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THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY

by: Michael Dequina

Normal film review rules don't necessarily apply to The Original Kings of Comedy. Despite being "a Spike Lee Joint," this film of the popular stand-up comedy tour featuring Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac is completely devoid of his trademark razzle dazzle; Lee shoots the concert as matter-of-factly as an HBO comedy special. While not making for the most visually inventive of cinema, the straightforward approach puts in proper focus the film's appeal: four talented guys simply being very funny.

Anyone familiar with the stand-up shows from which most of the four first gained notice--BET's Comicview and HBO's Def Comedy Jam--knows that in being funny, these guys are also rather profane. Audiences whose only previous experience with Harvey and Cedric is their work on the former's eponymous WB sitcom, or with Hughley on his ABC-to-UPN transplant The Hughleys, are in for a shock--the stars of these family-skewed shows toss off four-letter words with the best (worst?) of them. Prudes may find the amount of profanity ridiculously excessive, but it's an integral part of the comedians' verbal arsenal. Shock value isn't so much the intent as a side effect; the words are used to punctuate and underscore their ideas and observations, many of which revolve around the differences between blacks and whites.

While that inevitably leads to overlap between the four's routines--and a certain feeling of repetition--each performer carves out their own distinct personality. Harvey serves as emcee, and he's the smooth romantic, the highlight of his sets (he does a bit between each act) being a tribute to '70s old school soul that includes a hilarious, on-target rip on rap/hip-hop concerts. Hughley is the energetic live wire, closing out his routine with jabs at random audience members. Cedric is the most laid-back--and most impressively coordinated; his dance moves got both the filmed and live audiences going.

Mac's aggressive closing set is at once the most incendiary and the most truthful. His routine could share the title of the central manifesto in Jerry Maguire, "The Things We Think and Do Not Say"; nothing and no one is safe as Mac talks about wanting to beat sense into naughty children and launches into an extended bit involving stuttering. Much of his material could easily offend, but a lot of it comes within a disarmingly honest context, such as the jokes involving his nieces and nephew, the custody of whom was taken away from his drug-addicted sister and given to him. Of course, the comedic meat of the jokes derives from his creative embellishment, but there is the ring of hard truth in the jokes' foundation.

In an attempt to break the stage-and-crowd visual monotony, Lee sometimes cuts away from the performance to some moments away from the performance arena. Not a bad idea, per se, but these segments, such as a rather pointless one where the four play poker, are largely dull lulls that make the audience too aware of the film's 120-minute running time.

But most of 120 minutes are devoted to what audiences buy a ticket to see: Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac doing their thing. They don't disappoint--and, in turn, neither does The Original Kings of Comedy.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)

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