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

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Ever since Vanity
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
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

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.