This isn't about comedy so much as it is about the power of the almighty black dollar. Oh, sure, they came to laugh. A lot. And the jokes will come, hard and fast, and, in some instances, bluer than blue.
But before you get to laugh, you gotta testify.
Can somebody say amen?
"The Kings of Comedy is put on by four brothers," emcee-comedian Steve Harvey tells the crowd, "the biggest grossing comedy act ever. I came here to tell you my damn self that four black men are the highest grossing comedy act ever. And we'd like to thank all of y'all for buying a ticket. . . . The Kahngs are here tonight. You . . . paid fifty dollars to get in. Goddammit, You better act like it!"
And so they do.
The laughter rolls like a wave, beginning somewhere in the front row, washing over the crowd, over heads rocking back and forth, back and forth, over hair weaves and afros and dreads and Super Fly brims, until it hits the back of the arena, where the mirth curls up contented for just a minute before it throws a guffawing echo right back to the front.
Then the pounding bass of the Ghost of the Funkified Past--James Brown--kicks in, chanting promises of the fun to come: "We're gonna have a funky good time! We're gonna have a funky good time!" And well, it's on.
Uh! Good God!
This isn't your daddy's stand-up comic act. Well, maybe it is--if your daddy was Redd Foxx. Part old-school funk concert, part revival meeting, part laugh-a-thon, the Kings of Comedy, comprised of Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac, has, in its two years of existence, grossed $37 million, without the benefit of advertising beyond a basic radio announcement--and without the benefit of attention from the mainstream media.
The comics' names may not have registered on your radar, but that hasn't stopped them from selling out Madison Square Garden. And MCI Center. They even sold out the United Center in Chicago, a feat the Bulls haven't been able to do since Michael Jordan retired. (They return to MCI tomorrow for their fourth D.C. engagement this year.)
This is humor that is, to borrow the phrase of a hip-hop clothing line, "for us, by us." Unapologetically black humor that's been sealed with a warm, chocolate kiss. This isn't about being ticked off at the world; there are no angry comics working themselves into fits of rage a la Lenny Bruce. Nor is it about cynicism, with sarcastic comics mimicking the bemused detachment of a Jerry Seinfeld. Rather, the Kings' humor is communal, bursting with jokes that resonate with the experience of being African and American in a society that treats that duality none too kindly. It's humor that doesn't carry a grudge, even though it is hip to the realities of race in America.
Witness Cedric the Entertainer, at a recent MCI concert: "It's almost Halloween. I'ma dress up like Johnnie Cochran, go down to the courthouse, and start scaring people."
In the audience, you'll find folks who are pulling in six figures; others who are pulling in $6 an hour. It doesn't matter. People are all connected here. This is humor for the folks who work at the public works department, deliver your mail, cash your check, take your driver's license picture at the DMV. Ordinary folks who raise families, go to church and get up every day and go to work because that is what you do. Ordinary folks who work long hours making the world run. Folks who turn on the TV and are bombarded with images that all too often insist that to be black is to be a pathology. To be black means that you don't matter.
But the Kings tell them that they do matter. Because they, too, came from that place. Of course, that was before they started starring in their own sitcoms, like the "Steve Harvey Show" and "The Hughleys" and in movies like "How to Be a Player" and "The Players' Club." Before they each started raking in $2 million-$3 million from their 40 weekend stints this year.
"When you meet these athletes and celebrities," Harvey says, taking a break from the jokes to deliver a sermon, "don't walk up to them like they're God Almighty. We the same. The only thing different between you and me is my [butt] is on TV and yours ain't. Don't judge me from the heights which I've achieved. . . . You gotta remember where you come from.
"If you got a raggedy car, you gotta hang in there. The new car is coming."
In the Kings' world, the universe is an abundant place. They've got theirs, and they'd like to see you get yours, too. After, that is, you cough up that $50 to see them do their thing.
