The Original Kings of Comedy
2000, R, 117 min. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Bernie Mac, Cedric The Entertainer, D.l. Hughley, Steve Harvey.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 18, 2000
Spike Lee's new movie is a comedy performance film in the tradition of Richard Pryor's Live on the Sunset Strip, Eddie Murphy's Raw, and Martin Lawrence's You So Crazy. It captures a recent Charlotte, North Carolina, performance of the arena comedy tour of a package known as the Kings of Comedy. Featuring black comedians, the Kings of Comedy over the last few years has become a highly successful road show, despite flying below the radar of the majority of American culture consumers. This film document, in true Spike Lee fashion, thrusts this comedy showcase into the spotlight of the media eye, positioning it into a place in which it cannot be ignored. It both introduces these comedians -- Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac -- to those who may not be familiar with their work, while also opening up the opportunities for these comics to break away from the proscriptive standards and practices of the TV networks for whom they also ply their trade. So don't be surprised when the language is raunchy; in fact, one of Bernie Mac's routines is about the need for black people to reappropriate the use of one of those particularly nasty 12-letter words. The common thread running throughout all four men's riffs is their observations regarding the differences between black people and white people. Their comments are funny and well-honed. Sharp but never malicious, their jokes serve as much to educate white people as they do to unite black audiences as a community. These comics say things that are not frequently said out loud -- which, granted, is not such a difficult thing to do in this culture since race is not something we Americans choose to talk about at large. When the comedy turns its focus on the black community, the one continuing topic is the chasm between modern hip-hop music and what they all term “old school.” Here, too, the comments are rich with truths. Harvey emcees the show, interspersing his bits in between his introductions of the other three. Harvey and Hughley are the sharpest and most gifted of the four comics. Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac are more hit-and-miss, although none of the four routines achieve what might be called pure perfection. As a stage show, however, the whole thing is a wonderful production, with an eye-catching central set-piece that includes its own proscenium arch and various king-themed tapestries. Lee's 10 cameras filmed it all on digital video, and they were able to portray the performers and audience from a variety of perspectives, even capturing revealing behind-the-scenes moments like Bernie Mac's little prayer right before going onstage and Cedric's operatic warm-up exercises. Lee's contribution to this project is reminiscent of Jonathan Demme's document of the Talking Heads' stage show, Stop Making Sense. Both directors take a smartly designed performance showcase and use their cameras as one additional element in the show. The result becomes an elegant document, even if the language these comics use is far from elegant. Nevertheless, The Original Kings of Comedy is the most articulate and entertaining commentary on racial differences to have come down the pike in quite a while. And while it unfolds, I can promise you'll have a “funky good time.”