“I’m a big fan of all those guys and I never turn down the opportunity to work with great talent.” Spike Lee is very clear about his motivation for directing The Original Kings of Comedy. These guys are Steve Harvey (who serves as MC), D.L. Hughley, Cedric The Entertainer, and Bernie Mac, who spent the better part of two years traveling for the Kings of Comedy, the highest grossing comedy tour in history, with ticket sales exceeding $37 million. Entrepreneur Walter Latham, who came up with the concept back in 1997, then approached Lee to direct. Lee agreed immediately, because, he says, “It’s the best comedy tour ever, but it’s been under the radar. Being on film would enable a lot more people to see it.” The resulting movie shot on digital video by Lee and cinematographer Malik Sayeed (Clockers) over two nights at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina includes backstage and background scenes: the guys play cards or hang out on the basketball court, to allow what Lee calls a “change of pace, a chance for the audience to regroup themselves,” in the midst of non-stop laughing. Latham says he wanted to “expose what we’re doing to the rest of America, so that they can see that they’re welcome to come too.”
In fact, this question of audience of who’s welcome to come, or perhaps, who feels welcome to come surfaces often when people talk about the film. While most everyone agrees that the acts are straight-up hilarious, there are some folks worrying that the jokes are exclusionary, offensive, sexist, even racist. These concerns generally take the following form: “If a white person told this joke, it would be racist, so why isn’t it racist when you tell it?” Lee thinks this isn’t “really an issue.” Still, he’s concerned that the film should not be marketed or perceived as a “black film” Certainly, this very term “black film” has long been ambiguous. But during this summer of gigantic crossover hits like Scary Movie, Big Momma’s House, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Shaft, all such designations, of genres or target markets, are becoming shaky. But maybe this is exactly what’s making some people nervous: Latham says that he partnered with MTV Films precisely for their expertise in pitching product to “white kids.” Maybe the mainstream press’s attention to the film’s potentially “offensive” material (whether they think it’s racist against blacks or against whites) is yet another version of the same old same old: policing the boundaries, maintaining the status quo.
For the Kings themselves, the comedy is both specific to their experience and universal in its appeal. All four have been in the business long enough to know a little something about the ways that “categories” and “niche audiences” can be euphemisms for prejudice. So, when Harvey hears the familiar “Who’s the audience?” question, he has a ready answer, noting that just because he’s never been to a synagogue doesn’t mean he can’t find Jerry Seinfeld funny. Moreover, he says, “The media have to come into play here, and stop labeling it as ‘black’ comedy. It’s just funny. We have a different view of this world. Give us just one perk for being black. You got everything else working in this world. Can we not give you our viewpoint through our eyes? This is our job: we tell jokes.”
On the “universal appeal” tip, Hughley adds, “You don’t have to have experiences that are similar to the people that are talking. At a basic level, we all have the same aspirations, hopes, and dreams; we all live our life hoping that nobody finds our weaknesses and exploits them. What we’ve all tried to do with this film is to show that at a certain point even if the language we might use, or the food we might eat, or the people we knew are different you are the audience. Even if you’ve never had pigs’ feet.” Besides, adds Bernie Mac, “As a comedian, I’m not saying these things with malice. I’m putting them in a perspective. I’m not a politician, I’m not trying to make no laws. I’m trying to make everyone have fun for a couple of hours, and I’m fabricating a lot of stuff.”
