By Susannah Breslin | August 21, 2000

In the tradition of the comedy concert films of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor before him, Spike Lee this summer brings The Original Kings of Comedy, a solidly entertaining if not remarkably inventive look at four of today’s black comics in concert. Featuring Steve Harvey (The Steve Harvey Show), D.L. Hughley (The Hughley’s), Cedric the Entertainer (BET’s Comic View), and Bernie Mac (Life), Kings shows that together these guys have enough raw insight and foul-mouthed cracks to reassert the bottom line rule is still black people are funnier than white people.
Focusing on one night in Charlotte, North Carolina, Lee gives us a peek inside the top-grossing Kings of Comedy Tour–a tour as remarkable for its profits as for its lack of visibility outside the black community. We get little of a look backstage at the stand-ups, although the film is peppered throughout with snatches of Cedric picking out his suit, Bernie praying behind the curtain, and all the fellas playing poker together. Instead, we get the men on stage in full–from Harvey as the show’s host and father-figure to the roller-coaster ride of Mac’s provocative performance. Ultimately, Lee lets the men and their show speak for themselves as showmen, plain and simple.
Harvey opens up with the most family-friendly routine, happily stopping at all the classic black comedy stops, from the church to the relatives. Next, Hughley adds more edge to the basics, examining everything from blacks’ disinterest in bungie-jumping (because it’s too much like lynching) to the consequences of dirty underwear on home-life. Cedric the Entertainer puts more funky music and physical comedy into his mix, including demonstrating what would happen if blacks played hockey (no stick, just looking for the fight).
But, it is Bernie Mac who is the true King of Comedy here, following in the footsteps of Pryor and Murphy before him as he crosses from church-raised testifying, to furious black cultural theorizing, to barely controlled comedic genius. As he pointedly notes off-stage to the camera before his act, he isn’t as famous as his peers on the tour, “‘Cause you all are scared of me.” With wild eyes and riffing momentum, Mac rips open the chasm of race, transcends it through common experience, and crystallizes it in truths as hilarious as they are horrifying. From wanting to go toe-to-toe with the two-year old daughter of his drug-addicted sister in the kitchen, to graphically deconstructing the performance of an overly open-eyed female fellator, Mac makes you realize that while Chris Rock and Chris Tucker may find themselves too comfortable from the movies to do stand-up too often, and Hughley, Cedric, and Harvey may be too interested in getting rich from T.V. to get brutally real, in the end, he is the true King.

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