Spike Lee’s concert feature film, The Original Kings of Comedy, was funny, but it didn’t knock my socks off. The Kings of Comedy are four black comedians—Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac—who 29-year-old entrepreneur promoter Walter Latham brought together for what Lee calls in a bit of hyperbole, “The best comedy tour ever.”
Created by Latham in 1997, the “Kings of Comedy” tour has taken its largely black audiences by storm, becoming one of the highest grossing comedy tours in history. Despite the tour’s success, however, the act remains one of the entertainment industry’s best-kept secrets. Basically, Spike Lee wanted to do for them what Wim Wenders did for the Buena Vista Social Club—put them on the popular culture radar. That’s why he decided to film them in concert at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C.
Steve Harvey, who acts as the host and anchor between each performance, is the star of the WB’s Steve Harvey Show, on which Cedric the Entertainer is a regular. D.L. Hughley stars in UPN’s The Hughleys. Bernie Mac, the least funny of the four, is an actor and stand-up comic. Lee not only documents them in concert, but also goes behind the scenes for brief segments that could easily have been expanded. The comedy routines, which often become redundant, could easily have been edited. I found myself losing interest in the second hour.
Much of the humor is ethnocentric. Cultural differences, in fact, are an integral part of all four routines. Steve Harvey does a bit about Titanic, which he calls “that long-ass dry movie” at which he just waited for them to “drown those people.”
“If that had been about black people, there wouldn’t be no movie,” Harvey says, proceeding to demonstrate how black people would have survived by standing on tables or whatever else floats.
Hughley highlights the difference in the workplace for blacks and whites. “White people give two weeks notice when they get another job,” he says. “We get another job, it’s gonna be a surprise.”
“When a white person gets fired, they go out and get a gun. You fire a black guy, he says, why didn’t you call me at home? I could have saved the gas money.” He also talks about the different ways blacks and whites handle bill collectors, food (“when we get anorexia, it’s an accident”) and sports. (“White folks ski, parachute and bungee jump. You tie a rope around a black man’s waist and throw him off a bridge, it’s too much like lynching.”)
“We do shit different,” Hughley says, stressing that he’s not afraid to talk about race. “Most people say all the right things in front of people, then go home and say anything. In public it’s, ‘I’ve had three black people in my home.’ If you know how many Negroes been to your house, you’re racist.”
The congenial Cedric also plays on the cultural divide, from the white propensity for credit cards to whites living by the hope creed and failing to run from disaster. A black president, he says, would handle a $3 trillion debt with, “Tell ’em I ain’t got it. I can give ’em a little every month.” He jokes about blacks entering the golf and tennis world, wondering if downhill skiing and synchronized swimming will be next.
These are men who have struggled to get where they are, and they use real-life experiences in their material. The wildly enthusiastic audiences, who love their down-to-earth, one-of-us attitude, are an important part of the interactive performance. The comedians pick out individuals to tease, making fun of everything from one woman’s “don’t-touch-my-hair-it-gotta-last-a-week” hairstyle to a man’s “big-ass teeth.” When Harvey asks a man in sunglasses sitting on the front row what he does for a living, the man says he’s in computer college, which sets the comedian to laughing. “You couldn’t spell technology,” he laughs.
They’re funniest when their material transcends race and hits on more universal topics—like Viagra, for instance. Hughley can’t imagine his grandparents with Viagra: “Cecil, did that Niagra take hold yet?” And of course there’s that old staple, sex:
• “You have an orgasm too fast and women act like you broke the law.”
• “She says, ‘I have a headache.’ I say, ‘It’s not your head I want. You could stay asleep for all I care.’”
Apart from Hughley, these are older comics, and that age divide comes through in their comedy. Steve Harvey laments the passing era of hip-hop songs about love. “Now songs are about being shot in the chest. … Stink-ass rappers make me sick!” he says. “There are 40 of them on-stage with a mic, and you can’t understand what one is saying.” By the end of his bit, he has the audience on their feet dancing and singing. Cedric also uses music in his routines, which gives him a chance to showcase his singing and dancing skills. One of the best off-stage bits, in fact, is of him singing Gregorian chants in a bathroom before going on-stage.
The concert ends with the weakest of the four, the hard-to-understand Bernie Mac, who is also the most in-your-face. He isn’t afraid to say things no one is supposed to say out loud. His frank monologue, for instance, about adopting the children of his drug-addicted sister leads to fantasies of running a daycare center and hitting the kids to keep them in line. It could definitely be construed as inappropriate, but being politically correct is not what these comics are about. “People say you shouldn’t say that, but fun is fun, jokes is jokes,” he says off-stage. “Funny comes from pain and sorrow, and everyone has experienced those feelings. … We’ve gotten too politically correct about things, too sensitive. I’m not a politician, I’m a comedian.”
These are definitely funny men, but their comedy won’t appeal to everyone. Besides, watching a filmed concert always lacks something you can only get in a live performance. There’s one more layer between you and the performers, which just makes the two hours they’re onscreen seem too long.
The Original Kings of Comedy (R) HHH Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac.