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Fox's "Bernie Mac' tells it like it is

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in the hands of a George Burns or a Bernie Mac, it's the stubby scepter of comic royalty.

If you haven't heard of Mac, a veteran of cable's Def Comedy Jam, you will. He's the heart and soul of one of the year's best new comedies, which premieres tonight at 8:30 on, locally on WTVT-Ch. 13.

Married and happily childless, Bernie and Wanda (Kellita Smith) enjoy their house, their stuff and their careers: his as a stand-up comic, hers as an executive. Then, one day, Bernie's ne'er-do-well sister lands in prison, and her three kids land in the couple's lap.

Or, rather, Bernie's lap. Wanda leaves for work every morning in a car with "VP ATT" vanity plates, while her hubby stays home and writes jokes.

After driving to the airport to pick up the children, Bernie gets them home and gathers them in his living room to lay down some rules.

Mr. Rogers he is not.

A seasoned comic, he's got the self-confidence to look into the camera and say, "America, let's talk," without sounding silly. And if his sentiments sound authentic, they are: In real life, Mac and his wife actually did raise a niece and a grandniece.

In an old-fashioned sitcom, the audience would be whooping, oooooo-ing and awwwww-ing, and both Mac and the kids would be hitting every line with a sledgehammer. But this is bring-your-own-laughter comedy, a Fox specialty, which means it's got a faster pace and a freer rhythm _ a little like Malcolm in the Middle but, thanks to Mac, with a flavor all its own.

_ Times wires

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