[29 September 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s about time that the urban comedy landscape got its shit together. It seems like every few years, another supremely talented mofo is set up to take the high hat of humor and wear it proudly. For a while, Dave Chappelle got the chapeau. He did the best he could with it, slanting the satirical brim ever so slightly until the brain inside started to sizzle and slide under the weight of sudden fame. One quick trip to South Africa later, and the crown is looking for a new king.
Previous mirth merry men of color included Chris Tucker (who traded it in for a great deal of kung fu phoniness) Martin Lawrence (who took the “you so crazy” concept of his comedy act literally) and that misplaced Buckwheat wannabe Eddie Murphy. Actually, the SNL artist formerly known as funny has donned and doffed the cap of cleverness so many times that it has a permanent dent where his always bruised ego seems to fit perfectly.
But apart from Richard Pryor, whose genius usurps practically everything it touches even Gene Wilder the sad truth is that since one righteous brother gave up the title of funniest man on film, the world of the inner city jokefest just hasn’t been the same. Instead of looking for someone with this man’s style and stamina, or picking through the stand-ups for the next big thing, they should simply acknowledge his greatness and give up looking.
Like Little Richard except without all the wannabe drag queen dreariness he was the originator, a party record pioneer who turned his novelty-based fame into a string of films that forever fractured the world of blaxploitation. While audiences in the ‘70s were lining up for more of those sweet Sweetback’s black man’s revenge fantasies, one sanctified soul man wanted to make people laugh…and laugh some more. He also created one of the most singularly original characters in the history of the genre. The main man he made was named Dolemite, and the brazen bravado bringing him to life was none other than Rudy Ray Moore.
Frankly, all modern minority comics, as Spike Lee once said, can kiss Rudy’s rather ample rump—TWO times! Moore was, and remains at 68, a master, a randy rappin’ fool who occasionally spoke in verse (part of a comedy tradition of saucy poems), peppered his presentation with all manner of catchphrases, and practiced a kind of crackpot kung-fu that had shortsighted Shaolin monks scratching their bald heads in defensive skills disbelief.
One trip through his original oeuvre (not counting movies where he made cameos, or worked in a less than superstar capacity) provides glimpses into a guy whose personality was all about fun and fuckin’—hopefully both at the same time. He only got medieval when the man or some other manufactured version of the cancer known as the Caucasian came down on him. Then the prerequisite pull top can of Me Decade whoop ass was opened up on anyone who didn’t see eye to eye with this sub-genre Superfly.
Moore’s first film was Dolemite. He played the title role, a street hustler framed by a bunch of crooked cops for being black and badass. While in the slammer, pimp provocateur Willie Green takes over. With the help of an oversexed Mayor named Daley, Green aims to overrun Dolemite’s club (almost all blaxploitation films revolved around nightclubs). With the help of Queen Bee and his kung fu karate kicking biz-nitches, our man Moore shoots shit up and repeats rhyming material from his stand up act. In between there is some sloppy sex, misguided martial arts, lots of ladies dressed in polyester nightmares, and a character known as the Hamburger Pimp, whose kind of like Popeye’s Wimpy, except with a mumbling problem and a severe chemical addiction.
Moore was different than his genre counterparts in that he wasn’t looking for a moral in his movies. Unlike his prosperous progenitor, who constantly queried over the bottom line and above-title billing, Moore wanted to have a good time and give the predominantly urban audience what they wanted - sex, slang and lots of butt whipping. Keeping completely within said formula, Moore delivered his next film The Human Tornado. Returning again as Dolemite, this pseudo-sequel is just plain strange. When he’s caught in bed with a racist sheriff’s wife, the mighty Mite is on the run. He heads to L.A., where he learns his favorite spot (again with the nightclub), Queen Bee’s ultra happening Total Experience, has been overrun by the mafia. Mr. Cavaletti even has Dole’s dames providing some carnal curb service.
Revenge is a little more complicated this time around. Dolemite first hits Cavaletti where it hurts—in the spouse. Posing as an erotic art salesman, our hero humps some info out of Mrs. C., and then heads off to find a spooky old ghost house where the mob is holding some of his la-dies. He throws down more pseudo-judo hand signs, beats up an old woman in bad voodoo make-up, and even comes back to life when the bigoted sheriff supposedly shoots him dead. He’s unafraid to look the fool (new generations should take note) Dolemite is part conqueror, part dumbbell here. Between the opening stand-up comedy routine (Moore’s act and onstage demeanor are priceless) to Mrs. Cavaletti’s naked black muscleman sex fantasy sequence, this is one amazingly messed up movie.
