Writer, director, New York Knicks cheerleader Spike Lee has a new "joint": The Original Kings of Comedy. The explicit and extremely funny concert film documents two nights of a package tour starring a quartet of contemporary urban comedians who may not be household names to anyone who doesn't have BET on their favorite channel selector, but who nonetheless know how to put the black in black comedy.
Spike's latest, not to be remotely confused with Martin Scorsese's 1983 The King of Comedy, shines its spotlight on Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, all of whom dress as sharp as their box-cutter witticisms. Lee's camera follows each comedian around on and off stage during two performances in front of an arena-sized crowd in Charlotte, North Carolina, February 26 and 27 of this year. The packed pantheon's roof rocks with laughter from Steve Harvey's first joke about a black football player running from the law and trying to escape and blend in Nashville to Bernie Mac's last poke at the difficulties of coping with a trio of tyrannical toddlers at the grand old age of 42. The two year old, Mac is sure, works for Satan and will stop at nothing to get her "mother f-ing" milk and cookies.
While it's not nearly as provocative as Lee's usual, more controversial films, Kings of Comedy is a raunchy throwback to the uncensored fun and social satire of Richard Pryor's Live in Concert movies of the late '70s and early '80s. Though none of Spike's gang talk about drugs like Pryor whose misadventures were as legendary as they were incendiary fortunately none of the Kings have done the "human torch" thing either. Far from charred, what remains are four routines poking foul-mouthed fun at such standard stand-up fare as the difference between whites and blacks, husbands and wives, rap and soul, and everything but crispy and original recipe at KFC. (Personally, I like the original recipe. Anything else is just five pieces of New Coke with a biscuit and fries.)
Kings of Comedy had to have been an easy one for Lee to lens. All dialogue was provided by Harvey, Hughley et al. The appreciative arena audience responded enthusiastically and seemingly naturally. Editing and production could have been done by any crew from Comedy Central. And there's nothing wrong with such straight-on presentation, except that the film does run a little long, especially when the comedians' acts begin to overlap. After all, no matter how fat she is, how many "Big Mamma" jokes can you hear in one night, before the punch lines start losing their sting.
One element that Kings of Comedy could surely have used more of was behind-the-scenes footage of the comedians simply being their naturally funny selves at radio promotions, cheating each other at poker, and preparing themselves backstage for the funny business to come. It was these candid moments of the lords of laughter improvising and jiving with each other that would have separated and elevated the movie to something beyond a routine run of routines. Cedric the Entertainer backstage, for example, warming up by doing Gregorian chants and apologizing to the custom suit made by Reggie J. that it wasn't going to make it into the movie, was particularly funny and not a little weird.
Perhaps Spike has tired of more ambitious, yet equally not-quite-baked, efforts, like Do the Right Thing, Clockers and Summer of Sam. Maybe he just wants to make sure he can afford season tickets for next year's Knicks games.
As it stands, whoops and hollers, Kings of Comedy is a fun night out for anyone who's a fan of lewd-and-crude blue humorists like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and who might not be familiar with the Kings line up. Warning: all virgin ears are advised to insert plugs at the door, as almost from the first frame, the "F words" start flying like three point shots from Spikes' arch NBA rival, Indiana Reggie Miller. Fortunately for Spike, most of the film's jokes score with near "nothing but net" accuracy.
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