When We Were Kings

Spike Lee's concert doc The Original Kings of Comedy finds four standups riffing on a century of black humor

"You ever been to a hip-hop show?" Steve Harvey asks, natty in gray pinstripes and suspenders. "They got too many goddamn instructions." He reels off the usual list of MC crowd-rousing orders with annoyance: jumping up, saying ho!, waving your arms in the air, not caring, and finally, "Somebody scream!" Harvey scowls. "I paid $38.50. You scream. I come here to see the damn show. I didn't come to help out."

The Charlotte, North Carolina, audience Spike Lee captures in The Original Kings of Comedy, a digital-video record of the sell-out arena tour that brought together Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac, doesn't consider screaming or applauding or hooting to be "helping out." In fact, Harvey's next routine, employing a medley of Seventies R&B, inspires sing-alongs and dancing in the aisles--even a flung bra from a chunky older woman. Here's an audience that, in the best democratic sense, considers itself as much a part of the show as the comics. Lee cannily follows their lead, making us aware of specific faces in the crowd, rather than panning the concert film's usual adoring mass.

By their own admission, these comics tell jokes that are straight-up "country"--shitty drawers, whoopings from Big Mama, calls from bill collectors. In other words, jokes told about black adults by black adults for black adults, just like Redd Foxx used to turn out. Like Foxx, each of the comics here has crossed over to the mainstream through sitcoms like The Steve Harvey Show and The Hughleys. (Even Bernie Mac--his monologue a screed of sumunabitches and motherfuckers punctuated by cartoonish threats of violence--manages a recurring spot on Moesha). And unlike Foxx, they didn't have to wait until their dotage to secure a paycheck.

Kings among jesters: D.L Hughley, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, and Steve Harvey
Kings among jesters: D.L Hughley, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, and Steve Harvey

So, though new to a good share of white people who might have stumbled across this phenomenon out of curiosity, these routines are rooted in a tradition as old as the dozens. Each of the comics makes a point of pledging allegiance to the old school (though when Cedric lumps Luther Vandross in that category, you know they've got a flexible definition). There's something endearingly middle-aged about their crotchets--not just Harvey's complaint that hip hop doesn't sing about love, but Mac's boast that he's "too old to worry about coochie." (If his wife wants to find a younger man, he snorts, let her--so long as he can jerk off to the sight, then roll over to sleep.)

I haven't laughed so hard or consistently in a movie theater in my adult life. But when Hughley ridicules whites who seek excitement by skiing and skydiving ("I got enough damn excitement in my life just being a black man"), then says bungee jumping reminds him just a little too much of lynching, how loud is my skinny white ass permitted to laugh? Press materials state that the tour has "slipped underneath the radar"--code for "hasn't registered with white America." (In fact, this tour's headliners have individually sold out Minneapolis's Orpheum Theatre in the past without attracting any real attention from the white media, and they'll move up to the giant Target Center this October). "They live by a different creed," Cedric insists at one point--and you know who "they" is. "They hope things don't go wrong." On the other hand, black folks "don't hope, we wish." He impersonates a black dude showing up late to a show, looking for trouble, muttering, "I wish a motherfucker would take my seat."

Despite such good-natured disparagement of the foibles of African Americana, what comes through is a celebration of the homespun ingenuity of black people. "White people always running to jump on some bullshit," Harvey complains, launching into a tirade against everyone from the Caucasian hordes who flocked to see Titanic to those on the original doomed cruise. "The band went down with the ship?" he notes incredulously, imagining Kool and the Gang hauling ass into the first lifeboat they see. Then he imitates a black passenger turning over a dining-room table and blowing into a napkin for a sail.

Nothing new there--black comics have been amused by the "tragedy" of those rich white folks drowning, all the way back to "Shine," a poem dating from 1912 about the lone black cabin boy on the Titanic. (The tale continued to be a black comic staple all the way though the Seventies, in the blue comedy of icon Rudy Ray Moore.) Because of his second-class stowage in the boiler room, the cabin boy is the first to see the water rising, the first to jump ship, and the only survivor. And now, Harvey shakes his head, they gone and made a three-hour movie about the damn boat. "We all know how this gonna end," he recalls shouting at the screen. "Let's drown these motherfuckers already!"

So what choice do black comedians have but to riff as trickily as they can off the same familiar themes? The white folks who call the tune seem determined to keep repeating the same damn fool changes over and over--and just as determined to go down with the ship.

 

The Original Kings of Comedy starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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