The Complete set of interviews can be seen here:
A Tale of Two Woods
7:38am. A telephone rings loudly.
“Heeeyyyy mannnnn. What are you doing?”
“Who is this?”
“Brandon, dog, it’s Rodney…eh get there kinda early because I asked a lot of comics to come through and I want to get you up.”
The “Rodney” is Rodney Perry of “Who’s got jokes” and the latest Matt Damon project. He didn’t have to call me at 7:30am. He did it specifically to wake me and keep me awake.
I do the same to him when I can.
The “There” is the Savoy Entertainment Complex right on La Brea in downtown Inglewood, California where, every Tuesday, Rodney hosts Rodney Perry’s Really Big Comedy Show. He was right.
The room is like Grand Central in New York. Fully packed and busy. Every Tuesday crowds gather to sit with one another. Despite monitors and speakers everywhere, it gets pretty hard to hear the performances. You get a good cross reference of folk at the Savoy. Upper, middle and lower incomes kick it like an indoor club BBQ. It’s “free” with a two drink minimum and buffet style eats.
But right now it was about the screen. The screen, big laughs and Bernie Mac. The crowd was watching one of Bernie’s specials and throwing their heads back.
In my lifetime I have seen shapers of our language of comedy leave this earth.
And the untimely death of Robin Harris at 36.
Robin seemed old to me at the time. I didn’t know him that well. Except that his crew included the soon to be giant Martin Lawrence and his replacement on Def Comedy Jam…Joe Tory. Robin Harris’ death was surreal. From the way he died (went to sleep in Chicago after a gig and never woke up) to the fact that Faison Love literally channeled Robin’s Spirit for the voice of Robin in the then unfinished Bebe’s kids.
It even gets deeper when you realize that both Robin and Bernie were Chicago born. They had similar comedic styles and sound. Plus, right now, their spirits connected. Bernie was on screen cracking folk up and Robin is buried not two miles away from the Savoy.
When I walked in at 9:45pm Rodney did have a bunch of comics waiting. Way in the back, behind the crowd. LA favorites like Ricky Harris (Everybody Hates Chris) and Lanni Love (The Man Show).
We all gather in that “who’s on next?” corral that comics do. This time surrounding Rodney a little more loosely than usual. Seems like Bernie is a hard act to follow…even posthumously.
Before I hit the stage I’m able to talk to a few comics about the Great Bernie Mac.
I hit underground giants like TK Kirkland who’s been deep in the cut of comedy one way or another for almost 20 years. TK is now known for his adult subject matters and rapid fire delivery. But he started out as we all do…green and telling straight jokes. A vibe Bernie Mac perfected.
Pierre (Baps. How To Be a Player) who’s “lightskinned is back” riffs come like bullets from the stage. He tells the story of how Bernie showed up late for a gig, walked right in, hit the stage and blew it apart right after Pierre thought there was nothing left.
You have to know that most comics, for the rest of their lives, have some kind of ritual during the day to prepare for a big gig. Be it that morning or right before they hear their name. For a man to walk in without any set up is extraordinary.
In the back I interview some new scene stealers like;
Derrick Ellis, a Comic View Vet from Texas, says
Blast from Phillie
To Vanessa Gratick an up and coming female.
MEANWHILE, NORTH OF WILSHIRE….
At almost the same moment, 5 miles north, Hollywood bubbled with Black comedians on Sunset at Chris Spencer’s “Trippin on Tuesdays”.
The main room at the Comedy Store was hot…literally. Funky, like an old-school house party. Comics ripped left and right.
Black folks laughed and drank. It was at capacity as Chris Spencer, like every Tuesday, held court.
Except this one was about Bernie. Yeah, we comics took advantage to swing a set with familiar jokes and tones. Some even not giving love to Bernie. But that’s okay….to practice the craft in the name of a master is enough…It coulda been the hectic night or the spirit of the room or maybe even the abundance of women…but when I ask Chris about Bernie he looks off and says, “ Talented…from the start to the finish.”
