One of the most controversial TV shows of its time, Def Comedy Jam's most enduring legacy was proving that there's a large, appreciative audience for black comedy that makes no attempt to reach white audiences. In fact, much of the show's success stemmed from its inaccessibility to whites and its refusal to water down its content. In the process, it paved the way for such raunchy shows as BET's Comic View and Spike Lee's The Original Kings Of Comedy, which documents the last night of the comedy tour featuring four enormously popular black comedians: Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Bernie Mac, and Cedric The Entertainer. If the film has an overarching theme, it's the resilience of black culture, the way it retains its unique flavor and spirit in the face of enormous pressure to assimilate. The ideological opposites of Bill Cosby, The Original Kings Of Comedy's stand-ups dwell extensively, almost to the point of distraction, on the cultural differences between blacks and whites. Rather than avoiding stereotypes, they embrace and subvert them, transforming seemingly negative stereotypes into points of pride and symbols of defiance. It's a potent theme; it's just a shame the resulting film isn't a lot funnier. As it is, The Original Kings Of Comedy is consistently funny only when the quick-witted Hughley is onstage, and often tedious when he's not. Harvey, the emcee, scores the most screen time, but his is the weakest of the four acts, full of poorly aged topical humor and an extended bit about his disdain for rap music that would have been dated 10 years ago. Closer Bernie Mac has presence to spare, as witnessed by his second career as a scene-stealing character actor, but his routine is spotty at best, creepy at worst. As a testament to the vitality of—and sense of community engendered by—black comedy, The Original Kings Of Comedy is a success. As a comedy, however, it's sluggishly paced and not nearly funny enough to justify its two-hour running time.
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