Friday August 18, 2000
No wonder "The Kings of Comedy" tour, organized in 1997 by producer Walter Latham, has become the highest-grossing comedy tour in history, with ticket sales exceeding $37 million. Any of its four Kings--Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac--in a solo performance would be hilarious, so you can well imagine that the laughter just keeps building as one comedian follows another to create an unforgettable evening.
Spike Lee, no less, has created a dynamite concert film, called "The Original Kings of Comedy," shot in February during a pair of performances in Charlotte, N.C. The convergence of these sensational comedians is reason enough to film them in performance on the same bill. But this concert film par excellence hopefully will serve another purpose: to allow these Kings of Comedy, all familiar presences on the tube, to reach beyond black audiences and let others know what they've been missing by not seeing these guys perform live.
Their humor is of course based on the African American experience, and these men tell it like it is--and how! Their audiences not only deserve honesty, but surely wouldn't sit still for anything less. (Audiences at Harlem's landmark Apollo Theater are famous for being as tough as they are enthusiastic.) The Kings use language that TV would never allow but is common in everyday life. Addressing hard-pressed, hard-working black people, they touch upon universal truths about joy and sorrow. Their audiences are not shy about expressing their exhilaration at their sense of recognition in everything these men comment upon in such inspired comic fashion. You recognize too the towering presence of such fearless predecessors as Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and the one and only Jackie "Moms" Mabley.
The comics share bluntness and a capacity for finding humor in a wide range of circumstances, but their personalities are distinct. Harvey has the smoothness and the maturity--early middle age--to summon memories of popular music of his high school days 25 years ago for an inspired skewering of rap music. Hughley displays an awesome command of comic ammunition, fired in a dizzyingly rapid delivery. His speed also allows him to get away with just about anything, but his colleagues, in their own styles, are no less bold. Cedric the Entertainer offers a fluid drollness, and Bernie Mac has a strong masculine presence but can be as wide-eyed as Mantan Moreland of an earlier era, as he comments on the realities of 25 years of married life.
Not surprisingly, all four comedians find a rich source of humor in comparing the black man or woman with the white man or woman. (It is striking how often these men refer to their mothers and grandmothers--those matriarchal Big Mamas--but scarcely if ever to fathers and grandfathers.) We get a picture of ourselves as making too much of a fuss over trivial matters and of being slow to respond to danger. In short, we see how insulated most white people are to life's harsher realities and injustices. Hughley tellingly comments on white people's need to seek out sports for excitement. Black people, he explains, don't need to go looking for excitement; just driving past a police station and hoping not to get stopped does the trick. Yet the show is distinguished by its lack of anger and bitterness. It's not that these men don't harbor such feelings, but rather it's their particular genius to transform their life experiences into fodder for laughter. "The Original Kings of Comedy" ranks right up there with Pryor's "Live on Sunset Strip," Eddie Murphy's "Raw" and Martin Lawrence's "You So Crazy."
The Original Kings of Comedy, 2000. R, for language and sex-related humor. Steve Harvey