The Original Kings of Comedy
review by Dan Lybarger, 1 September 2000

Spike Lee may have a reputation as a militant filmmaker, but in many ways he’s a chameleon. Switching from Nike commercials, to music videos, to documentaries, to his feature films, Lee seems willing to try anything. His latest movie is a live comedy club flick similar to Bill Cosby: Himself and Richard Pryor: Here and Now. Lee imbues his new flick The Original Kings of Comedy with little of his trademark rage or technical trickery. There are no extreme close ups of reflections of people in eyeballs here. Lee and his crew shot this one on video, and the sound sometimes seems muddy. But to be fair, Lee’s unusually hands-off approach may have been the one to take. Lee seems well aware that the reason to catch the flick is to catch the comics.

The "Kings of Comedy" tour drew legions of fans and reportedly outgrossed a tour by teen idols The Backstreet Boys. From the evening captured in the film, the appeal is obvious. Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac are a quartet of able comics. Furthermore, their act is remarkably interactive for the large arenas where they play (in this case, The Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina). Harvey and Hughley, in particular, play well off the crowd and frequently work them into the act. Hughley’s routine is intermittently inspired but becomes hysterical when he randomly starts teasing the crowd. Lee constantly cuts to the spectators and gives movie audiences a sense of the fun that crowd must have had.

As with just about any comedy special that runs on HBO or Showtime, the monologues are intricately laced with expletives and deal with sex and other body functions. These guys can get away with it, but their strongest moments come when they poke fun at other subjects. Harvey has a field day demonstrating why old school tunes are preferable to rap. After whining about how rappers place too many instructions on their fans, he adds, “I just paid you $38.50. I don’t want to help you out!” Similarly, Hughley digs into xenophobic baseball player John Rocker. “If you can count the number of black people you’ve had over at your house, you’re still a racist,” he quips.

If Harvey’s low key charm and Hughley’s spontaneous outbursts get them a lot of mileage, Cedric seems to get his ideas from everywhere. During one of the backstage sequences, he hears an echo in the bathroom and instantly breaks into a Gregorian chant. His topics range from reggae (he performs a tune about the agony of having no jam for his peanut butter) to golf announcers. Sporting a fedora and speaking in an almost scholarly tone, Cedric is the most creative and distinctive comic in the quartet. His portly frame belies a remarkable agility. In a rare technical flourish, Lee offers some Matrix-style slow motion shots to augment some of Cedric’s karate moves.

Bernie Mac’s set, which concludes the film, is disappointing. His material is uninspired and often redundant. He repeatedly harps on keeping bratty kids in their place, and his only memorable sequence is one where he demonstrates all of the conceivable uses for a popular synonym for incest. Mac’s verbal skills pale next to the other members of the quartet, but his body language is a riot. Bristling with a nervous anger, Mac paces across the stage so quickly that Lee’s camera crew has to hustle to keep half a step behind him. Mac’s bug-eyed stare is worth the price of admission. At times, the comic seems so frantic that his eyes appear to leap from his skull.

All four of these comics have had TV and movie gigs (Hughley has the dubious distinction of providing the voice of the talking car in Inspector Gadget), but The Original Kings of Comedy provides a better showcase for their talents. Lee does not offer anything earth shattering, but it’s unfair to dismiss The Original Kings of Comedy because there are plenty of sturdy laughs. The photography and jokes may be crude, but, for the most part, each tends to play off the other to good effect.

Directed by:
Spike Lee

Steve Harvey
D.L. Hughley
Cedric the Entertainer
Bernie Mac




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