Laughing Matters

The New York Times recently ran a series of articles regarding the often unbridgeable gulf between black and white America, and how, while much progress has been forged — Michael Jackson be damned — it really does matter if you're black or white. Proof of the disparity between black and white America can be found in the respective cultural choices of each "nation." Sure, Eminem might get love from the brothas, and little girls of all hues lovvvve them some *NSync, but icons in black and white households are often not only different but also even foreign to each other.

Case in point: the four comedians featured on The Original Kings of Comedy. Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley are big-name stars in many black households, thanks to years on the black comedy club circuit, stints on TV's "Def Jam Comedy Show" and, in Harvey's case, a prime-time sitcom on the WB (one rarely watched in white homes). Hughley has enjoyed some crossover success via his own show, "The Hughleys" (formerly on ABC, it's been picked up for the upcoming TV season by that bastion of "urban" programming, UPN [or whatever they're calling it this week]). For the most part, though, these comics are just blips on the radar screen in Americus Whitus. Now these funny men are making a bid for the big time, and possibly even a more widespread (race-wise) audience, with a documentary produced by MTV and directed by Spike Lee — and with an accompanying soundtrack album to boot.

Recorded in Charlotte, N.C., in front of a predominately black audience, the routines contained on the album are for the most part tellingly fixated on race. But, unlike such searing observers of that dynamic as Richard Pryor, Chris Rock or even the late Lenny Bruce, most of the jokes and observations the Kings offer provide few real insights into the always provocative subject.

Typical of the jokes — which are, to be sure, often quite funny — is a Hughley routine discussing the differences between whites and blacks (a dominant theme, at least on the CD). Take work. "White folk give two weeks notice," he notes on "I Love My Job" (RealAudio excerpt). "We walk in four hours late. ... 'Fuck each and every one of y'all.' " More pointed is his riff about Jesus ("Jesus Was Black" [RealAudio excerpt]), noting, "His first miracle was turning water into wine; if that ain't black folks' shit, what is?" No doubt the jokes garner laughs, especially some of Harvey's gruff and cranky musings about Elian Gonzalez ("Something Got To Be Wrong in Cuba" [RealAudio excerpt]), but after a while it all starts to wears thin, offering little than the yin-yang of "white folks do this and black folks do that."

This is, of course, primarily a party record, meant to garner yuks and entertain. Yet one can't ignore the implications when MTV embraces any form of black culture, or the notion that bringing black stars to a potentially bigger (and paler) audience is, in and of itself, a political statement. Too bad this particular vehicle for closing the cultural gulf doesn't offer more ideas not only to laugh with, but also to think about.