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Friday, August 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`The Original Kings of Comedy'

Special to The Seattle Times

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Movie review

XXX "The Original Kings of Comedy," with Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac. Directed by Spike Lee. 120 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of language and topics.

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At first glance, the notion of Spike Lee directing a concert film seems absurd.

A concert film? Stick the camera center-stage and walk away: that's your concert film. Attempts to be more innovative - such as Robert Townsend's direction of Eddie Murphy's "Raw" - usually fall flat. Invariably Townsend panned out at exactly the wrong moment.

Spike Lee does not stick the camera center-stage and walk away, and he does not pan out at the wrong moment. In fact, "The Original Kings of Comedy," with its 10 cameras and backstage footage, may be the most innovatively directed stand-up concert film ever made.

The tour itself, "The Kings of Comedy," began in 1997 when producer Walter Latham decided to package some of the best comedians in the country and play the big arenas rather than the smaller clubs. The tour was a success, but its size necessitated playing only major markets, which is why, according to the press kit, Latham decided to put it on film.

"I felt that if we documented it . . . " he says, "I could take it to Jackson, Miss., Montgomery, Ala., places that I couldn't normally take the tour."

Lee adds, "It's the best comedy tour ever, but it's been under the radar."

Under the radar. In other words, most white people hadn't known about it - including myself. Of the four comedians involved - Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac - I had only heard of the first two: Hughley from his CBS (now UPN) sitcom "The Hughleys," where he always seemed more intelligent than his bland, sitcomish surroundings, and Harvey from the WB network's "The Steve Harvey Show," which, if it left any impression at all, was negative.

These guys? I thought. These guys are supposed to be funny?

Turns out they are. Very.

Harvey is the host, the man who does his shtick while introducing the other comedians. Before a Charlotte, N.C., crowd, he raises the issue of Rae Carruth, the Carolina Panthers wide receiver arrested last December for conspiring to kill his girlfriend. Raw stuff, but Harvey makes it funny, wondering about the intelligence of Carruth who, on the lam, fled not to Canada or Mexico, but Nashville.

Each comedian has his own distinct personality. Hughley is rapid-fire. Cedric is a master mime, who does a great riff on white people's love of space movies.

Bernie Mac is less constantly funny than the others, and more likely to make the audience uncomfortable. Overall, with each comedian, there may be a little too much "white folks like this/black folks like this" humor as well.

But no matter who's on stage, there's another performer present, and that's the mostly African-American crowd. The majority of concert films, if they show the audience at all, show an occasional reaction shot of people laughing, but Lee revels in his audience even as the audience revels in the performance. This wouldn't have worked with most white crowds, who tend to be more sedate, and less participatory, than black crowds, and it's probably among the reasons Lee chose this project.

From "Do The Right Thing" to "Get On The Bus," Lee has depicted the African-American community as it has not been in the larger white culture, and "The Original Kings of Comedy" continues this tradition. Given that this is only a concert film, the palpable sense of community you get is truly astounding. Somehow Lee manages to suggest not only community, but divisions within that community. There are absurdities, but there is love, despite - perhaps even because of - those absurdities.

At one point, Harvey - word for word, the funniest of the four - after dismissing hip-hop, leads the audience in the "old school" songs of Earth, Wind & Fire and Lenny Williams. You get a greater sense of love in this one scene than in almost every romantic comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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