The Original Kings of Comedy

You’d think this would have been more at home as an HBO concert film, but it did extremely well in theaters in limited release. Steve Harvey emcees and does his own material between acts; the wiry D.L. Hughley, the roly-poly Cedric the Entertainer, and the severe Bernie Mac get to do extended acts, but Harvey, whose resemblance to Richard Pryor is more than just physical (he has a similar way of raising his voice in an indignant shrill), seems like the star. Spike Lee shot the proceedings fast and loose, on digital video; I can’t say how the result looked in theaters, where the image was transferred to 35mm, but on the DVD, a direct digital transfer, we get hyper-clarity but miss the grain and texture of film — it looks like something shot for HBO, though the image is markedly more pristine than past shot-on-video concerts.

As for the film itself, an hour of it would probably have been enough. The comedians have distinct styles but often seem to double back to the same racial-comparison shtick, which goes something like “White people always [insert joke about a goofy and/or impractical thing white people do]. Black folks are different — we’re more like [insert joke about a shrewd and/or frugal thing black people do].” Steve Harvey sets the tone with his joke about how a black band would act on the Titanic, and the other three comedians play to the mostly black audience, flattering them with goofy-white-people observations. To me as a white viewer, this is funny at first but gets sort of old after a few repetitions — we get it; black people and white people are different. Also speaking as a white viewer, some of the material (particularly some of Bernie Mac’s stuff) is incomprehensible to me, as it no doubt should be — it’s not really meant for me. I enjoyed much of it, but I’m neither in the “hilarious” camp nor in the “It’s ironic that Spike Lee made Bamboozled after making this minstrel show” camp (a charge I don’t really understand).

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