The offensiveness of Bernie Mac

The comedian's jokes about hos and black first ladies fall flat at an Obama fundraiser. Should we be outraged?

Published July 14, 2008 1:45PM (EDT)

I've never been a big fan of Bernie Mac. Never watched his show, skipped his section of "Kings of Comedy." Just don't really dig the guy that much, but for the life of me I cannot get outraged by the jokes he told last Friday at an Obama fundraiser. Were they offensive? Well, I think that's part of their appeal. The jokes seem so much of a piece with Mac's typical material; inviting him to perform and complaining that he was offensive is like asking Metallica to perform and complaining that they play fast and loud. His humor isn't shocking, but it is proudly off-color. Consider this bit on the difference between a hypothetical and a real question:

"My little nephew came to me and he said, 'Uncle, what's the difference between a hypothetical question and a realistic question?' I said, ‘I don't know,' but I said, 'I'll tell you what you do. Go upstairs and ask your mother if she'd make love to the mailman for $50,000 ..." The joke continued with the mother saying she'd sleep "with anyone" for $50,000 -- and then continuing to include Mac's daughter hypothetically answering the question in the same way . "Hypothetically speaking, we should have $100,000. But realistically speaking we live with two hos."

Ba-dum-dum. This is actually the funniest of the material I've heard quoted. The rest of the bits sound like lame monologues from his TV show. Like the tangent about how a black first lady would be different because she'd be so demanding: "You didn't pick up the kids? You were on Air Force One and you couldn't stop to pick up the kids?" Groan. As Joan Walsh wrote this weekend, "If I were Michelle Obama, or Bernie Mac's wife, well, I'd be tempted to threaten a Jesse Jackson."

At a time when Obama is trying to appeal to female voters, this isn't the kind of press he needs. I suppose Mac's appearance, and the ensuing flap, are a lesson for comedians that even remotely dicey material is probably best left out of the $2,300-a-plate fundraisers. It's also a lesson for organizers who want to avoid this kind of kerfuffle to find safer comedians: Sinbad, get ready for your spotlight.

I've received a few e-mails, however, from women who do find the routine deeply offensive, and I think it's worthwhile to have a discussion about it. Should we be outraged that Bernie Mac made a line of sexist jokes? And was the Obama camp's response appropriate?

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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