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Twenty years ago, Larry Wilmore had already earned two Emmy nominations for his work on In Living Color and The PJs, but it was his pilot episode of The Bernie Mac Show that struck gold.
In 2002, Wilmore became the first Black writer to win the Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series. Wilmore says the show, in which a fictionalized version of stand-up comedian Mac and his wife take in his sister’s children after his sister enters rehab, was unlike traditional sitcoms in that it “was all about behavior,” and was inspired by everything from French New Wave films (Breathless, The 400 Blows) to the U.K.-import PBS reality series The 1900 House. The show, in which Mac often broke the fourth wall to address the audience as “America,” ran for five seasons, but Wilmore lasted only one and a half.
“At the time, I had to fight for all of the creative breakthroughs, and ultimately I was fired for it,” says the veteran writer-producer of parting ways with Fox in 2003. “[The network] never got it. Now everybody does what we were doing: single-camera, an unpredictable editing style, a focus on tone, emotion and characterization instead of just plot twists.”
Wilmore, who went on to produce Black-ish and create Insecure and most recently hosted an eponymous late night series on Peacock, credits Mac, who died in 2008, for turning a show concept into a pop culture cornerstone. “It was his humanity that connected us,” Wilmore says. “It was his talent to bring you in.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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