Directed by Spike Lee Starring Steve Harvey, D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac Classification: NA Rating: **½
Without doubt, Richard Pryor set the comic standard for concert films -- black, white, or any shade between. In the range of emotion his material covered, in the unvarnished truths he explored, in the way the knife-edge of his wit both inflicted and healed wounds, cutting and cauterizing, Pryor at his best elevated standup comedy into nothing less than art. He raised the bar high, and no one since has cleared it. Not Eddie Murphy. Not Chris Rock, although he comes closer. And certainly not the foursome billed as The Original Kings of Comedy. Sorry, but the king has long been crowned -- these funny-men are merely pretenders.
Polished pretenders, to be sure. The quartet -- Steve Harvey, D. L. Hughley, Bernie Mac and the self-proclaimed Cedric the Entertainer -- have been honing their collective act for three years now, playing in large halls before predominantly black audiences. None other than director Spike Lee caught up with them in Charlotte, N.C., transforming a pair of performances into a single concert film. Well, digital video, actually. Lee deploys no fewer than 10 cameras, the better to supplement the standup acts with the usual visual fillips -- audience cutaways; a little back-stage banter; spinning the perspective from the standard medium-shot to a comic's-eye view of the proceedings, the antic entertainer looking out at the eager-to-be-entertained.
All this gives the picture an impressive kinetic bounce, but the hard fact remains that any concert flick stands or falls on the performed material. Stands and falls, in this case. Although the four comedians differ somewhat in style and intonation (with Harvey owing the heaviest debt to Pryor), they all mine essentially the same subject matter in pretty much the same way. Of course, that 12-letter word is an inextricable part of their mantra, used as a persistent backbeat -- a four-syllable rhythm section -- behind every spoken line.
Substantively, their jokes make repeated treks into what politicians are now calling "the racial divide." But they take a fairly safe route. Stuff like: "Black folks never bungee jump -- that's too much like a lynchin' "; or, "White people can charge concert tickets -- we gotta wait for our cheque." From there, over and over again, the comedy riffs off a shared stereotype of the black male: Verbally and physically aggressive, proudly unintimidated by authority, disinclined to hard work, usually flat broke. And the black men in the crowd seem to love it.
Beyond that, the humour wends its way to the toilet and then the bedroom, where the black woman emerges as demanding and possessive, poised to evolve into that recurring figure in black culture -- the aged matriarch, the "big mama," stern and tough and much adored. Occasionally, the comics drift away from the racial divide to examine a more traditional abyss -- the generation gap. For example, Harvey does an extended musical bit that compares the "old school" comforts of Motown to the incomprehensible natter of rap. This is tried and true, just Borscht Belt shtick -- he could be Buddy Hackett dissing the Beatles.
That's not to suggest the foursome aren't consummate pros. Their timing is impeccable, their ad-libs are smooth, and they know how to play to the house. The laughter does build. But there's precious little risk in the comedy -- even the rough edges seem calculated. These guys are preaching to the converted, and their careful sermons keep the faith. Skilled they are, but original or kingly they definitely are not -- just solid knights working the round table.