Of course, stand-up comedy is all about telling stories, reporting and also reframing events so that listeners might understand them from an unexpected and amusing angle. Jokes often packaged as detail observation: Harvey calls his stand-up humor “observational,” noting that his “best comedy comes from exasperation, when I’m totally fed up with something” (this is only slightly different from his Nice Guy persona, honed by years of hosting Showtime at the Apollo and starring in The Steve Harvey Show). Cedric the Entertainer and Hughley are also best known for their tv work (Hughley in particular appreciates the chance to perform edgier material than what he can do on his sitcom, The Hughleys), while Mac is best known as a movie actor (Ice Cube’s The Players’ Club and Friday, Lee’s On the Bus). In describing the tour, the Kings stress that their very different styles create options for viewers, so if you don’t like one of them, you’ll like someone else: Cedric’s “congenial,” Mac calls himself “funny, strong, hard but true,” Hughley’s “fast,” and Harvey, well, people who know him as Steve Hightower might be surprised when they hear him use all those cuss words. Still, they share a deep mutual admiration rather than competition. Hughley asserts, “These cats, I’ve genuinely loved and respected for a very long time, so you don’t want to build your house on somebody else’s bones. But you don’t want to go out there on the stage after Bernie put a hole in it either.”
They also share a sense of mission, that is, beyond making people laugh. They want to tell their stories on their own terms, without having to clean it up for a “suburban” audience. Harvey notes, “Cosby said one time, he feels responsible, that if [white suburban America] is only gonna glimpse at us 30 minutes a week, he wants that 30 minutes to be positive. You can’t knock the man for saying that. But at the same time, you can’t knock a cat that goes out there and says, ‘I’m going to keep it real and tell you exactly the way it is. I ain’t gonna color it: my mama ain’t a lawyer, my daddy ain’t a doctor.’ You can’t get mad at either side.” It’s also difficult to measure which is the “blacker” representation, or which version of experience is “black enough.” But given the paucity of black representation anywhere in mainstream media, the Kings make clear that they are not about to back down from “keeping it real” for themselves and their fans.
But, as Hughley notes, being able to represent in this way is a function of opportunity and resolve. “We’re young black men,” he says, “and very rarely does anybody care what we say. So when you have a microphone in your hand, it is intoxicating. It’s impossible to live this life and see the things we’ve seen and come from where we come from and not have that be the filter that we see things through. What I’ve tried to do as an artist is to speak what I feel. You’re a young black cat, and somebody’s paying to see you? I’m gonna say some shit.” The Kings can and do, on occasion, say “shit” that’s unexpected, that’s not part of the routine, that may even surprise them. Harvey reports that “Sometimes you’re working, and you get in that zone up there on stage, and you do something that ain’t in your show, it just pops into your mind. After the show you say, ‘I can’t believe that I said that out loud.’ But it’s too late to get it back.”
Still, for the most part, the Kings appear to have perfect timing. And, for anyone who believes that “anything goes” for them, think again. They are clear about the limits they do set and the responsibility they feel toward their audiences. For one thing, Harvey says, he misses music that talks about love. “I think one of the problems with our young people today is how they’re educated. MTV educates our children, BET educates our children. If that’s what they see most of, then that’s what they emulate. Even though rap is reflective of our society, rappers have a responsibility also. All your songs can’t be about shooting and killing… Music used to be about love, all the time. I think the world was a cooler place then.” Hughley concurs: “When we were growing up, my mother would say, stay out of grown folks’ business. There was some information you didn’t get [as a child], because we weren’t grown enough to have it. Now, people think that the more explicit or vulgar they are, the more important they are. I remember when Scarface came out, the day after, my [L.A.] neighborhood was a fucking wasteland: there wasn’t no going outside no more. You can’t just say something and think that it’s in a vacuum. It’s going to affect somebody.”
Mac sees another angle on today’s popular culture, a lack of originality and creativity. “Everybody’s living in a microwave society,” Mac laments. “It’s fast money, everybody’s a copycat. Hip-hop now is just a reformulation of one line. Back in the day, the Temptations, the Four Tops, all of them had different styles. Now there’s no growth. I heard a group the other day, all they say is, “Bitch.. . bitch.. Bitch.” And the kids are into it, they closing their eyes to it. You know, when I’m flat broke, and this tour’s over, I’m gonna make me a song: “Ho… Ho… all y’all ho’s, I want y’all to know, y’all’s a ho.”