Original Kings of Comedy
Released in a single cinema in Melbourne to coincide with a live-comedy festival, Spike Lee's concert film The Original Kings of Comedy is a treat.
Australia's general lack of exposure to Afro-American pop culture will ensure that, for many, the performers in this film are unknown. But don't let that stop you seeking out such a rousing compilation of talents.
The film is pieced together from two consecutive nights of a show in Charlotte by four stand-up comedians: Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac. (In the years since the film, at least the latter two have become somewhat better known in places like Australia.) The audience is overwhelmingly black, and those white folk who did brave the event are mercilessly made the butt of humour.
The racial stereotypes reach a point of delirium as each comedian, in turn, does a number on the behavioural differences between blacks and whites. My favourite line comes within a critique of James Cameron's Titanic (1997): "No black band would have kept playing as the ship went down!"
Sex and gender stereotypes also get a politically incorrect workout. Mac's act – the least funny and weirdest of the set – is a bug-eyed routine about some rather gross male bedroom manners, interspersed with a fantasy about beating up disobedient little children. Nothing is sacred.
These comedians are hitting middle-age, and their '70s sensibility is an important part of their act. They waste no opportunity to deride rap or hip hop music and sing the praises of 'old school' soul. Harvey has a glorious few minutes on stage as he ecstatically leads the crowd through a playback of one of his favourite '70s songs by Lenny Williams.
Lee throws in an occasional bit of non-concert footage, but mainly he is concerned to evoke the electric, in-the-round atmosphere of live performance. Not only is the crowd filmed from many angles, but also the frequent verbal reactions of particular spectators are recorded and lovingly preserved.
Concert movies are a generally underrated form of cinema. But at their best – as here or in Prince's Sign o' the Times (1987) – they can be genuinely innovative in the way they combine action, words and music. The energy level that Lee maintains is a perfect tribute to these gifted comedians.
© Adrian Martin March 2001