You could know James McNair in Peekskill, N.Y., as an upstanding resident, and hear others call him “Jimmy Mack” without ever really knowing why.
You might have crossed paths with “Jimmy Mack” without ever knowing his real name was James McNair, or that he was a longtime friend of Tracy Morgan.
But if you had met Jimmy Mack, then you would have known him as a caring godfather as much as he ever was an uncle or a father to his two children, a pillar of his Uptown Comedy Club community to Morgan, and of his civic community in Peekskill. The local paper noted in an op-ed: “The 62-year-old had supported every conceivable charitable organization in his city, helped his church, fed the hungry, took care of his family in challenging times and so often did it all with a huge grin and an infectious sense of humor.” If you lived in Peekskill, perhaps you saw that most apparent when he hosted the Original Uncle Jimmy Mack’s Amateur Hour at the Paramount Theater of the Hudson Valley.
It was there where hundreds of Peekskill residents, and several comedians from New York City, paid their respects to McNair late last week.
Freddie Ricks was one of the comedians who spoke at the services.
Two of the other comedians in the inner circle working and touring with McNair and Morgan (and with them, also Ardie Fuqua and Jeffrey Millea, Morgan’s assistant) shared their thoughts and remembrances of McNair over the weekend with The Comic’s Comic. Meanwhile, Morgan, Fuqua and Millea remained in critical but stable condition in a New Jersey hospital following the crash that killed McNair — the driver of the Walmart tractor-trailer that rear-ended their limo van pleaded not guilty last week to a charge of death by auto and multiple counts of assault by auto.
Pictured above (left to right): Rick Younger, James McNair, Tracy Morgan, Ardie Fuqua, Marc Theobald, Richard Pierre-Louis.
I first met Jimmy at the Uptown Comedy Club when I first started comedy, then again when Tracy Morgan was on SNL and Jimmy would do extra work on SNL. We reconnected in 2013 to write for Tracy’s Comedy Central special “Bona Fide.” Jimmy was a character with stories and wisdom beyond his 62 years of life. He lived a life that many would envy. From gang life to drugs, jail, to comedy, working at a youth center and being saved in church. Jimmy was the guy you came to for advice because whatever you were going through: He had been there and done that. Our conversations many times had nothing to do about comedy. We just talked about life. The majority of people that packed Paramount Theater in Peekskill knew Jimmy the caring and giving guy that I knew him as. He was involved in the community as much as he was involved with the comedy scene. That is why Mayor Catalina declared that from hence forth June 12th will be know as Uncle Jimmy Mack day. Jimmy impacted many lives. One day at a writers meeting I told Jimmy a joke he wrote sounded too stocky (like a stock joke). He looked at me and said, “I’m 62 years old, everything I say sounds stocky.” … That was Jimmy, a character with great character. He will be missed.
I didn’t know Jimmy Mack for a long time, but the impact a person has on other people’s lives sometimes can be forged in a short period of time. Jimmy Mack and I worked together as writers on Tracy Morgan’s most recent Comedy Central special Bona Fide along with Marc Theobald, Ardie Fuqua, Jeff Stilson and Rich Pierrelouis, or as we affectionately called ourselves, “the crew.” Jimmy was the elder statesman, old dude or “old motherfucker” of the crew. He brought with him a wealth of life experience and knowledge of black comedy. He always had a story to tell about Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx and a number of the real old-school comics like Wildman Steve, Pigmeat Markham, etc.
Jimmy Mack was with Tracy from the beginning and he was Tracy’s biggest supporter. He had a genuine love for Tracy and for all of us. In our camp he was more than a writer, he was also a father figure. Even though he was older than us he was also humble and ready to learn about things that we could teach him.
Many a night we traveled back from gigs when we played in towns that were a few hours away from New York. If you really want to see comedy, you should see a SUV full of grown-ass black dudes singing Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” at the top of their lungs.
The last time I was with Jimmy we were driving back from Boston after playing The Wilbur Theatre with Tracy and Ardie. It was just the two of us and we talked about life and comedy. Ever since he passed I’ve thought about that night. We learned a lot about each other on that ride. I was greatly impressed by Jimmy’s ability to still dream. He was still striving for higher heights as he lived the dream.
The recent tragedy has brought to light the importance of parting in peace from your friends and loved ones. I’m glad that every time any of the crew parted ways we hugged and expressed our love. Jimmy was a man full of love. He’s greatly missed. I’m just glad I can still hear his voice in my mind telling what sounds like a stock joke which the whole crew will point out, “Yo Jim, that’s a stock joke.” Jimmy replies, “That ain’t no stock joke, I wrote that joke, I’m 62 years old, all my jokes sound like stock jokes”!
Both Theobald and Younger carry that same memory of McNair, of Jimmy Mack, and his stock jokes. Seems fitting for a man of the people to be remembered as a man who represented the people’s jokes. He and his jokes belonged to all of us, to all of you who knew him best.
James McNair leaves behind a son, Jamel, 25; and a daughter, Denita, 18, graduating this month from Peekskill High School.