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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Comics’ Royal Gathering

You’ve probably heard of the Original Kings of Comedy,

and the Queens of Comedy, and if you guess they’re related to "The

Royalties of Comedy," a show coming to the Sovereign Bank Arena

Friday, November 15, you guess right.

The show is headlined by D.L. Hughley, part of the ground-breaking

and lucrative Kings of Comedy tour in 1999 and stare of his prime-time

sitcom, "The Hughleys." He shares the throne with comedienne

Sommore, a Trenton native and headliner for the "Queens of Comedy"

tour in 2000, winner of the Richard Pryor Comic of the Year award

in 1995. Also featured is "royal" comic and impressionist

Chris Thomas.

"The Royalties of Comedy" represents the latest installment

in a continuum of African-American comedy that stretches back to the

turn of the last century. It also represents the latest offering from

wunderkind comedy impresario Walter Latham, a 31-year-old former college

basketball star who parlayed a $4,000 loan from his family into a

multi-million-dollar entertainment empire.

Stand-up comedy, which by the early 1990s had become a medium limited

largely to cable television and the few stalwart comedy clubs offering

two or three shows a week, got a huge infusion of interest from tours

such as the Kings and Queens of Comedy. In many ways, "The Royalties,

"as well as the Kings and Queens of Comedy, is an innovative way

of taking an old-style art form and making it connect — and making

it lucrative — in the new millennium.

Using a marketing strategy specific to his constituency — African

Americans with disposable income living in small and medium-sized

cities — Latham’s "Kings of Comedy" tour, which starred

Steve Harvey, Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles, and Bernie Mac,

in addition to Hughley, grossed $37 million in 1999, second among

American concert tours only to Ozzfest. Like true royalty, each of

these "Kings of Comedy" took home more than $50,000 a night

for their work.

The manner in which Latham promoted his first tours — having his

comics appear on black radio, concentrating on cities usually overlooked

by entertainment tours, and moving quickly from town to town —

recalled the old-style "chitlin’ circuit." The term refers

to the Jim Crow era practice of musicians and comics, working itinerantly

in halls big and small — but always to black audiences — building

constituencies almost totally unknown to white audiences.

"You know what chitlins are," Hughley once said. "Someone

would slaughter a pig and say, `Take all this [junk] and make something

out of it.’ And they took what nobody else wanted, and made it a delicacy."

That delicacy could be described as a type of black vaudeville. Today

another type of chitlin’ circuit artistry endures in the popular touring

black melodramas that stop regularly at the Patriots Theater at the

Trenton War Memorial. Even today, these performances are outside the

experience of most white theatergoers.

Now that comedy rules, the Kings all have their own television shows

— Bernie Mac’s being the most popular at the moment. They were

also featured in Spike Lee’s concert film, "The Original Kings

of Comedy," a hit that generated even more revenue after it was

released on video for home viewing.

So the esthetic and ambience of the chitlin’ circuit lives on. If

the ambiance of the "Kings of Comedy" tour is any indication,

you can expect to see a full house at the "Royalties of Comedy"

show at the Sovereign Bank Arena. It will be packed with middle- and

upper-class African Americans, predominantly female, all dressed

to see and be seen, and ready to laugh uproariously at the three featured comics.

All three acts draw heavily on a longstanding African-American comedy

tradition that has influenced such performers as Bill Cosby and Chris

Rock, but also aims at the down-home roots of African Americans.

Despite their television background — Sommore was

host of BET’s "Comic View" for some time — the comics

all have the ability to relate to their audiences on a basic, countrified

level. They don’t shy away from raw, often sexual material — Sommore,

who is flaunting her newly-streamlined figure, often comes off as

an aggressive man-eater — but they’re not nearly as raw as early

Eddie Murphy, any good Richard Pryor or more contemporary hip-hop

influenced comics such as Martin Lawrence.

It is, for sure, pointedly racial humor, and the references are almost

always aimed straight at black people. But white people need not be

worried. (Although some brave late-arriving white folk at a St. Louis

show I attended became material for an extended riff by "Kings

of Comedy" comedian Steve Harvey.)

D.L. Hughley, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, who moved to

the gritty Los Angeles suburb of Compton as a child, was both a creator

and beneficiary of this latest wave of popular comedy.

Hughley worked as a salesman for the Los Angeles Times and moonlighted

at the famous Comedy Act Theater, which was presided over by the late,

great comic Robin Harris. Hughley was one of many comics, including

Keenen and Damon Wayans, Mark Curry, Lawrence, Guy and Joe Torry,

Chris Tucker, and Jamie Foxx, who spent time at the Comedy Act in

the early ’90s. Later, he and others (including Sommore) got breaks

on Russell Simmons’ "Def Comedy Jam" and other HBO productions,

as well as the exploitative but influential BET "Comic View."

Today’s black comedy, Hughley has said, is popular among African Americans

because it draws upon a shared culture. Although blacks in America

may come from different national backgrounds and experiences, everyday

oppression is something they can all relate to. It’s also a truism

that most cultural stereotypes — be they Italian, Irish, or Jewish

— are readily transferred between cultures.

Hughley confirms that all ethnic groups can ultimately relate to each

other’s comedy.

"Every group has its idiosyncrasies, but at a certain point we

all are human," he says. "We all have the same aspirations

and vision: We all want to keep our cable on. We all want our kids

to eat."

The best compliment Hughley has received? "My comedy is very `relatable’

— that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever been told."

— Kevin L. Carter

The Royalties of Comedy, Sovereign Bank Arena, 550

South Broad Street, Trenton, 609-520-8383. $25, $35, $50. Friday,

November 15, 7:30 p.m.


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