The Original Kings of Comedy Will Make a Good $5 Bootleg Tape

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Ever since Vanity Fair proclaimed Chris Rock "The Funniest Man in America"?a tribute never accorded Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny?black comedians have labored under strange pressure. (Hardly the funniest man in America, Rock isn't even the funniest black comic. That raceless appellation was Vanity Fair's way of congratulating Rock's lack of wit and importance; neutralizing his ethnic potential by making an example of?i.e., rewarding?his seditious gags.) Now the lure of mainstream expropriation has made contemporary black comedians dissatisfied with the Chitlin' Circuit's appreciation. Worse, their mainstream hopes have shrunk. Most want no more than to imitate Chris Rock or Wayans Family antics?usually on clownish tv sitcoms.

Banding together on tour, Harvey, Hughley, Cedric and Mac seek the people's tribute. They confirm a hardy era of black theater rather than instituting a new style of stand-up. It would have been enlightening to see a real documentary about how their acts parallel recent successful comic touring shows like Shelley Garrett's Beauty Shop or Whatever Happened to Black Love? or My Grandmother Prayed for Me, etc. Those programmatic morality-plays-with-music are even more significant for the way they rival tv and movies for the cathartic expression of black community anxieties and beliefs. It would have been interesting to see how truths represented in touring shows give show business a purpose beyond fame and commercial success. That's what's poignant about the huge audience response to these tours; in some ways the need for moral articulation, for emotional satisfaction, is more significant than the stories and routines.

You can sense the origins of black comedy tradition on BET's nightly Comic View (always good for an easy laugh or a demonstration of perpetual vaudeville). But The Original Kings of Comedy never communicates the sources of its performers' appeal. Observing the vibe in small comedy clubs might have been more revealing. The backstage scenes here are as skimpy as in Scorsese's The Last Waltz, but less excusable considering how few acts needed to be squeezed in. Watching the quartet play cards or stand on a basketball court (shooting the breeze, not hoops) is no substitute for learning more about their backgrounds or their theories on comedy or politics.

Important cultural questions go begging. (Though set in the South, the emergence of Southern black language and wit into the national style of these mostly West Coast-based performers is taken for granted, not explicated.) This uninquisitive approach implies that success in itself is all-important and irreproachable. That's really what the audience montages confirm: customers paying cash and paying tribute. But their laughter (pumped up stereophonically to cue ours) doesn't communicate what they really feel about any of the comedians' topics. It's bland mass approval. Because paying audiences tend to be uncritical, they are not reliable proof that the proverbial call-and-response we're shown is either spontaneous or sincere. That phenomenon is a leftover from HBO's Def Comedy Jam, where a new generation learned to laughed on cue?the cue usually being a cuss word.

These aren't baggy-pants comedians, they're Box Pleat Comedians?immaculately tailored in sleeveless jackets or coat-length vests. Do the Right Thing's trio would envy their apparent affluence. These four men will themselves into deliberate style icons, giving the mostly black audience a high-roller fashion show. They know that their audience seeks something more than the ethnic jokes on network tv that always emphasize black/white social contrasts, so Harvey, always freshly barbered (also the host of tv's Showtime at the Apollo), makes a companionable MC. He introduces the slate of jokes on black skepticism and powerlessness?family jokes turned into common currency.

Most of the routines shown on this tour deserve a chuckle, not the gales of laughter we see. (A Titanic joke claiming "you won't ever see 3000 black people die on a ship" deserves an ahistorical gasp.) Harvey's act isn't notable until he launches into a typical middle-ager's riff against crude, violent hiphop ("If yo ass ain't in love you done missed the whole ship"). It's essentially a conservative show, even with the profane language. And the scarcely talented D.L. Hughley, who lacks Harvey's church deacon solidity, peddles cursing more than good old-fashioned feeling. (The youngest "king," he's of the Chris Rock school?more nerve than skill.) No one's smoother than stocky Cedric the Entertainer. He makes his mark with a charming routine that distinguishes white and black behavior as, respectively, the "I Hope Creed" and the "I Wish Factor." Each of the older comics channels black exasperation and resentment into average-man complaint and forbearance?as if asking, "Can't we all laugh along?" Only Bernie Mac takes this brand of black comedy to the emotional edge. The show doesn't build up to Mac, but his acerbic, blustery style sharpens the preceding mild witticisms to a point.

Dark-skinned with a bright challenging stare (like Screaming Jay Hawkins, a screenwriter friend observed), Mac speaks with a no-nonsense directness. Distilling Harvey's hiphop plaint into a rant on spoiled children, Mac delivers each punchline with a scowl. Some historic, bottled-up fury is being addressed ("When you cry like that your soul is fucked up, you hurt!"), yet Mac's angry expressions somehow break into a smile. Not a lethal Samuel L. Jackson leer but an emotional bumper, a sign of sanity. "I say what you scared to say," he proclaims, then reiterates, "I say what you cain't say." It's not that he's a subversive political comic, but he unleashes his listeners' frustrations about society and family with a sensibility that Chris Rock and D.L. Hughley haven't yet learned. At times Mac suggests a Rodney Dangerfield who lives up to his name: Recalling some rotten children left in his charge, Mac observes, "I love the muthafucka but he's a faggot"?and the entire sentence is tempered, affectionately balanced.

