Comedy and Race in America
Three Comedians Who Get Serious Laughs from Thorny Issue
Listen to Michele Norris' report on Bernie Mac.
December 11, 2002.
Exclusive to npr.org: Listen to an extended version of Michele Norris' interview with Bernie Mac.
Dec. 9-11, 2002 -- Race is a subject that Americans often approach with trepidation, because of the potential minefield of misunderstandings or hurt feelings. Nearly two generations after the end of legally sanctioned segregation in America, talking about race remains a thorny issue.
"But in the world of stand-up comedy, the subject of race is not so much a minefield, but rather a goldmine, an endless source of great material," says All Things Considered host Michele Norris. "That's because comedy provides a comfort zone to discuss uncomfortable topics -- a place where audiences can laugh at themselves and look past pain to acknowledge unvarnished truth."
In this three-part series, Norris speaks with three comedians who have generated some controversy because of their brutally honest takes on race relations in America.
On Wednesday, Dec. 11, Norris concludes the series with a conversation with Bernie Mac, who burst on the stand-up scene with the HBO series Def Comedy Jam and in the Original Kings of Comedy concert film.
Now he has a hit sitcom on the Fox television network, playing a surrogate father to his sister's kids. In the tradition of other TV father comedies, the laughs come from zany family moments. This time, it's a black family -- but one very different from the Bill Cosby variety. Just don't call it a black comedy show.
"If you want to stay on Bernie Mac's good side, you don't dare call him a successful black comedian -- he says his work is meant to have a universal appeal," Norris says.
Critics praise Mac's "refreshing" take on the family dynamic, and Mac says that's because he fought hard to make sure his own sense of what's real and funny stays in the script -- not an easy task for any comic dealing with Hollywood TV executives.
"They kill comics. They kill comics every day," Mac tells Norris. "Doing this (sitcom), I said to myself that I will not allow America, or Hollywood, to take my voice from me." Part of the reason for the show's success, Mac says, is that "Fox has been extremely good to me -- they let me do my thing."
Mac tells Norris that the key to his brand of comedy, whether it's onstage or in front of a camera, is in the presentation -- "to take a topic and present it to the world in a way where it's not degrading, it's funny. I don't do things to harm or hurt anybody -- I don't believe that."
Michele Norris joins All Things Considered.
Web site for the Bernie Mac Show on the Fox Network.
Paul Rodriguez' official Web site
Learn more about Margaret Cho -- and experience audio and video clips from some of her performances -- at her Web site, margaretcho.com.