac, I love you. I’m glad to have you on.
Mac: Man, it’s a pleasure. I’m happy for you, too, dude.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Mac: Good to be seen.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.