"I just love them, especially Steve Harvey," says Trudy Boyd, a 60-year-old executive assistant from Prince George's County. "Their dress code I love. It's not the rap code at all. They're fashionable. I'm from the old school, like they're from the old school. They curse a lot, and audiences these days love cursing. But that's okay. I think they're great."
You've got four cats who are at their peak right now. Magic happens. This is the closest we've come to the Rat Pack. I'm having a ball.
If you want to be a King, you've got to be clean. This means sporting a suit and tie. If the suit is double-breasted, pinstriped and designed by an African American, so much the better. The lines of your "fade" have to be razor sharp, so this usually means traveling with your own personal barber. (Sometimes the barbers do double duty, as in, barber-business manager, or barber-wardrobe assistant, or barber-bodyguard.) Once your do is straight, you don a pair of diamond-stud earrings, studs big enough to bounce glitter off klieg lights. The fedora is optional, but the gold wedding band, also embedded with chunks of ice, is de rigueur. All the Kings are married.
Of course, coming correct in a limo is important, too. Peek backstage at the United Center one evening last month, and you see four black stretch limos lined up in a row.
You'd also see a battalion of barrel-chested brothers, similarly decked out in double-breasted pinstripes, looking remarkably serious considering the high jinks happening onstage. Their function isn't quite clear. Nor is the role of the carefully coiffed sisters who perch on the leather couches, watching the evening's activities on TV monitors while black-clad crew dudes rush around looking official.
Tour director Chet Brewster sits in front of a panel of electronic gizmos, studying the multiple TV screens before him, screens that play scenes from both onstage and in the audience. As Brewster watches the images, he whispers orders into his headset, and a selection of those images is projected onto the arena's Jumbotron screen for all to see. He also plays deejay, punching buttons and keys that release riffs of old-school hits culled from his arsenal of 150 CDs: The Ohio Players. Earth, Wind & Fire. Marvin Gaye. If the camera homes in on a comely sister in the crowd, Brewster tosses out the Commodores' "Brick House." The sartorially challenged brother with the white fedora and the Day-Glo hat band is treated to Curtis Mayfield's "Super Fly."
Every now and then, Brewster leans back in his chair, all belly and brawn, hands cradling his head, and laughs out loud.
"I feel like I'm the fifth King, the fifth Beatle," Brewster boasts, "I'm the man behind the curtain.
"Who needs drugs? I've got a tour."
Eight white people in the audience. Now y'all know how we feel in the workplace. Y'all feel surrounded, don't you? Welcome, white people!--warm-up act/would-be King Damon Williams
For Laurie McCafrey, a 37-year-old Chicagoan, the evening was as a surprise, a gift. One of those hurry-up-and-come-with-me-but-don't-ask-any-questions deals. McCafrey likes surprises.
She just wasn't expecting to be this surprised.
McCafrey's white; her date's black. And until this night, she'd never ever heard of the Kings of Comedy.
"I feel like a [expletive] Oreo," McCafrey said, giggling. "I had no idea it was all black. When I walked in, I said, 'They're gonna rip me in half.' "
But it's cool. She can hang. Even if being white and sitting in the front row pretty much guarantees that you're the evening's designated punch line.
None of these guys are really on anyone's radar in the mainstream by themselves. They're not mega-stars in the urban community. They're popular. But together, it's a monster.--Kings of Comedy promoter Walter Latham
There are four Kings because Walter Latham, a 28-year-old comedy promoter from Brooklyn and South Carolina decided they were Kings. Last year, there were three Kings: Cedric, Harvey and Mac. This year, Hughley joined the crew.
For the past five years or so, Latham has been promoting the cream of the black comic crop: Chris Tucker. Chris Rock. Cedric. He started thinking about putting them all together, and dollar signs started dancing in his head.
"People were like, 'No, man, you're crazy. That's never going to work,' " says Latham. "But I knew audiences wanted something different. People don't get to have an outlet for entertainment. It's an old-school, working-class crowd. They love to have a good time. But they don't have a lot of options."
