In the summer of 2000, I got a call from Richard Abate, a literary agent then at ICM. He asked, "Do you know who Bernie Mac is?"
Of course I did. Original Kings of Comedy was due in theaters any day, and since Spike Lee had directed is, you couldn't walk down a single street in Brooklyn without running into an OKOC poster. Plus, like me, he was from Chicago. I don't know, Richard probably thought that since I was a white dude, I might not be hip to the guy.
He said, "He wants to write a book. Wanna ghost it?"
Of course I did. At that point, I'd only dabbled in ghostwriting, but it was something I'd been wanting to get into for a while, and what better way to start, with a truly hilarious, profane, chatterbox of a comedian on the rise. I knew all I'd have to do is let the tape roll, and Bernie would bring the funny, then I'd bring the organization, and we'd have ourselves a book. So I told Richard, in true Mac-ian spirit, "Fuck yeah."
"Good," he said. "You're meeting with him and an editor on Friday."
That was two days from then, so I figured I'd do some prepping, which in this case meant procuring a bootlegged VHS version of OKOC. The picture was a disaster -- everybody looked like Stretch Armstrong, post stretching -- but the soundtrack was loud and clear, and that shit was funny.
So Friday rolled around, and I went to Hoboken, where I hooked Manie Baron, then an editor at HarperCollins. The plan was for Bernie to pick us up in his limo, then we'd drive around and have a mobile meeting.
The limo driver pulled up right on time -- not always a guarantee with those celeb-types -- then Manie and I hopped into the car, and there he was, all smiling, charismatic, and welcoming. Bernie then proceeded to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk...and he wasn't the least bit funny. He discussed old-school comics, everybody from Redd Foxx, to Groucho Marx, to Lucille Ball, and how each of them influenced his own work. He told us about honing his stand-up on the Chicago subways. He didn't ask Manie or me a single question; I guess he figured that if ICM gave us the thumbs-up, we were okay.
Forty-five minutes later, we pulled up in front of some random Manhattan building. Bernie gave us each a hug, said, "We'll be in touch," and then he disappeared, Batman-style.
Richard called two days later. "Bernie liked you. Get on a plane to Chicago. His people aren't paying for the ticket. You'll have to go out of pocket on it. Your parents are in Chicago, right?"
"Great. So you won't have to pay for a hotel. It won't be that bad."
"You don't know my parents."
"Whatever. Think of it as an investment."
I was broke, but I didn't hesitate. Three days later, I was chilling in Bernie's office in the South Loop, making small talk with his sweet, round-faced assistant, waithing for the man. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Finally, 90 minutes after our meeting was supposed to start, Bernie breezed in with three huge bags of fried shrimp, and three huger bags of French fries. "Sorry I'm late. Here's lunch. Let's get to work on this proposal."
I fired up my Dictaphone, and off he went. He waxed poetic about how pissed off he was at Stevie Wonder for making Hotter Than July, and how much he was frightened by Tiger Woods's teeth, and the history of the world "muthufucka." He polished off his then-cold shrimp, said, "Leave your address with my assistant. My driver's coming to pick you up at 5:00, then we're going out to dinner, then we're going to the White Sox game. Later." Then he disappeared, Batman-style.
At 5:00 on the nose, a big-ass limo pulled up in front of my parents' house in the lily-white suburb of Wilmette. I jumped into the car, and asked the driver, "Where's Bernie?"
The driver, whose name was Bill, said, "Just me and you. We're going to Buddy Guy's restaurant. Bernie says order as much as you want."
I was still full (and, frankly, a little queased) from the shrimp, so I ordered only an appetizer. Bill said, "Boy, eat something. Bernie'll be pissed if I turn in a receipt for less than $40.00." It was impossible to refuse that kind of encouragement, so I ate something.
A couple hours later, we drove over to U.S. Cellular field, and there was Bernie, his wife Rhonda, and his best friend who's name I've since forgotten, so we'll call him John, all decked out in White Sox gear. He gave me a big hug, introduced me around, then asked, "How was dinner? Did you get enough food?"
We made our way into the stadium, and to our seats, which were three rows behind the Sox dugout. (Bernie was a first-class guy, no doubt.) Bernie spent the entire game yelling -- at players, at fans, at his wife, at me -- and after 20 years of doing stand-up, he knew how to make his voice carry. I wish I'd taken notes, because whatever he was saying had us all peeing our collective pants.
I asked Rhonda, "Is he always like this?"
She rolled her eyes and said, "Always. All he wants to do is make people laugh."
After the game, we all piled into the limo, and Bernie offered around what had to be some super-expensive cigars. Despite the fact that I hate smoking in general, and especially cigars, I almost took one, because I thought it would make for a cool story.
Bernie was a bit mellower, but still as funny, throwing gentle insults at everybody in the car, myself included. But he was so fucking hilarious, that I was honored to have him ragging on me.
When we got to my parents' place, he insisted on coming in and meeting them. "You're going to be family, Alan." He schmoozed with Mom and Dad for about 30 minutes, and then split.
I never saw or spoke to him again. Not even after I wrote a book proposal that helped get him a six-figure deal with MTV Books.
I'm not sure exactly why his people went with another ghostwriter. I always theorized that they thought seeing the phrase "Bernie Mac with Alan Goldsher" on the cover might have alienated his core audience -- there probably weren't too many people with Jewy-Jew surnames at his concerts -- and that massively bummed me out, but in hindsight, I can't be too mad. I can look at the book and be proud that I came up with the title (I Ain't Scared of You: Bernie Mac on How Life Is), and that maybe 10 pages of my work made it into the final draft. It's a small thing...but it's a big thing.
Bernie passed away today, and even though I only met him for a grand total of eight hours over two days, I'm thrilled that I even got that much time with the guy, because Bernie Mac's personality was so big that eight hours with him was as much fun as eight weeks with anybody else.