As most everyone has heard by now, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. That's particularly true for standup comedians who must ply their trade all by themselves, alone on a stage, without the help of a supporting cast or crew to fall back on and/or bear the brunt of failure should that be the unfortunate result of ill-conceived or received attempts at humor.
Before the advent of cable and satellite TV, the only way to see such comedians doing their shtick was in person at any number of venues, or on TV programs such as "The Tonight Show" where their acts were decidedly toned down both for the network censors and the "innocent," unknowing audience. Of course, there was another option, and while not live, it certainly opened many viewers' eyes and attitudes about what sort of comedy was being performed in the "real" world.
That other "channel" was obviously the filmed version of those uncensored, no-holds-barred live concert performances, and the likes Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and many others certainly benefited from appearing in films such as "Live on the Sunset Strip" and "Raw."
In today's world of The Comedy Channel, BET, HBO and hordes of other cable channels, however, the theatrically released, filmed standup performance picture has become something of a near extinct dinosaur. That's not only due to the tremendous increase in the number of available outlets for such material, but also because most of the bigger comedians have moved on to regular film and TV careers.
As such, the difficulty related to such films shifts somewhat from the comedian to the director in that he or she must figure out a way to persuade moviegoers that they're going to see something different than what's already available practically every night, somewhere on TV.
With "The Original Kings of Comedy," acclaimed director Spike Lee attempts to do just that. Following the relative failure of his last mainstream film, "Summer of Sam," but still riding off his earlier success with pictures such as "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X," Lee halfheartedly attempts to breath some new life into the format, but doesn't do much to make this film stand out from other recorded standup acts.
After all, there's just one person up on the stage performing in front of a live audience, and thus there are only so many ways to film and edit together such elements. To be fair, Lee - who previously did a comedy special with John Leguizamo -- does offer some backstage and other non-concert footage, as well as the inclusion of various prom like photo shots of those attending the concert, but he doesn't do enough of that to make much of a difference, and his normal, signature filmmaking style is nowhere to be found here.
Such limitations aside, the movie is really about the comedians and their presentation and interaction with the audience, and Lee easily and unobtrusively manages to capture all of that in what amounts to be an often funny and occasionally hilarious cinematic excursion.
Filmed in 1997 over three days and covering two performances of "The Kings of Comedy" tour held in Charlotte, North Carolina, and using ten digital video cameras, Lee captures the standup performances of D.L. Hughley (TV's "The Hughleys"), Cedric the Entertainer (TV's "The Steve Harvey Show"), Bernie Mac ("Life," "Booty Call") and emcee Steve Harvey (TV's "The Steve Harvey Show"), the latter of whom gets the most screen time and some of the biggest laughs.
Like many of the African-American standup comedians who paved the way for them over the past several decades, the four of them elicit laughs from making fun of the various aspects of the black American experience as well as the differences in how blacks and whites act and react to various issues. Not surprisingly, there's also plenty of cussing and sexually related material, all of which had our preview screening audience in an uproarious lather.
Of course, whether you'll find the jokes as humorous depends on your idea of what's funny as well as your tolerance for rather coarse material. You certainly don't need to be black to enjoy the jokes, but being so probably adds some extra, firsthand appreciation of the material and what's being poked at and/or raked over the coals.
While the jokes cover a wide variety of topics - Harvey gets in some good jabs at the expense of former Carolina Panthers receiver Ray Carruth and his less than inspired attempts to elude the police, a church-going lady who mixes up her gospel tunes with TV theme songs, as well as contemporary rap artists; Hughley has fun making fun of various audience members; Cedric the Entertainer does a brilliant physical bit about various sorts of people who smoke; and Bernie Mac delivers the best bit that at first seems like an offensive attack on those who stutter but then turns out to be the best set-up joke in the film - the comedians repeatedly return to some common material.
Although that's not necessarily an inherently bad thing - underlying themes can often give such shows a unifying aura or at least the opportunity for various running gags - the fact that the four comics retread some of the same basic jokes somewhat diminishes their solo acts (especially for those who return to already covered ground) and the film as a collective whole.
At times, it nearly seems as if the comedians were assembled at the last minute only to discover, to their shock, that some of their jokes were rather similar. As such, the themes about the differences between blacks and whites run through their acts, with jokes stemming from how both races deal with employment, and how one never sees news reports about black people dying in mass. There are also repeated observations about "black" music.
Perhaps that's being a bit nitpicky since our audience didn't seem to mind that at all. While there are plenty of laughs to be had, none of the four comedians here have that same quality that the likes of Cosby, Pryor and Murphy exhibited in the "old days," or the hilarious if raunchy style found in more contemporary comedians such as Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. Although "The Original Kings of Comedy" showcases the most successful touring standup comedy act in the history of making people laugh, it probably won't be the funniest thing you've ever seen. As such, the film rates as a 6 out of 10.