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Spike Lee captures the rush of live stand-up in "The Original Kings of Comedy."

Tour de Farce


In his third documentary outing, Spike Lee focuses his camera on the nation's hottest concert tour: a comic marathon featuring the talents of D. L. Hughley, Bernie Mac, Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer. True to its title, "The Original Kings of Comedy" serves up near nonstop laughter along with more than a dash or two of social commentary. As talented behind the camera as his subjects are in front of a live audience, Lee handily accomplishes the most crucial task of any concert film: making you feel as if you're there. Lee more than captures the rousing communal emotion and energy of a live performance, making "Kings" an entertaining cinematic experience as well as a comic tour de force.

The film was shot over two nights at the Charlotte, N.C., Coliseum this past February, and Lee gives us that "being there" experience through digital sound, straightforward filmwork and simple editing techniques that never upstage the comedians. During the course of the concert/movie, each comic has 30 minutes of stage time. And while their styles are different, there are enough thematic similarities to make the performance meld into a cohesive whole rather than a series of unrelated vignettes.

While the talented four are best known for their work on TV sitcoms, Lee's documentary allows each performer to reinvent himself beyond his more familiar persona. Harvey's role as emcee is even something of a comic riff on his long-running weekly host duties on "It's Showtime at the Apollo." Cedric the Entertainer, who regularly plays second banana on Harvey's WB sitcom "The Steve Harvey Show," more than comes into his own here. For those who don't regularly avail themselves of the offerings on the black comedy club circuit when visiting major cities, Cedric's sweetly funny demeanor and ribald song-and-dance routines may be the movie's biggest surprise. Hughley, who also appears in a self-titled, viewer-friendly sitcom, UPN's "The Hughleys," offers the concert's most Richard Pryor-esque turn. Fiery and contentious, Hughley electrifies the movie with some on-the-spot improv with audience members.

But the showstopper has to be Bernie Mac. Appearing onscreen last, Mac pushes his movie persona to the extreme in a dizzying display of impeccable comic timing. I would see the movie again, just for him.

By design, the purpose of the show/movie is to make you laugh. And it succeeds, sometimes with sidesplitting results. Through their routines, the four men examine a wide variety of culturally related topics. From racism to gender and generational gaps to stereotypes, the material is often racy and always liberally punctuated with profanity. Those who are offended by the use of four-letter words will succumb to culture shock. In fact, one of Mac's skits centers on the "M-F" word in modern black culture. No apologies are offered, and none are expected.

It's easy to understand why their tour would capture Lee's interest. Geared mainly to African-American audiences, "The Kings of Comedy" road tour has become the biggest box-office comedy concert tour in history. To date, ticket sales well exceed $50 million. Not for the prudish or the young — we're talking R-rated and then some when it comes to profanity and sexually related themes — "The Original Kings of Comedy" should delight mature audiences who like their comedy raw. I can't remember the last time my stomach ached from laughing so hard for so long.

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