Hail to the Kings, baby! Judge Harold Gervais, always on the lookout for the Next Edgy Thing, rules on Spike Lee's foray into comedy concert filmmaking. But I have to ask: can these really be the "original kings" when Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy pioneered concert films by African-American comedians? Hell, even Bill Cosby did a film or two.
We Got Jokes
From Director Spike Lee comes The Original Kings of Comedy. This concert/documentary may not approach the level of hilarity found in any of the similar efforts from Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy, but quite a few big laughs and several truthful moments are to be had. As a film, however, it does improve on those other concert classics by possessing a greater level of slickness that everyone has come to expect from the movies of Spike Lee.
As a disc, all I can say is: Imagine this…a Paramount disc that has added features! While not a miracle on the level with the parting of the Red Sea, it is cause for celebration. See guys, it really isn't that hard.
Facts of the Case
A Spike Lee Joint, The Original Kings of Comedy features concert and behind-the-scenes footage of the Charlotte, NC leg of its national tour. The program stars Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac.
Comedy is a hard thing to review because what is funny is so subjective. Ethnic-based humor is also difficult to judge but I have always been of the belief that great comedy cuts across all lines. To its credit, Kings of Comedy does this and proves to be a really funny movie.
The structure of the movie is pretty basic. Comic/Actor/Host Steve Harvey gets first crack at the audience doing his own material and introducing all the other Kings in the show. Between the standup routines, director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) cuts to backstage and off-premise footage to give a sense of the men performing.
Getting to watch Harvey is pretty interesting if for no other reason than to see a comic who got a sitcom deal working in the medium that brought him to fame and money. Rather than having mediocre material doled out for a lowest common denominator television audience, we are treated to a very sharp and perceptive comedian in the form of Harvey as he works in the arena with which he is most comfortable. Easily the most polished of all the comics, Harvey rules the stage. Even when he ventures into edgy territory like singling out members of the audience for jokes and ridicule, he always has that masterful timing and 1,000-watt smile to defuse the tense situations he wandered into. Through it all, Harvey manages to deliver some pretty biting satire, being on target for almost all of his material. It also helps that the good guy persona Harvey uses in his sitcom seems genuinely part of who he is, which makes him a great host for something like this.
Next up is the star of UPN's "The Hughleys," D.L. Hughley. Of the four comics, I found his humor to be the most accessible as well as the broadest of the four comics and thus, to my mind anyway, the least funny. Clean it up the act a little bit and he could have worked Leno with the exact same material. Hughley is funny but bland. Nothing more and nothing less.
Cedric the Entertainer's set is very knowing in highlighting the differences between white culture and black. Looking somewhat like an African-American Sam Kinison, Cedric never explodes with the rage of the late comedian, rather making his point in an almost charming fashion that smoothes out the edges of his humor yet still making it quite funny.
Saving the best for last is the comedy of Bernie Mac. Mac provides the evening with the show's hardest-edged humor and for me, the hardest laughs. Telling stories that often evoke the memory of the concert films of Richard Pryor, Mac draws heavily from his own life, proving once more how closely truth, comedy and tragedy are linked. Cutting like a knife, Mac's humor provides a sharp contrast to the broad cutup style joke telling of D.L. Hughley, telling stories that stick in the mind long after being told.
It's also interesting to note that at the beginning of his set, Mac complains that he is the only one of the four without his own television series. After watching him perform his material a few times, it is pretty easy to see why. Like Pryor, Mac cuts too close to the core for most people; anything less than total honesty would seem somehow false and certainly not nearly as funny. Of all the comics, his stuff is the most dangerous because of this honesty, and I'm willing to bet most networks would be too scared to even to begin to think of what to do with him.
The Original Kings of Comedy is directed by Spike Lee, so you know it has lots of style, zip and interesting things to look at. Following in the footsteps of such great directors like Martin Scorsese with The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme with Stop Making Sense, Lee has fashioned his own concert film. While it may add little to his overall reputation, The Original Kings of Comedy does show that Lee knows how to let his hair down and just have fun with a picture.
On the disc end, Paramount gives The Original Kings of Comedy an anamorphic transfer that maintains the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film's original source material would appear to be videotape that was transferred over to film and it does pose some problems. Colors tend to be excessively bright and have a tendency to sometimes bleed, although this is balanced by skin tones appearing to be natural and lifelike. Detail is fairly strong, but the image does often seem limited, not possessing the depth one comes to expect from film. Blacks are fairly solid but once more shadow detail has little depth. Still bearing in mind that this is a concert film, none of these problems makes viewing the movie unacceptable, but it does bear mentioning.
Sound is of the Dolby Digital 5.1 variety and it to is a mixed bag. On the positive end the soundtrack shows great fidelity, especially with the numerous musical cues of the show, some very good usage of the rear surrounds and nice integration of audience sounds. The sound becomes problematic when it comes to dialogue, with words often becoming muddled and sometimes possessing feedback with this problem being nowhere more evident than in D.L. Hughley's set. Being as this is a totally dialogue-driven film, this is a major issue and the disc loses several points because of it.
On the extras front it gives me great pleasure to report that this is one Paramount disc that has more than a theatrical trailer. Included are a total of seven deleted scenes that run almost 30 minutes in length. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, all of these scenes are very funny and could have easily remained in the movie. The only reason I can imagine for their exclusion is for the sake of pace and running time. With this bright spot in a Paramount disc I also have a minor complaint. If the director is not going to record a commentary track (and in the case of The Original Kings of Comedy one is hardly needed) and if they are going to include deleted scenes, I wish the director would do a track to tell why said bits were not included. Maybe complaint is the wrong word; call it more a request. The disc also has the aforementioned trailer as well as the music video "Stunna" from the group Big Tymers.
All in all, this is a pretty good package from Paramount and a welcome change of pace.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Thin-skinned people, people who don't like copious use of the "f-word," and people with little sense of humor are probably best leaving this disc on the shelf.
With Paramount, I still think they charge way too much for their discs, especially when I look at the marketplace to see what almost everyone else does, what these discs have on it, and what is charged.
Otherwise I don't have any real problems with this disc, sound problems noted of course.
The Original Kings of Comedy is one funny movie. It is well directed by Spike Lee, moves like a bat out of hell, and stands in a long line of great concert movies…but as stated the most important thing is the laughs it provides. For African-American viewers it offers up some strong role models who look good, and for white guys like me it offers a great perspective on a whole other way of life to which we probably don't pay enough attention.
While not a full-fledged special edition, Paramount has actually done a nice job with this disc and is thanked for it.
Fans of the comics working onstage, followers of Spike Lee, or people who just like to laugh at cutting-edge humor are recommended to pick this disc up with no qualms.
Director Spike Lee and the Kings are acquitted of all charges. The only thing I would like to see is a full concert devoted to the comedy of Bernie Mac. This man has a lot to say, not all of it roll-on-the-floor funny but all very true.
Paramount is also released for a job well done and this court wishes they would take the same approach to their vast library of catalogue titles.
That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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