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Crown royal

Spike Lee catches The Original Kings of Comedy in concert

With all proper respect to the stand-up quartet that makes up The Original Kings of Comedy, this season some other funny men reign supreme. Two of this summer's most successful films are Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor 2 and, less expectedly, Martin Lawrence's Big Momma's House, while the horror spoof Scary Movie, directed by Damon Wayans, had the biggest opening ever for an R-rated movie. The four comedians of The Original Kings of Comedy don't have names as famous as Murphy, Lawrence and Wayans, but their concert film unleashes plenty of laughter. Don't be shocked if Kings catches the current wave of African-American comedy and turns into one of director Spike Lee's most financially successful films.

Raking in about $37 million, The Original Kings of Comedy U.S. tour became the most lucrative stand-up show in history, a fact that barely registered on the white media radar until this film's release. Lee's recording, shot at a massive but packed arena in Charlotte, N.C., suggests less the chummy hilarity of typical comedy festivals than a must-see concert by rock or rap stars. Opening the program, host Steve Harvey acknowledges the "Kings" as the kind of cultural event that sends women to the beauty parlors to primp and preen, "We're going to the Kangs!."

Harvey and his three co-horts in Kings' royal court worked their way up through outlets like Def Jam and BET's "Comedy View," although none have been a 100 percent crossover success. Harvey has an eponymous WB series, "The Steve Harvey Show," featuring Cedric "The Entertainer" as a co-star. D.L. Hughley created his sitcom, "The Hughleys," for ABC, only to have its second season picked up by UPN. Only Bernie Mac has no regular television gig, which he discusses in a mockingly outraged off-stage rant.

Seeing four comedians best known for their work on the WB and ABC's "TGIF" might sound unpromising, and it's true that none are meteoric talents like the groundbreaking Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy in his prime or Chris Rock (whose "Bring the Pain" special is easily the '90's funniest comedy concert). But they're all pros, clearly as fond of performing as they are beloved by audiences. And compared to the blue jeans and street clothes of most white comics, the Kings come dressed to the nines in double-breasted suits.

One of the most culturally significant qualities of African-American comedy is that it's a primary venue where America's racial differences can be aired in a pointed but cathartic way. In addition to riffing on romancing black women and dodging creditors, all four spoof the differences between blacks and whites (it's interesting how so many black comics imitate whites with the identical pinched, nasal voice).

Hughley makes the most incisive remarks on race, mentioning the Diallo shooting and later saying that, for black people, bungee jumping is too much like lynching. ("They tie a rope around you and throw you off a bridge.") Addressing John Rocker, he says he's offended less by racist remarks than by the insincere apologies that include justifications like "I've had three black people to my house:" "If you know exactly how many black people have been to your house, you're racist as a motherfucker."

Naming yourself "The Entertainer" seems like asking for trouble, but Cedric lives up to his pseudonym. A plump, mellow figure reminiscent of the late, beloved comedian Robin Harris, Cedric is the evening's most confident physical comedian, doing schtick on breakdancers, stylish cigarette smokers and how black people drive: "We'd drive the space shuttle like its a '72 Deuce and a quarter."

The show's final performer, Mac makes an imposing presence, and his routine is less memorable for what he says — topics include oral sex, tough mamas and how to use the work "motherfucker" — as how he says them, with his fiery enunciation and rhythmic cadences suggesting a preacher wont to drop phrases like "badass summa ma bitches." Provocative though he may be, some of his remarks, like about his willingness to wallop (not his word) obnoxious children, can be more uncomfortable than amusing.

The oldest of the comedians at 43, Harvey comes across as the one most outspoken to and about the black community. He offers a hilarious riff about attending church with senile Sister Odette, whose devotionals mix Gospel hymns with TV theme songs. When Harvey disdains rap music in favor of "old school" love songs, lip synching along to tunes by the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire, he puts punchlines aside in favor of sermonizing and advocating the pursuit of true love.

Directing the show, Lee leaves behind the quirky filters and tracking shots of his features and keeps obtrusive flourishes to a minimum. The Original Kings of Comedy is most effective at keeping up with the crowd's reactions and indicating the give-and-take between performer and spectator. Kings features a few interesting off-stage moments, like a hotel room poker game and Cedric warming up with a Gregorian chant, but such "documentary" moments are few. At a full two hours, the film could be a bit shorter, with some of the comic's material overlapping.

Free screenings might not be entirely representative of a film's prospects, but it's worth noting that Kings had the most responsive movie audience I've seen in years. People were bellowing with laughter, stomping their feet, even repeatedly rising out of their seats with amusement and recognition They not only clapped when the comics finished, but clapped at some of the introductions. The Original Kings of Comedy may well extend the borders of the already thriving kingdom of African-American film comedy.