The Original Kings of Comedy

Somehow Spike Lee has managed to make a film — I’m sorry, a “joint” — that is non-confrontational, non-controversial and that exists solely for the purpose of entertainment.

Who are you, and what have you done with the real Spike Lee?

“The Original Kings of Comedy” is a concert filmed in Charlotte, N.C., one stop on a hugely successful nationwide tour featuring three prominent black comedians: D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, with Steve Harvey acting as MC and between-act stall tactic.

Between the comics’ sets are short bits of backstage footage, most of it amusing, if not terribly “documentarian” (that is, it doesn’t tell us much).

Of the three headliners, Hughley is by far the funniest, his segment culminating in a person-by-person mockery of nearly every audience member in the first two rows. (To a man with huge eyeglasses whom he hopes is not a school-bus driver: “You’d have to have prescription windshields.” To a woman with large eyes: “They’re not eyelids, they’re mini-blinds.”) Not every joke works, but the fact that he takes each person on, in rapid succession, suggests how quick-witted and brave he is as a comedian.

Unfortunately, Hughley is also first, which means the film peaks at the 35-minute mark and never quite comes back. Cedric is largely forgettable except for his dead-on impressions of different types of smokers. And Mac has a manner of speaking that renders him almost incomprehensible, though his recurring motif of wanting to beat his three misbehaving nieces and nephews is awfully funny, if politically incorrect.

Dragging down everything is MC Steve Harvey, who starts the show by making jokes about Charlotte’s football team, including a specific incident involving one of the players. If you don’t follow football and/or didn’t hear about this incident, these jokes aren’t the least bit funny. Starting a show (or a film) with obscure jokes isn’t a good idea. Neither is the extended bit about early-’70s soul music, which is not intended to be funny, and sure enough, it isn’t. It’s boring, in fact, unless you were black in 1974.

Harvey’s one great bit comes mid-way through the movie, when a front-row audience member leaves to go to the bathroom, and Harvey steals his jacket.

A few things are true of all four comedians. They’re all potty-mouthed, the F-word (especially “mothaf—–“) being spoken literally hundreds of times. (This is not a detriment, necessarily, as the profanity is often entertaining; I mention it just by way of reporting.) All four do material of the “it’s funny because it’s true” nature. All four rely heavily — almost exclusively — on jokes about how white people do things this way, whereas black people do things this other way.

Each of them, in his own way, adds a little insight into the black experience. Many of their jokes center around blacks being poor, an idea which none of them shies away from — and in fact, the almost all-black audience eats it up.

Which raises the question, is this a movie for black people only? I’m the furthest thing from black, and I laughed quite a bit. But there were also many things that I couldn’t relate to, though I could understand the humor value in them. And like I said, the audience clearly loves every word. These comedians know their audience; they ARE their audience in terms of background and experiences.

Director Spike Lee took great pains to keep this from looking like just another comedy concert on film. The cameras move around, often working from rakish angles with the comedians off-center. The visual aspect doesn’t draw attention to itself, really, but it does give one the sense of watching raw documentary footage, rather than a comedy show.

The movie’s main fault, aside from Harvey’s dragging things down and putting the funniest comedian first, is being too long. Even “regular” comedies, with plots and characters, try to stick close to 90 minutes; this one is just a few guys standing on a stage telling jokes, meaning it should be even shorter than usual, if anything — and instead it’s almost 2 hours. There are only so many “white people are different from black people” jokes that can be considered funny in one sitting, after all, and this film tries to exceed that limit.

Aside from that, though, the comics really are good at what they do, provoking laughter from people of any race.

B- (; R, non-stop harsh profanity, some very vivid sexual language.)