Great stand-up comedians do more than bring on the laughter — they make the air around them crackle with danger and glee. When you watch a monologue by Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, or Bill Maher in his recent, brilliant HBO special Be More Cynical, you feel you know what it’s like to take in the world through their feelers. The routines are charged, even between jokes, with anticipatory hilarity.
The Original Kings of Comedy, Spike Lee’s filmed record of the Kings of Comedy concert tour, which has been playing to packed houses (with a variety of line-ups) since 1997, contains an honest handful of sly and hilarious moments, like the one in which the rotund, deep-voiced Cedric the Entertainer, looking like the missing court jester of Run-DMC, mimes the way that a neighborhood player turns the simple act of smoking into a performance piece of cool, or when the dapper D.L. Hughley discourses on anorexia — a syndrome, he suggests, that’s the purest expression of white privilege. The film features performances by a quartet of African-American comics, most of whom honed their chops on the BET/Def Comedy Jam circuit. In addition to Cedric and Hughley, there’s Steve Harvey, the show’s MC, a shameless ’70s romantic who grooms himself like the suave high school teacher he plays on his sitcom, and the theatrically ferocious Bernie Mac, who tweaks his own handsomeness by popping his eyes and speaking in a hyperbolic rasp of inner-city rage.
All four have their moments, yet none of them really comes close to breaking into the comic stratosphere. (You’ll probably find Bernie Mac either a showstopper or, as I did, a one-note attack squad.) The reason, I think, is that the Kings of Comedy show is so relentlessly obsessed with the different ways that black people and white people experience the world that the jokes ultimately pile up into an orgy of racial generalities. Richard Pryor, of course, mined this terrain several decades ago, but his caricatures of white hypocrisy had a scathing, on-target particularity. D.L. Hughley is broadly funny discussing why African Americans don’t bungee jump or why they had no patience for Titanic (”The band was playing when the ship went down!” he whines in disbelief), and Cedric the Entertainer does a provocative bit on how whites secretly ”hope” that things will turn out okay, while blacks ”wish” that life would hand them an excuse to blow their stacks.
Most of this stuff is designed to flatter black self-esteem by shoring up the perception of African Americans as tough, stylish, resilient. The celebration, however, could have been balanced with a bit more confessional satire. Harvey, amid his homage to ”old school” music, does a spot-on send-up of the garbled sound and lockstep solipsism of a hip-hop concert. It’s a routine that points to what might have been a much edgier show, one that dared to lampoon those very African Americans who have now made it an industry to ”represent.” B-