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Comedian Gets on the Fast Track With His Mac Attack : Comedy: Chicago's Bernie Mac spices his routines with an R&B band and dancers, all part of his goal to provide full-service entertainment.

November 18, 1994|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the crowded, clamorous arena of stand-up comedy, it's often difficult to make enough noise to get yourself noticed.

Chicago comic Bernie Mac has discovered that it doesn't hurt to back up the punch lines with a nine-piece R&B outfit and a clutch of comely dancers.

In fact, Mac is now commanding theater stages during his national "Who Ya Wit" tour, which comes to the Wiltern Theatre tonight. The show mixes Mac's ribald observations and character routines with an exuberantly flashy vaudeville-style stage show. It's put the hard-working, 37-year-old comic finally, undeniably, at the center of attention.

"I've been working in clubs for 21 years, but I got the feeling that the comedy world was at a standstill," the affable Mac, taking a break from rehearsals in an L.A. hotel room, says with a shrug. "I wanted to get back to the basics of entertainment, when audiences were so excited about what they were going to see. The lights go down, the curtain opens up, and it's 'Wow.' "

Mac credits a good deal of his inspiration to the old-school comics that he watched as a novice. "When you put Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory up on a stage, you saw very strong, very different styles. You didn't forget who you were looking at. Now, you get the same act from a bunch of different people, and nobody's really being entertained. Some of the comics say the audience is dumb, but those people out there aren't stupid. When they see something unique and exciting, they wake up."

A conversation with Mac has to make room for a full cast of characters--stern preachers, slick show-biz sharks, Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton all have their say as Mac speaks.

He says that moving his characters and material from club bills into a full-blown theatrical revue was not a particularly daunting challenge because he felt he'd had plenty of practice.

"It's always been in me. Since I was 4, I wanted to be an entertainer, and I ran the 'Bernie Mac Show' in my house as soon as I could convince my brothers and sisters to do it. I was tough too," he says with a laugh. "They had to come up with new songs and new jokes every time or they couldn't be in it."

The young Mac made a neighborhood name for himself entertaining at church functions, school talent shows, and in any park or alley where he could get a crowd together. Eventually, he broke into Chicago's club circuit, and his career began to soar in 1990, after he won a national comedy competition. Soon, he was opening shows for the likes of Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole and Barry White. Film parts followed, with Mac contributing small comic turns in "Mo' Money," "Who's the Man" and "House Party 3." Most recently, he scored his first non-comedy role as a broken-down ballplayer in "Above the Rim."

Mac also spent a summer as host of the touring version of the Def Comedy Jam, but he's quick to put distance between himself and many of the show's younger, raunchier comics.

*

"I don't use four-letter words for the sake of using them," he says, "and I don't use them in conversation. I might do a bit here and a bit there to attract your interest, but what I've got to say is what I'm proud of. There's got to be some love and care and respect in the message behind the words. Some guys go overboard with the raw language, because that's all they've got." Mac discovered just how well his earthy comedy could carry a heartfelt message five years ago, when he was a roaring hit at the unlikeliest of places--his grandfather's funeral.

"He was a big man, and everybody respected him. At the funeral, nobody knew what to say or how to act. It was just too sad. I got up and went straight to the microphone and said, 'This is what I remember about Dad.' I told a story about him and did his voice and gestures. People were trying to fight back laughs--they didn't know if it was OK. Then my auntie screamed, 'That's him!' and all the laughs came out. I ended up doing an hour and a half."

That emotionally charged performance opened up an odd new circuit for Mac. "Everybody kept calling me up," he says with a smile. " 'Hey, Bernie, my mother died. Can you come over?' 'You remember my cousin, don't you? Can you come over?' I wouldn't say no. It was deep, because it meant so much to people. I'd do it again."

Creating comedy that means a great deal to the people it entertains is a part of what Mac calls his KISS system. "Keep It Simple, Stupid," he explains. "When you put pressure on yourself to come up with extravagant material and you take yourself too seriously, you run into problems. Keep it simple. Funny is funny. And I'll make anybody laugh. Just give me the mike. It's simple--I'm going up on that stage for an hour, and I guarantee that before I leave it, I'm going to make you laugh."

* Bernie Mac performs at 8 p.m. today, Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. Tickets $30.50, available through Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232, or at the Wiltern box office, (213) 380-5005.

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