Quarantine, Netflix, and Bittersweet Memories of Bernie Mac

Remembering the King of Comedy and the King of All

Jason Thompson / 6.16.20

A couple of months ago, my big brother wanted to do a movie night replete with Miller High Life and the kind of fraternal bonding that can only take place in the midnight hour. Then, the kids are asleep, the challenges of marriage and parenting are momentarily put on pause, and two brothers who are literally separated by a decade but who can spontaneously exchange lines from Eddie Murphy’s Raw, House Party, and Do the Right Thing are engaged in nostalgic reminiscence via Netflix.

We cued up Spike Lee’s timeless concert film, The Original Kings of Comedy, one of the first films to be shot with digital cameras at the turn of the century. We sifted through sets: Steve Harvey reflected on the serendipitous discovery that sister Odell cussed in church, DL Hughley insisted that Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine confirmed his Afrocentric ethnicity, and Cedric the Entertainer prophetically warned that America wasn’t ready for a Black President.

As my brother and I were momentarily transported back to a season when our lives’ burdens were fewer and responsibilities less complicated, I noticed something I had forgotten: I hadn’t seen the film since it was first released 20 years ago. My brother and I saw it together at a 10pm show in a crowded AMC theater and it had been like attending a family reunion. The theater was packed with nothing but black folks we didn’t know, but whom we felt like we knew because we were all congregated to experience something visceral and transcendent through that movie screen. We were united by our communal share in hearing comedians expound on realities that are too prevalent and too relatable. There was a sense in which we were all laughing and weeping together. The comedians were mediators of the invisible things and helped us to laugh, commiserate, and self-identify as a community.

Intermittently, Kings intersperses these candid snapshots of the comedians casually hanging out backstage, engrossed in a game of poker, or playing basketball. There was this inside joke about Bernie being neglected and not having the kind of notoriety his brothers enjoyed at the time. We see his fellow comedians laugh with Bernie as Bernie laughs at himself, which was the key to his comedy! He made fun of himself as being least and last yet he closed the entire show (with an insightful reflection on African American dialect and vernacular). As someone once said, “The first will be last and the last, first”.

I had forgotten Bernie closed the final act and incidentally he would die an untimely death just a few years later. In a poignant manner, “being dead, he yet spoke”–beyond the grave, into today. In my nostalgia for this king of comedy who died too young, I thought about the ultimate King who became last, was made the least, was disregarded, and considered a joke by nearly everyone. This King will have the last laugh and will have the great honor of wrapping up the grand redemptive narrative at the close of all space-time history–with the greatest punchline ever: It is Finished. “Even so, come Lord Jesus”.