That seems about right.
The Comedy Store is a world away. Right along Sunset’s foo-foo chi-chi district and up against West Hollywood’s wealth laden hills, for about 15 years, Black “night” has kept the street alive to catch up to rejuvenation and a resurgence. It first started with Joe Tory in the Belly room. Then his Brother, Guy T. took it over. Then several others. Now it’s Chris’ room. And it’s the scene.
Ian Edwards, a Conan O’Brian vet, kicks it outside and talks about the experience of seeing Bernie. Of watching him take an already blown crowd and moving it to other levels.
Mark Curry, talks about Def Jam, getting ripped by Bernie and his fashion business sense.
CoCo Brown from the South gets Zen-like in understanding that the Bernie we knew right before he passed was the accumulation of years of work and experiences.
I knew it was bad when Bernie announced that he was retiring from stand-up. No one retires from stand-up. Not willingly. When you are in the moment and ripping and getting paid and well off, stand-up comedy is the best woman you have ever had in your life. Even when you’re broke and disillusioned, she makes you fell ten feet tall. And she allows you vent every single proclivity and fault stuck in your craw. And when she does pay off it’s like no other experience. However, every morning after, she leaves. Just out of your reach. Just enough for you to get your clothes on the very next night and go chasin’ her all over again.
Yeah, every now and then you have some grand gesture of someone articulating their frustration (like when Damon Wayan’s “threw” the mic down and stormed off the stage) and every one of us has said that we’re leaving this mistress. Very few of us mean it.
Saturday Night Live’s Finesse Mitchell
But Bernie knew. He knew because he was sick.
The stand-up world is an addiction but it is not life. It can reflect it. It can amplify it. It describes and translates life. Stand-up lampoons and presents life. But it isn’t driving your kid to school or watching him play football. It isn’t getting married or seeing your child born. It isn’t burying your parents or getting a divorce. Although one of the best jobs in the world, stand-up is not life. It is merely a beautifully grotesque shadow of life.
Towards the end Bernie knew this and became thoughtful and purposeful towards living. SO when he announced leaving stand-up on the Tonight Show, I knew it had all gone very wrong….and still he couldn’t beat the habit. About two weeks before he passed, Bernie got on stage and caused a stir and potential embarrassment for Senator Barack Obama. He told a joke that was offensive to the crowd at hand. Bernie got off unapologetically. He had caught up to life and decided that political correctness was a waste of time. The most dangerous thing in show business is a comic with a mic who doesn’t give a damn who thinks what.
Mike Epps rips
The night was ready to close out. Interestingly enough, they managed to show Bernie’s clip at the end of the show. Laughter and applause as different roles and comedy sets appear on the screen. “Life” and “Ocean’s Eleven”; Def Jam and Comedy Sets…
“Fridays”. The scene where Chris Tucker and Ice Cube sit on the porch making bags of weed. Bernie walks up as Pastor. It takes a second or two…but the crowd starts to mumble…and then…in full chorus…this sweaty, laughed out, drinking, Black Hollywood crowd recites the scene. Line for line. Word for word. Beat for beat…in unison.
It is that moment. The one thing that we all want. To be added to the daily conversation and culture of our era. To become a classic. To be so much of the Black experience that chances are folk remember what they were doing when they first saw you…heard you. That they have watched you so much that you are a part of their days…or better yet…their celebration. Like a Stevie Wonder song. Or a RUN D MC rapp. Like church or like the only kind of love that is unique to us…
To make a non-reality…real. And offer a piece of immortality through a connection with our lives.
Rest In Peace Bernie Mac.
Comics line up for a picture. Included: Chris Spencer, Tony Rock, Michael Colyer, Joe Tory, Afion, Scruncho, TK Kirkland, King Kedar and somewhere I’m in the another one…
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