Spike Lee: The Original Kings of Comedy (2000) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)

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In the year 2000 a group of talented comedians - Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, and Cedric the Entertainer - went on tour as the Original Kings of Comedy.  Spike Lee was invited along to make a concert film of their adventures.

All happy togetherWithin the context of a project like this I'm a little lost as to what to say about The Original Kings of Comedy. In terms of the staging, camerawork, and other technical aspects, there's not a lot going on here that's any different from most stand-up films, and while Spike Lee's involvement makes total sense—helping to expand the reach and voices of these four prominent black comedians addressing primarily black audiences—he doesn't seem to have left any personal stamp of his own on their acts (and wouldn't be expected to).

It's been awhile since I watched the movie, and I don't have the strongest recollection of many of the individual jokes, but one point that did stand out was the role music seemed to have in so many of the acts. I know Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer both had portions specifically devoted to nostalgically recalling certain songs, and I'm not sure if D.L. Hughley or Bernie Mac did as well, but Lee cuts some of their acts together in such a way that there are a number of musical pieces right in the center of the film.

The way they use these parts of their acts to connect with the audience by drawing on a common nostalgia is in line with the way Spike commonly uses music—in Crooklyn he's got a near-constant soundtrack playing in the background, attaching sentimental significance to the developmental moments Troy is going through; in Do the Right Thing he uses “Fight the Power” to carry through the simmering anger that's about to explode out on the street. He's interested in the way music, and contemporary songs in particular, can attach outside relevance and help signify the larger ideas in a scene (even if not always successfully).

This is something we've talked about with most of the previous movies—and it's something we saw in his other concert film, Freak—so I wasn't surprised when music was a significant means for Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer to engage with current culture in their acts. I was even less surprised that Spike chose to cut their acts together in a way that prioritized these specific parts, though he worked to much greater effect in Leguizamo's film. That's not really a fair comparison since that film was structured around a narrative and this one is structured around stand-up acts, but it's about the only significant observation I can make. Anything you saw here that could add to our ongoing conversation about Spike?

I miss Bernie MacWhat Spike's doing here, and it's been emphasized in better films but not so directly, is to show the sense of community in sharing oral history either through comedy or drama.  While Spike's films certainly have their fair share of jokes they're rarely comedies, and even the excellent Freak wasn't so much a comedy so much as it was a one-man show about a potentially crazy person and how he ended up this way.  But what's emphasized time and again in The Original Kings of Comedy is that sense of community, either via the interludes with the performers playing poker or shootin' some hoops, or the frequent reaction shots of people getting up to dance along with the performers as they do their thing.

So, no, there aren't a lot of interesting visual tricks going on here but that would get in the way of the bond Spike wants to focus on between the performers and the excited crowd.  My favorite sequence shows just how eclectic a group the Kings brought out as different audience members have their pictures taken before the show.  Some are dressed modestly in suits, others just a shirt and jeans, but my absolute favorite are the women who brings out the extra long nails and beehive haircuts to squeeze into dresses with color patterns which would make Terrence Malick weep.  I loved those people and Spike makes their enthusiasm our enthusiasm by making them such an active part of the show.  Concert films usually have their fair share of reaction shots but in The Original Kings of Comedy we switch back to the crowd almost as often as whoever is onstage makes a joke.

Which brings us back to the use of music here, Spike is showing how the event isn't just a chance to watch some funny people do their thing.  Instead it's an opportunity for everyone to express whoever they want to be in an appreciative crowd that doesn't care if you're singing, dancing, or praying along with the performers.  It's that sense of togetherness that makes The Original Kings of Comedy special even if the rest of the material doesn't work as well.

Of the four performers, and I'm surprised by this, Steve Harvey did the best job.  His reenactment of what it would be like if he was on the Titanic had me doubled-over in laughter by the time he was blowing into a tiny napkin as a sail.  It's not enough for me to forget the other horror he brought to cinema, but I understand the appeal now.  Strangely enough, I enjoyed the interludes about each performer instead of their sets.  I loved the way Cedric the Entertainer is so specific about his clothing because that brings out what personality he's going to be using on-stage.  But my favorite shot was one of the quickest, and now saddest, as Bernie Mac says a prayer with his team and then a quick finger pointed to the heavens before he goes out on stage.

It made me realize just how much I miss him, and how I wish I could have been part of this community that night.  So while The Original Kings of Comedy isn't great, and may not even be essential viewing for fans of Spike, it still made me happy to see a community come together in celebration of itself and dance the night away.

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Posted by Andrew

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