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Their Kingdom For a Laugh 

*The Original Kings of Comedy (R)
Paramount Pictures

How is it that the highest-grossing comedy tour in history -- $37 million -- passed beneath the radar of mainstream popular culture in the past two years?

Starting in late 1997 in Charlotte, N. C., and culminating there in February of 2000, four black comedians -- Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac -- took arenas by storm, continuing a longstanding tradition of black stand-up extending back to Moms Mabley and up through Chris Rock. Producer Walter Latham wanted the tour preserved on film and, naturally, chose Spike Lee to direct.

The result is nothing short of astonishing -- the best live performance film in memory and one of the most profoundly touching films this year.

Like Richard Pryor's Live on the Sunset Strip, The Original Kings of Comedy captures the lure and power of the stage and the hungry enthusiasm of the audience, proving that the true roots of comedy lie in our shared confoundment, pain and sorrow, and that the ability to draw out laughter is nothing short of a miracle.

Shot on digital video with 10 strategically placed cameras over three days, Kings ventures backstage just enough to give us a peek at the comedians minus their stage personas -- playing cards, passing time and preparing for the show. But the life of the film is exuded onstage and interspersed throughout the audience. Lee captures that give-and-take masterfully, and in a dramatic comic crescendo, shows what it looks like when joy -- pure joy -- spreads throughout a massive, concrete and steel public arena packed with people who are there to have a good time.

Steve Harvey (television's The Steve Harvey Show) is the host, warming up the audience between each of the three other sequential acts while delivering his own hilarious, warm, often moving schtick. "How y'all doin' with y'all country ass?" he taunts the Charlotte audience, then hands them a performer's highest compliment: "I know y'all country. Country-ass people 'preciate shit." The crowd goes wild.

In just one of several moments of brilliance in the film, Harvey leads the audience through a critique of hip-hop ("damn hip-hop don't sing about love no more") and into a Marvin Gaye-infused celebration of the "old school," of love songs. "I don't want to hear no shit about gettin shot in the chest, my T-shirt wet with blood -- I wanna get my shirt wet makin' love!"

Hughley, a quieter, darker comic with piercing wit takes the stage next. His observations on the differences between white folks and black folks are fascinating: White folks go to bed estimating how much sleep they'll get before they have to get up. White folks get anorexia. Black folks quit eating "cause they daddy get laid off." Hughley carefully removes barriers, declaring no topic off limits, exploring with comic zeal topics like marital sex and poverty and debt ("You gonna put something new on my credit report? They ain't no room on my fuckin' credit report; you gonna have to staple it on").

Cedric the Entertainer provides a low-key segue between Hughley and Bernie Mac, the most in-your-face of the comics, with more droll observations on the differences between the races. Considering a street situation where someone pulls a gun, Cedric postulates black people don't get executed in large groups. "We run!" he exclaims, paddling his short legs across the stage with the fluid grace of a cartoon character. "We don't need no runnin' coordinator to get our runnin' organized."

Bernie Mac concludes the evening with his fierce, eye-popping brand of comedy, boldly going where few of us are willing to go in our observations about our own lives. Mac builds a comedy routine around the unlikely subject of taking in and raising the three children of his crack-addicted sister. "Don't get mad at me," he warns the audience. "I'm just saying what you can't say." His stage presence is mesmerizing, gathering power with every round of laughter, pacing, pointing and freezing the audience with his resolute glare and unshakable focus. By the end of his segment, the audience are on their feet, empowered by his courage and candidness.

"It's jokes," Mac reminds them and us. "It's fun. But it's all the truth."

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