In the world of comedy serfdom, performers joke their way through the small-club circuit. If they’re lucky, they land a shot on Leno, or, if lightning strikes, a TV series. Here’s how it worked for the Kings of Comedy: Four demi-celebs create a three-hour laugh riot, play to arenas and then coliseums across the country, go on to become the top-grossing comedy tour in history, and then get their show turned into a Spike Lee-directed movie. Which is why it’s time to hail comedy’s new royalty, whose MTV-produced coronation hits theaters Aug. 18.
This foursome — Steve Harvey, Cedric ”The Entertainer,” Bernie Mac, and D.L. Hughley — share their crown with Walter Latham, 29, the promotional Merlin who brought them together. A college dropout who spent his youth playing basketball and listening to Richard Pryor records in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood, Latham borrowed $4,000 from his mother, Rhonda, a single mom and now-retired bank teller, to promote his first rap show in North Carolina in 1992. Today, Latham Entertainment is a budding media enterprise, and the Kings rank just behind Ozzfest on Pollstar’s top concerts list of 1999, having grossed $37 million total. ”For a comedic tour, it’s unbelievable what he did,” says Latham’s mentor, Robin Tate, 46, who promoted Tim Allen in his early days and Jerry Seinfeld on Broadway. ”Usually, when someone gets to a theater, that’s as far as they go — he took it that one step further into arenas.”
Latham, who cut his teeth on the comedy circuit producing shows for Bill Bellamy, Chris Tucker, and Chris Rock, remembers, ”Everyone I knew in the business said it wouldn’t work.” Yet defying the odds, he began filling 11,000-seat arenas almost immediately after forming the Kings in 1997. (Even Seinfeld, who sells out 3,000-seat venues, doesn’t play coliseums.) Among Latham’s ingenious marketing touches: touring midsize — and generally bypassed — cities like Jackson, Miss., promoting the tour on urban radio instead of newspapers, and, most important, creating entertainment for an underserved African-American audience. The result is a huge down-home following — Harvey likes to call it ”country-ass” — who come to the shows to be seen as much as to laugh.
At the Charlotte, N.C., show in February, which was filmed for Lee’s movie, the predominantly female audience members (who often arrive in groups of three or more) were decked out as if on a date, while the men, many wearing three-piece suits, looked like they’d spent the day at the barbershop — all this on top of spending an average of $50 per ticket. Explains Latham, middle-class black adults ”need a reason to go out and have a good time. I fill that void.”
During a typical performance, the crowd constantly shouts out to the comedians, testifying to the gospel hilarity of their jokes. It makes seeing the show from the floor as much fun as from row double Z — but can Lee capture this atmosphere for the multiplex in The Original Kings of Comedy? ”That’s the challenge,” says Lee. ”I feel a responsibility to these four guys; they put their trust in me.” With 12 cameras (two roaming the audience), and Lee’s angular eye, the film distinguishes itself from similar onstage re-creations like Martin Lawrence’s 1994 film, You So Crazy, and Eddie Murphy’s 1987 Raw.