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Steve Likes to Curse
Writing, comics and random thoughts from really a rather vulgar man
Farewell to Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes 
Monday, August 11th, 2008 | 05:07 pm [commentary, music, news, obits, television]
Somehow I got through this weekend without hearing about the death of Bernie Mac on Saturday, and Isaac Hayes on Sunday.  Talk about a depressing one-two punch.  I first heard about Bernie Mac from Bent Corner this morning, and then learned of the death of Isaac Hayes a few minutes ago while researching Mac for this article.

Bernie Mac was one of the funniest stand-up comedians I ever saw.  He left behind a thinner resume as a stand-up than colleagues like Chris Rock, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor, but his work held up very well next to theirs.  Like Rock he was a blunt social and cultural critic, and like Pryor some of his best routines were raw explorations of personal tragedy.

He wasn't an overnight success.  He attended vocational school in his hometown of Chicago, and performed locally in clubs in Chicago and Tampa, Florida until his first break, winning the Miller Lite Comedy Search at age 32.  From there, he appeared on Def Comedy Jam, and won a string of supporting film roles.  In the year 2000 he found his greatest fame touring with Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley as The Original Kings of Comedy.  A performance in Charlotte, North Carolina was filmed by Spike Lee and released theatrically; while Harvey, Cedric, and Hughley all had their moments, it was Bernie Mac's closing routine that stole the show.  In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote:
[Bernie Mac’s] material skates close to the edge, as Pryor's did, and we realize what the poet meant when he said we laugh, that we may not cry.
On the heels of the success of the Original Kings of Comedy film, Bernie found more visible acting work, appearing in the recent remake of Ocean's Eleven, and, my personal favorite, Bad Santa, where he played the department store detective who discovered Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox's plan to rob his employer, and wanted in.  He had his own sitcom on Fox for a few seasons, a very funny show that took its premise from the closing bit of his stand-up act, about his caring for the children of his drug-addicted sister.  Like his stand-up, and the man himself, the show was funny, moving, and human.

Isaac Hayes was one of the most successful and influential musicians of the last forty years, making some of the best and most instantly recognizable funk and soul records ever.  Even relatively clueless white guys like me came to know and enjoy his music, even before he totally won us over by voicing the character of Chef during the first nine years of South Park.

He was born to a poor family in Tennessee, picked cotton as a child, dropped out of high school, and learned to play the piano, electronic organ, flute and saxophone all by himself.  His musical self-instruction was sufficient to get him work as a session musician for Stax Records in the mid-1960s.  Soon, he was producing and writing songs, and in 1967 he recorded and released his first album.

Two years later he made his landmark work, Hot Buttered Soul.  Instead of a collection of three-minute radio-ready pop songs, Hayes's forty-five minute record had only four tracks, characterized by long spoken introductions and open, exploratory instrumentals.

In 1971 he composed the soundtrack for the legendary blaxploitation film Shaft, which topped the Billboard Hot 100, and earned Isaac an Academy Award for Best Original Song for his "Theme from Shaft."  You damn right.

He became a Scientologist in 1995, and joined the cast of South Park as Chef in 1997.  He left the show after nine years in 2006, following the "Trapped in the Closet" episode which gleefully mocked Scientology for being a massive fraud.  Hayes claimed that his problem with the episode was not its mockery of his religion, but that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had gotten some of their information incorrect.  It was later suggested that Hayes had quit the show under pressure from the Church of Scientology, that he had not quit the show, but rather "someone quit it for him."

South Park
returned to the subject of Scientology, albeit obliquely, to give Hayes's Chef character a send-off.  The episode, "The Return of Chef," aired just over a week after the initial announcement of Hayes's departure.  It made clear that Parker and Stone were hurt and annoyed at his abrupt resignation, and also that they still considered Hayes a friend who would be missed.

At the time of his death, Isaac Hayes was working on the film Soul Men, alongside Bernie Mac.
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