Black lives and sharing the inner city out in the open: The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)

There’s nothing quite like being able to enter a world as it is of itself, unmediated by the niceties and formalities of having to make art. It counts for wisdom of the highest kind for me. And I’m always receptive to narrative from within the world of black experience, so I was happy to come across this.

Four stand-up comedians who are top in their craft get up on stage in Charlotte before a packed audience, this is what we have here. The room catches on fire, it’s one of those magical nights. Spike Lee is filming for us.

Two of the guys here are a bit crude for my taste, the first two. Harvey in particular makes me wonder because he seems to be the one closest to the world the jokes come from, the most genuine presence. He establishes great rapport with the audience, in turns R&B showboat from the chitlin days and church pastor. But every time I see him he’s also a crotchety, country bumpkin uncle, not entirely an act this. One of the highlights is when he gets thousands of people to hoot and swoon as he reminds them of the value of love while playing old favorite songs; but frames the moment as the “good old days” by comparison to modern rap.

Bernie Mac was a bit of a cipher for me. Half of the time I couldn’t make head or tails of what he was garbling about and then he has an aggression (one of the jokes about having a gay 6 year old nephew goes on and on) but it seems to come from a basically good nature so I couldn’t tell if he was being off-putting or not. It’s obvious with Harvey where similar jokes seem to come with a streak of nasty dismissal.

It was Cedric out of these 4 that stole the show for me. He’s cool, an Isaac Hayes whereas everyone else were manic James Browns. All the others focus on how other people annoy, he surrounds common folly. Two of the best jokes in the whole show were his, black people running if they see someone else doing it — implying a racist everyday life that frays you — and black people cruising in space cars to the moon after white people if white people tried to sneak out the planet. There is healing in being able to share the same inner city out in the open.

But my favorite performance here was the whole as a give and take with this audience, the whole room as the show. It makes a world of difference that they are before an audience of their own people, the audience no less a part of what’s being performed. It simply wouldn’t be the same in Wyoming. It’s the difference between Sam Cooke’s show at the Copacabana as polite Sinatra surrogate and his Harlem live appearance where all this spontaneous energy is circling the room.

People swoon and holler, dance and spontaneously get up from their seats, entered by the spirit of what’s going on. There’s nothing quite like being able to enter a world as it is of its own self, filling the room with itself. And there’s nothing quite like seeing people enjoy themselves either — those delighted looking women in particular. There’s a certain loving-kindness here that goes beyond what’s being said in words. Something moving about a whole room erupting into applause when asked about god, swooning over love songs and laughing without compunctions at life.



writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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