Sure, it bothers Latham that the local newspapers have all but ignored the show when it comes to their towns.
"If Jerry Seinfeld comes out, he's in every magazine and newspaper," he says. "But his numbers weren't that impressive. The mainstream still doesn't know who we are. Until we reach out, we'll be ignored. We're 12 percent of the population. Maybe we're not that important. But it really shouldn't matter. As long as your people like you and they're coming back again and again, you're cool."
They're coming back again and again. Once the Kings started hitting the road in '98, they were selling out arena-size venues and returning for encore engagements. With success came corporate sponsors, namely HBO and Crown Royal. And with corporate sponsors came controversy.
Harvey, who doesn't drink, claims that he didn't know Crown Royal would be a sponsor until after he signed this year's contract.
Says Harvey: "I'm ashamed, more than anything. I don't condone the use of alcohol. I thought about pulling out, but we're legally bound."
Latham, not surprisingly, sees things a little differently. Harvey, he says, knew what the deal was when he signed the contract.
Onstage, Bernie Mac is bug-eyed, raspy-voiced and apoplectic. He's fond of the N-word, and the B-word and can spit out a breathtaking monologue on the multiple uses of the MF-word. He always gets a standing ovation.
But offstage, he is surprisingly quiet, a churchgoing Chicagoan frequently given to invoking the J-word.
"The two sides of Bernie, that's a quiet weapon I have," Mac says, leaning in real close to make sure that you get his point. "I don't say things for ink. People say, 'Bernie hard, he tell it like it is, he curse.' They like for me to tell it. If I came out doing Bill Cosby or Billy Crystal, they'd have a fit."
The onstage persona is a hybrid of his uncle and his cousin, cutups who kept everyone in stitches at those South Side Sunday dinners. Once, he got onstage and tried to just be his own serious self. He bombed. One fan waited for him backstage, eyes welling with tears, to tell him that he'd lost his touch.
Mac got the message.
"One thing I do understand is, this is an act. I'm acting. When I get off-stage, I'm done. That man is dead. When you get off-stage, that's the footprint. That's the man God's gonna judge."
In the world of the Kings, the sacred and the profane can exist hand in hand and nobody calls you a hypocrite. Because, basically, everybody knows that Billie Holiday was onto something when she sang, "If I go to Church on Sunday/ and cabaret all day Monday/ 'tain't nobody's business if I do."
And so, there are certain recurring themes: Family jokes. Church jokes. The follies of white folks vs. the follies of black folks. Bad kids. Farts. Whuppings. A crackhead cousin named Junebug that nobody, but nobody, trusts farther than they can toss him. Bad kids today. Major whuppings. That damn rap music.
Says Harvey of the Gen-X hip-hoppers: "I don't know what y'all are gonna do when you get old. Y'all better hurry up and write some love songs."
Even Kings get tired. After all, they all work day jobs. And pulling in the night shift on the weekend gets old.
It's heading up toward the end of the tour, and they're ready for it to be over. In Chicago, they slump in their separate dressing rooms, the air heavy and still with fatigue.
In Cedric's room, a rerun of "The Jeffersons" blares unnoticed on the TV. He sits back, doing the obligatory round of chit-chat with the corporate sponsors who file through. Outside, cameras flash as fans push through the hallways, past the security guards, demanding pictures and autographs.
Eriq LaSalle, in town to tape another episode of "ER," makes small talk with Harvey about grueling TV tapings and the bliss of hiatuses.
"You really brought it home man," LaSalle tells him. "You really brought it home."
Harvey smiles, and then pulls himself out of his chair and back into the crush of fans outside, his bodyguard and barber-business manager following close behind.
This is the part he likes least of all. He's done his show. You've paid to see him. End of transaction.
"I've got to cut something out for me," he says.
But he stops. Drapes his arms around a fan. Smiles for the pictures. Signs some programs.
"They came to see the Kings," Harvey says, popping Starbucks coffee mints into his mouth. "And the Kings set the tone."