Happily, some exciting new personalities on the black humor scene are also getting a shot. In Spike Lee's high-spirited concert film The Original Kings of Comedy, we get an eye- and earful of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac. They're not exactly rookies on the yuk circuit -- Harvey, Cedric and Hughley have all gotten exposure on television, while Mac has picked up parts in feature films such as Friday and Booty Call -- but until now they haven't enjoyed the big national audiences they deserve. These guys are uncommonly smart, energetic and funny, and behind this cinematic boost established stars like Murphy and Rock (not to mention Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey) might have to make room for them in the tent.
Lee, who occasionally takes time out from his twin careers as an advertising executive and an ill-tempered New York Knicks fan to direct a movie, has his antenna all the way up this go-round. When a then-26-year-old impresario named Walter Latham took the first "Kings of Comedy" tour on the road in 1997 and drew wildly enthusiastic sellout crowds in major arenas, Lee took notice. In the first two years, the tour rang up $37 million. So in the third year, Lee -- armed with 10 digital video cameras and a nimble crew -- caught up with the comedians in Charlotte, North Carolina, and, he says, shot almost everything they did there for three days.
The result is a fresh, intimate, gloriously unpolished performance film that measures up to the classics of the genre -- Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and the notorious Eddie Murphy Raw. To hear Hughley riff on everything from dodging bill collectors to buying gas two bucks' worth at a time is to be reminded how profound an influence the great Pryor has had on all black comics who followed him. To watch Cedric the Entertainer, a native Chicagoan who's built like an interior lineman, mimic assorted cigarette-smoking poses in the 'hood or pretend he's shuttling to the moon at the wheel of a '72 Buick is to revel anew in the glories of physical comedy. Inevitably, these four inspired standups have some subjects in common -- childhood, family, race and sex, just for starters -- but their individual styles are all their own. Kings is not just a great night out (we're thrown right in with the rollicking Charlotte Coliseum crowd), it's also a useful seminar in various methods of cracking up an audience. Witness Harvey's mock outrage at football player/accused murderer Rae Carruth's lack of imagination in escaping the crime scene. Or Mac's deadpan deconstruction of the word "motherfucker." Shades of Murphy, and of Lenny Bruce.
For a filmmaker with 10 pintsize cameras at his disposal, Lee doesn't show us many extracurriculars. He bursts in for a moment on an afternoon poker game where the four comics' competitive juices are flowing, and I found myself hoping he'd stick around a little longer. He gives us glimpses of audience members decked out for the occasion, but we don't hear much from them. There's an impromptu basketball court scene in which the principals compare their performance styles to favorite NBA players, but it feels brief and hurried. For my money, the most vivid backstage glimpse finds Cedric agonizing over his choice of an outfit for that evening's show. Glancing into his closet at a suit that didn't make the cut, he speaks to it: "Maybe you get to be in the next movie."
Clearly, Lee didn't want interviews or hotel-room intrusions to get in the way of the matter at hand -- standup comedy in excelsis--and he's probably right. Better to hear Bernie Mac's dissertation on the irrational fear of white folks at the turn of the millennium than to watch Cedric put on his hat. There's more fun in Hughley's explanation of African-American anorexia ("Daddy lost his job") or his aversion to bungee jumping ("too much like lynching") than in watching Steve Harvey eat dinner. In fact, this may be the most engaging Spike Lee movie -- if not the most ambitious one -- since the splendid Malcolm X. When he's working in the nonfiction form and moving like a dervish, there's no chance for faulty screenwriting -- Lee's frequent bugaboo -- to get in the way.
That's not to say he'll spend the rest of his career shooting concert films on tight budgets and breakneck schedules. He's now working with Damon Wayans on an ironic drama called Bamboozled, in which a TV writer outraged by racism at the network takes revenge by trumping up a black minstrel show -- only to see it become a hit. Think Springtime for Hitler.
Until then, we have this uproarious sampling of new comic talent. Eddie and Martin and Chris better watch out: Some very quick cats are gaining on them.