That routine, and Mac's closing soliloquy on the word "muthafucka" (Rock, Hughley, take notes) evoke the late, great Robin Harris, the comedian who (as Sweet Dick Willie) made that Do the Right Thing trio special?Harris' voice authenticated the men's griping and teasing just as his album Be-Be's Kids made cultural complaint genuine, not just a show. The Original Kings of Comedy never makes that crossover into art. It's merely a show.

In the shadow of Robin Harris and Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor triumph, Martin Lawrence's charisma, Chris Tucker's zing and Paul Mooney's two great, underacknowledged 90s comedy albums Mr. Paul Mooney and Master Piece, this tour's title makes even less sense. Imposing upon the four comics a need to feel like kings of something, it seems more desperate than boastful. Yet, nothing here traces social meanings in show business or the pathetic nationwide reliance on media and celebrity that was the subject of Scorsese's failed but still interesting The King of Comedy. When the country crowds pose in their big hair and shiny clothes, it's more like Jerry Springer's audience shout-outs than the Scorsese film.

The Original Kings of Comedy was shot on digital video and transferred to film so its projection is actually, visually uglier than The Jerry Springer Show. The shadowy resolution and dull colors don't flatter the folk. Not that it matters since most people will, understandably, choose to see this as a $5 bootleg tape. That's folk wisdom.

Space Cowboys directed by Clint Eastwood
Hitchcock called them "The Plausibles," those literal-minded people who insisted his films have predictably plausible plots and resolutions. He might also have ridiculed them as "The Prosaics," viewers with no appreciation for dramatic poetry or the visual beauty in filmmaking. Those dullards had a field day when Space Cowboys opened. This story of old-time astronauts given a second chance to explore outer space was the obvious, plodding, prosaic saga those who didn't get Mission to Mars had been waiting for. With Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones signed on as the Dedalus Mission crew, Space Cowboys' cast of established old farts allowed critics once again to show fealty to Hollywood convention.

These guys are likable (and director Eastwood unexpectedly mocks himself when a younger actor in the opening, 50s-set black-and-white sequence impersonates his dry, cracked voice) but Space Cowboys' unoriginal way of making and looking at cinema stands in laughable contrast to the idea of space exploration, scientific experiment and futuristic vision. The suggestion of Old West homilies and traditional virtues shouldn't necessitate an esthetic retreat. In fact, Space Cowboys is inoffensive except for its obviousness and utterly undistinguished visual style. For a while?especially when the geezers were given younger but haggard-looking love interests (Marcia Gay Harden, Blair Brown)?I felt like I was stuck back in Ron Howard's scrubbed mission Apollo 13.

Only Jones as Eastwood's antagonist and Sutherland as a randy old goat come close to creating characters. (Jones is unfortunately introduced in a crude scene showing a doofus yuppie how to loop-the-loop in an airplane.) But these roles are less memorable than Don Cheadle's, Gary Sinise's and Tim Robbins' in Mission to Mars?if only because their faces were imaginatively lighted. Jones and Sutherland have no dimension beyond their scripted dialogue. Their amorous rejuvenation should parallel men's love of work, usefulness and self-esteem, but unlike De Palma, Eastwood doesn't know how to illumine human experience. And that unforgettable moment in Robert Altman's Countdown where doomed astronaut James Caan drifts toward the moon, takes a look at it and decides he doesn't want to go back home is another example of the visual poetry Space Cowboy lacks?especially when Jones is also strapped to a moon-bound vehicle. At times like this you're certain that Eastwood, in addition to having a dull eye, is humorless.

Now That's What I Call Propaganda. Keanu Reeves' The Replacements, a formulaic B-movie about strikebreaking football players, gets away with ignoring the political economy of leisure activities by literally pumping up the volume. Music supervisor Maureen Crowe assembled a thunderous collage of rousing hits so that the meaningless film is also painless. She rescues the Stones' "You Got Me Rockin'" and "Blinded by Rainbows" and picks choice bits of "Unbelievable," "I Will Survive," "Rock and Roll, Part Two," "Lust for Life," "We Will Rock You," "Heroes" and "Takin' Care of Business." It's K-tel, but as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and Scorsese's Casino music tracks proved, it's also all-American. And when Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" underscores the cheerleader tryouts, the lesbo-porn choreography exposes how conventional, in fact patriarchal, are the muff-pop antics I wrote about last week in Madonna's new video.

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