Perhaps the most supreme example of this Hellzapoppin’ humor chutzpah is Petey Wheatstraw (the Devil’s Son-in-Law). Though it begins on a very somber note (Petey and his pals are killed in a gangland assassination over you guessed it a nightclub) things quickly turn twisted when Petey makes a deal with the Devil. He will marry Satan’s mutt-ugly daughter if the Fallen One performs a little afterlife CPR. Suddenly, things are back to normal, except along with a new lease, Petey has also swiped Lucifer’s wishing stick just to be a betrothed bastard. As he runs around the ghetto granting favors, Beelzebub sends demonic minions up from Hell to help Petey keep his word. But the amazing Mr. Wheatstraw has other plans. He’s going to screw Legion over, and continue his regular earthbound routine.
This may just by Moore’s masterpiece, a surrealistic sensation where nothing makes much sense, and we abso-friggen’-lutely like it that way. Today’s comedy cats would never think of featuring the ferociously un-PC mugging of Leroy and Skillet, a scene where a man slinks away in disgrace after crapping his pants, or a Benny Hill style fast cranked session of oral action with several Satanic sex-pots as part of their plot. That’s what makes this freak show fright fantasy is unlike any movie blaxploitation or otherwise that you’re likely to see. Moore would do anything to amuse. Petey Wheatstraw has race-based humor (when Petey’s mother gives birth, it’s a watermelon that arrives first), some strange social satire (all the weird wishing stick stuff acting like wealth-driven welfare) and some downright peculiar ideas (Satan looks like Booker T. Washington with a bad barber).
Yet after Petey, something happened to Moore’s muse. Suddenly, our stubby stand-up stud had an inexplicable and unexplainable desire to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, social consciousness just didn’t jibe with his juke joint jive. While The Disco Godfather is not a complete waste of time (it does contain a couple of Moore’s more memorable catchphrases, including the classic dance floor come-on “put your weight on it”!), it does meander where Tornado and Wheatstraw soared. Since the main theme here is drugs (Moore’s Tucker Williams is a crusading local NIGHTCLUB DJ who looses a nephew to ‘dust’) there is lots of preaching and screeching. Narcotics are even envisioned as an outlandish female demon, and Moore has his own standoff with the wasted witch.
Though the title suggests Michael Corleone leaving Las Vegas for the bright lights of Studio 54, The Disco Godfather is just not endearing. Moore is no good when he is playing semi-serious, and his acting goes from amusing to mannered—especially when trying to dive into the drama. Instead of extended his range, it ended his reign as a box office champion. He made occasional cameos (in flops like B*A*P*S*) and even tried the direct to video market with a What’s Up, Tiger Lily? style redux of an old martial arts movie (which he then dubbed Shaolin Dolemite). Sadly, today he is nothing but a footnote, a throwaway line in a stupid House Party film.
Still, it’s hard to deny what Moore accomplished. He was fiercely autonomous, making the movies he wanted the way he wanted. Yes, he occasionally slipped into the role of a stunt man for his own crap karate moves. Certainly, the self-penned love ballads he inserted in the score were as saccharine sweet as anything tickled out of Barry Manilow’s ivories (Tornado‘s “Miss Wonderful” is an amazingly arch treat). And honestly while he may have been a ladies man, Moore was a tad too plump to be pulling off his clothes to knock boots with the babes. Yet Moore’s films endure because they are funny, and filled with a kind of clever racial irreverence. The “Man” might get miffed when they see that all the villains are lily-white louses, but Moore’s movies were equal opportunity indicters.
There truly is no modern version of Moore. The closest anything comes to his style of no-holds barred brazenness can be found in, of all places, the tent revival as Christian comedy plays of Tyler Perry. Madea is nearly the next best thing to a contemporary Dolemite, even down to the collection of quotable lines. Both characters satirize and polarize the black experience, using wholly idiosyncratic means to get their message across. Both trade in stereotypes, minstrel mannerisms, and an unapologetic frankness that causes the audience to focus on not only what they are seeing, but also what it says about them as a subject. Moore was that important link (one that Richard Pryor was just starting to explore on film) between the party record mystique of vulgarity-laced laughter and the mainstreaming of minority comedy. Everyone who came after him benefited from his unyielding desire to do whatever it takes to entertain an audience—value and virtue be got-damned.
So take your Rocks and your Tuckers, hang onto your Murphys and your Chapelles. Rudy Ray Moore was first, and he was the best. There is more peculiarity, more profanity, and more outright pleasure to be gained from a trip into the Dolemite dimension than in any combination of big budget urban excuses. It is nearly impossible not to be entertained, or fall in love with, this brave, brilliant, and boldly bawdy brother.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/gibron050930/