Spike Lee has the uncanny ability of dropping his audience into exciting, possibly unfamiliar, territory and The Original Kings of Comedy is no exception. If you've never experienced a racial cauldron (Do the Right Thing), life in the urban projects (Clockers), or the Million Man March (Get on the Bus), Spike brings it, with a style and storytelling skill that is sometimes unmatched. This new Lee experience is all laughs: four top-of-the-line, old school comics tour the country, sell out arenas, and gross $37 million in two years. Heard of it? Probably not. Welcome to Spike's latest, a concert documenting two nights of killer comedy in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Original Kings of Comedy is the most successful and unique comedy tour ever staged, and many Americans have never heard of it. Starring four black comics, and delivering the goods to a primarily black audience, the Kings have performed in large, coliseum venues, and now look to the big screen for new converts and more widespread popularity. There's the WB's Steve Harvey, the likable ringleader; D.L. Hughley, another sitcom star, who's a harsher, fluid jokeman; Cedric The Entertainer, a multi-talented performer and partner of Harvey's; and Bernie Mac, an imposing, popular, sharp-tongued cursefest. Lee, shooting the film on ten digital video cameras, brings some additions to the concert footage, with the Kings plugging the show at a local radio station, riding in a limo, and hanging backstage at the gig.
But with all those background goodies, Lee never tells us what goes through these guys' heads during the craziness of touring. Instead, these snippets (including a poker game and some time on the hoops court) are too short and disorganized, and feel dropped in randomly for the sake of breaking up the on stage stuff. But Spike surely realizes, as do we, that on stage is where this movie cranks.
Each of the four Kings is a master in front of the crowd. Harvey, the host of the party, fondly recalls attending church as a child, and leads the dedicated crowd in a jubilant, surprisingly heartwarming, sing-along of love songs, delivering the sweetest show of the four. Next comes Hughley, with a spitfire delivery and a manic energy that looks like it'll run away without him any second. He closes his set by mocking nearly a row's worth of fans, one at a time, in a showcase of quick improv. Then, the highlight, Cedric the Entertainer takes the stage. Limber and physical beyond his pudgy form, he sings, raps, and breakdances, all within the body of his humor. His pacing is exact (as is Harvey's) and his delivery is the most polished.
Bernie Mac's routine, the finale, deflated the good feelings for me. His angry, rapid-fire shooting about oral sex and wanting to hit young kids felt out of place, at best, and offensive, at worst. When talking about smacking youngsters around, he signed it away by explaining that we've all thought it before, he's just saying it. I don't buy it.
Putting aside Spike Lee's weaknesses around the edges, he continues to successfully make viewers feel part of the action, in this case by highlighting the audience's unstoppable vitality. By the time Harvey has the crowd swaying to music, the theater audience is pretty caught up as well, and the happy atmosphere has lifted right off the screen. Lee deftly throws in a wide variety of crowd shots, making us feel like we're sitting there too. After a while, the cutting and choice of shots does feel too haphazard, but for most of the film it is effective. And Lee never gives up a chance to editorialize as he does by cutting to unsuspecting audience members at the perfect time, sometimes showcasing unhappy white people.
It's hard not to like such an energetic celebration, especially one you probably didn't know existed in the first place. And while I expected a smoother, sharper film from Spike Lee, it's not often that you can see a movie bursting with this much raw joy.
The DVD release features an extra 30 minutes of outtakes (none of them terribly memorable), but for an especially good time, try turning on the subtitles. For some reason, reading all this vile humor is even more entertaining than hearing it.