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All Hail the ‘Kings’?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Kings of Comedy” tour, which featured four black comics, sold out arenas across the county and grossed more than $37 million in 1997 and 1998. But the tour was largely ignored by the mainstream media--and by white patrons.

Three years after the tour became a sensation in the black community, the rest of the country may finally wake up to the phenomenon thanks to “The Original Kings of Comedy,” the concert film featuring “Kings of Comedy” Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer. The film opens Friday.

With such a large base for the tour, it’s easy to imagine the film, produced by MTV and released by Paramount, earning back its $3-million budget by its first weekend.

“We’re doing something in large numbers [so that] people, regardless of what they think or say, they’ve got to pay attention to it,” says Mac, who along with the other Kings is sitting near the pool of the Sunset Strip’s Mondrian Hotel. (The filmmakers had to add the word Original to the title because of the 1983 Martin Scorsese film, “The King of Comedy.”)

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Notes Mac: “The mainstream is now saying, ‘What is with these guys? What is making them so popular?’ We’re still doing it on our own. Now, when the movie comes out, it’s like something that was told to me a long time ago: You can’t stop it.”

Spike Lee, who directed “Kings,” used Mac in his 1996 film “Get on the Bus.” He filmed “Kings” on location over two days in Charlotte, N.C., in February. “They’re very talented,” Lee says of the four comedians. “It’s as simple as that. Walter [stand-up comedy promoter Walter Latham] has done something great. No one envisioned that you could fill up and sell out 20,000-seat arenas with just four comics on the stage with the microphone. That’s unheard-of.”

Harvey, 42, is the king of the Kings. The Cleveland native hosts the crew’s concerts as well as the movie. He is also the host of “Showtime at the Apollo” and the star of WB’s “The Steve Harvey Show.”

Harvey may be the King who appeals most to an older generation. Some of his comedy targets the negative aspects of hip-hop while singing the praises of such older groups as the Ohio Players and Marvin Gaye. Hughley, by contrast, opines on things younger people are concerned with, such as the ups and downs of being a newlywed. Born Darryl Hughley, the 37-year-old comedian is the star of the television show “The Hughleys” and has his own HBO special, “D.L. Hughley: Going Home.”

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Mac, also an accomplished actor, draws many of his laughs with his outrageous--and sometimes objectionable--politically incorrect humor. For example, Mac, 42, explains in the film how he isn’t afraid to discipline children by beating them.

Cedric, 35, who appears with Harvey on “The Steve Harvey Show,” appeals to fans by presenting himself as an everyman who endures a number of unusual problems.

All four comedians are wildly popular on the black comedy club circuit. But unlike Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence (or Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in the past), their appeal doesn’t extend much beyond black audiences. In fact, both Hughley and Cedric honed their craft in the early- and mid-1990s as hosts of the popular “Comic View,” a Black Entertainment Television program that is basically a televised edition of an evening at a comedy club. They also appeared on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” which was created in 1992 and helped launch the careers of Lawrence and others.

“Comic View” and “Def Comedy Jam” allowed black comedians to take uncompromising looks at all aspects of black life in America, something they were not often allowed to do either on network television or in film. These outlets allowed black comics to develop themselves, without needing the acceptance or support of white fans.

“At that time, comedy was on a very high rise, especially black comedy with ‘Def Comedy Jam’ and BET’s ‘Comic View,’ ” Cedric says. “Those shows were new and they were fresh, and they allowed us to come into people’s homes every night.”

Livin’ Large in Big Arenas

The living got better for each of the comics once the “Kings of Comedy” tour started. The 58-show tour grossed $19 million in 1997. But Latham, one of the film’s producers, acknowledges that launching the tour was a big risk.

“I was promoting each one of these guys individually for years, and they each had their core fan base all over the country and they could sell out comedy clubs and theaters individually,” recalls Latham. The tour, he says, which played some of the biggest arenas in the country, “started off as a test and we passed.”

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Fans treated the concerts as events, coming to performances decked out in sharp clothes and the latest hairstyles.

It was something of a family affair. “The people that were invited to the show came,” Hughley says. “They used urban radio, urban print and attracted an urban audience.”

Hughley views the movie as an invitation for everybody to come. “I don’t think that it was that [white] people didn’t want to come, but how many times did we advertise on a Top 40 station or a rock station? We didn’t,” he says.

Despite appealing to a predominantly black audience to this point, the comedians say that their humor is universal. “Our experiences and the experiences that we talk about are so similar that I think that people are going to get them,” Hughley says. “When people go to watch [Jerry] Seinfeld or Steve Martin, they’re not going to get all of the jokes. Your race or the uniform that you play this game in doesn’t automatically mean that everybody’s going to automatically understand what you say. It just means that if you can relate to them on a level that where they get it, they’ll respond.”

For example, there’s a scene in the film in which Cedric paints a picture of a man driving a Cadillac as though it were a spaceship, bigger and more powerful than anything else on the road. When it is suggested that many whites wouldn’t necessarily get the joke, the Kings counter by saying that there are plenty of white men who behave in the same manner with their vehicles, regardless of model.

“Things like that allow for education, which comedy provides a lot of times,” Cedric adds. “If you allow yourself to be free, you can be educated in comedy. If you can look at a joke like that, you may not have ever lived that experience, but you can definitely feel it and to some degree understand it.”

But if their crowds become more white, they say that will be fine too. “I do think that once the exposure is there, the audience will change,” Cedric says, citing the example of Chris Rock. “He’s been one of the comedians who has kind of transcended everything. He was always popular amongst black comedians and black audiences, but after he did a [TV] show I think he became a popular individual without necessarily trying to cross over.

“I think that with a movie such as this, we’ll start to see a changing of the guard, where our shows will open up.”

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When people go to the theater and have a good laugh, they’re going to feel free to have that laugh [by coming to one of our shows].”

Latham hopes to channel the Kings’ success into another medium, television. He is in discussion with “Saturday Night Live’s” Lorne Michaels to develop a weekly show called, what else, “Kings of Comedy.” The show, as Latham envisions it, would feature a King of Comedy each week, but it wouldn’t have to be one of the four stars featured on the tour or in the film.

For now, however, the Kings are taking pride in the tour and the film. “I think that we’ve been successful because we opened up a lot of people’s eyes who had no idea,” Mac says. “Surprise has always been the cream of this country. When you don’t look for nothing and it comes to you, it’s sweeter than you could ever imagine.”


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