Number One Stunnas
t’s hard enough just to be black. We don’t need to be looking for excitement.” D. L. Hughley’s explanation for why black folks don’t go bungee jumping goes on from here in The Original Kings of Comedy. All he has to do for thrills, Hughley says, “is drive past the police station and try not to get my ass arrested,” or better, “pull out my wallet and not get shot 41 times.”
Such self-conscious, trenchant humor cut through with cultural and political critique pervades Spike Lee’s documentary of the popular stand-up tour, The Original Kings of Comedy, starring Hughley, Steve Harvey (as MC), Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac. Such humor has a long history, including performers like Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, and George Carlin, as well as Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, and Margaret Cho. The kings or as Harvey calls them, affecting a defiantly “country” inflection, the “kangs” demonstrate that their brand of outraged and outrageous stand-up comedy adapts, embracing a variety of attitudes and manners. As each of the four comedians takes his turn at the mic, it becomes obvious that the only thing they have in common is that they mean to push buttons and make people laugh.
The film highlights these differences by maintaining a steady pace of cuts and camera movements, thus letting the performers establish and elaborate their own individual styles. Like most concert films, this one is structured as a series of performance shots intercut with shots of the crowd, here at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. And as you’ve seen on other filmed shows on It’s Showtime At the Apollo, Def Comedy Jam, or HBO’s many stand-up comedy specials the audience is ready to roll, laughing, clapping, or pumping their fists. Judging by the these shots, most everyone even those viewers wearing targetable hairstyles or clothes, predictably targeted by Hughley or Bernie Mac is having a fine time. But there’s something else going on here, aside from the patent cue to the film’s audience (i.e., insert your hilarity here). Watching the film in a theater in itself makes the performance into a communal experience, once removed: “When you’re part of an audience,” Lee says, “laughter is contagious.” And, he adds, “As African Americans, we act differently. We are more vocal, we have a tradition of call and response. People talk to the screen and banter back and forth. That will definitely be a part of the scene when this film comes out in the theater.”
Lee’s description of a “black” experience at a comedy club anticipates and, to an extent, preempts the concerns that have come up frequently in interviews he and the players have done to promote the film. The concern is part territorial, part fearful. How ballsy are these guys anyway, claiming to be “kings” (on a level with Elvis and the King of Pop?), contending they can entertain “everyone”? What does it mean that they might be right, that they might actually appeal to MTV’s humongous, by-definition crossover audience, and not just the (many) folks who paid to see the show live since 1997? What kind of “variety” is this, that looks so… black?
Those who might be fretting that the kings’ comedy is discriminatory or exclusive, that it speaks more clearly to one class of people than another, can ease up. The four acts are so different from one another that it would be difficult to group them except, perhaps, under the fantastic rubric of “kings.” They communicate specifically and broadly: take your pick of positions. They make comedy out of trouble coming from all sides. Where Hughley talks pointedly about Amadou Diallo’s murder by New York City cops, Harvey ridicules “Rae-Rae” Carruth’s unfortunate decision to hide out from the law in a car trunk following his pregnant girlfriend’s shooting. Or again, Cedric observes generally that “You can’t even smoke on earth no more,” imitating the smokers we’ve all seen, huddled outside office buildings, taking their precious five-minute break in the dead of winter; and then goes for the particular case, perfectly miming a street corner cool poser who makes a grand display out of lighting, gesturing with, and dragging on his butt.
These differences are at once subtle and “stunning” (see my title’s reference to Big Tymers’ current single, “Number One Stunnas”), in the sense that they both illuminate and overwhelm cultural unease about differences, between races, genders, classes, and generations. The kings’ disparate takes on similar subjects turn the ensemble performance into a brilliant series of self-reflections and -refractions, as many of the jokes speak to one another, refining and recontextualizing each other. While Harvey has one riff on his favorite music (about love), Cedric comes with one of his favorites, reggae (“They songs be havin’ a cause”). He launches into his own reggae tune, about waking up hungry and finding that the cupboard is nearly bare. (The chorus, repeated: “Had peanut butter but no jam!”)
On one level, it would seem easy to make this movie work: get out of the way. And so, Lee (who recently filmed John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Freak for HBO) and his great cinematographer Malik Sayeed (Clockers) back off, bring a spare fluidity to the proceedings. The camera doesn’t draw attention to itself, but as in other good concert films (music and not), it’s rarely still, making you watch as if with new eyes. The fanciest trick Lee pulls comes when Cedric shows the difference between kung fu fighting and a “straight-up nigger please!” kick, shown in a stop-motion, Matrix-bullet-time effect.
Like all stand-up comedians, the Kings tell stories: they draw from their families and childhoods or observations of friends and folks on the street, all embellished by the impressively foul language that kids find so titillating. As Bernie Mac proclaims, he’s from “the pro-jects!” where he was able alleviate the chore of going to church “all the time” only by finding a reason to want to go, namely, an old lady who cursed like crazy. Apparently, she made a deep impression on the artist: one of his set-pieces is a “break down” of the word “motherfucker” (it is “a noun!”), in which he imitates a street-corner speech where every other word is “motherfucker.” Even at home, as he tells it, he brings the same language to bear on the young children he’s raising (his sister’s kids, his own daughter being 22 and out of the house), announcing that he regularly threatens to “kick their ass,” while at the same time obviously admiring their self-confident sass. He describes one of the boys as “a six-year-old homosexual,” imitating his flipping hips and sing-songy intonation, and the 2-year-old girl’s killer glare: “She look at me like I’m short!” And Mac narrows his eyes and runs them downward, to demonstrate.
Not surprisingly, much of the humor is organized around differences in perception, between black and white folks, men and women, or generations. Harvey offers a brief elucidation on how a black band would never have kept playing on the Titanic, but would have packed up their equipment and been long gone, paddling away on the dining tables. Cedric observes that black people run at the slightest provocation, while whites “walk right to the trouble,” hands on hips and asking (in that nasal white man’s voice), “Now what the heck is going on here?” And Harvey considers the difference between old school romantic singers and today’s hiphop performers, who demand that you throw your hands up and scream (“Motherfucker, for what!? I came here to enjoy the show, not to help out!”). Then he launches into a hilarious imitation of a rapper all up in his mike, so you can’t understand a word he’s saying.
For all their different modes and postures, the Kings make a unified argument against social and political injustice, on stage and off (the film includes scenes showing the guys playing cards and messing with each other). On stage, Hughley sets his terms immediately: “Racism exists.” Those who don’t see it or wish it away do so because they can. “If you know how many black people been over your house,” he observes, “You racist like a motherfucker.” “It’s jokes, it’s funny,” says Mac in the end, “But it’s also the truth.” And this is what the kings do best, reflect the culture back to itself, exposing its faults and celebrating its occasional wisdom and compassion.