The Color Of Funny

After the premiere, there is a party. But it's only after the party that anybody really parties. Welcome to the after-after party. It's a Monday night in Los Angeles--actually, it must be Tuesday morning by now--and Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Prince, Arsenio Hall and an army of Cristal bottles are holed up in an extravagant hotel suite high above Universal Studios. They're celebrating the premiere of "The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." More than that, though, they're celebrating an electric moment for black comics in general. It's been an uneven summer for Hollywood at large--seen anything great lately?--but black comedians have been triumphing at the box office right and left. Martin Lawrence kick-started the summer with "Big Momma's House" (which has since made $120 million). Wayans delivered "Scary Movie" (now up to $130 million). And Murphy's own "Nutty II" recently had a $42.7 million opening weekend, a personal best for the actor. At the after-after party, the old friends laugh, reminisce, brag and joke about being "the flavor of the month" until the small hours. At 5 a.m. Murphy kicks everybody out of the suite, proclaiming, "I'm the funniest man alive!"

Not so fast, Eddie. Next week, Spike Lee releases a stylish, exuberant and hilarious concert movie called "The Original Kings of Comedy." The film captures last year's "Kings of Comedy" tour, a little-heralded but enormously successful stand-up festival that brought in $37 million nationwide. Comics D. L. Hughley, Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer take turns at the mike, flashing back to the days when Al Green was king of the airwaves, when Vaseline was a lotion and a shoe polish and Joy dishwashing liquid moonlighted as bubble bath. "Kings," partially financed by MTV, isn't meant to be a blockbuster on the order of "Nutty II" or "Scary." But it's so rich with laughs that it should play to audiences of all races. "I went to 'Kings of Comedy' concerts, and saw people falling out in the aisles," says MTV's David Gale. "I think we've evolved as country to the point that white America wants to see a Martin Lawrence or an Eddie Murphy just as much as they want to see a Jim Carrey or an Adam Sandler."

The truth is that America evolved to that point decades ago, thanks to Richard Pryor, among others. "Mainstream America has always enjoyed us singing, dancing and making them laugh," says Lee. "That's their comfort level. It's one kind of black movie that's getting made and being successful. It's one world that's getting attention." Black dramas, on the other hand, have had a notoriously rocky track record. In the early '70s films like "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Claudine" snagged Oscar nominations for Diana Ross and Diahann Carroll--and changed nothing at the studios. "Hollywood didn't care," says film historian Donald Bogle, "and let's note that it took Berry Gordy, a black man, to get them made in the first place. Even if black comedies are doing well, it doesn't mean that Hollywood will explore this further. They take the dollar and keep moving."

It goes without saying that Lee follows his own agenda, not Hollywood's. He has consistently made dramas, and almost always paid the price at the box office. The director says he was drawn to the "Kings of Comedy" tour not only because of the comics but because of the crowd. "This was a cultural event, pure and simple," he says. "The people who came out for this saved their money, bought new outfits and really got worked up. Mainstream America didn't even really know about it, and it was the most successful comedy tour ever." Lee captures not only the fine stand-up performances but the prepping backstage--Bernie Mac and his wife praying, Cedric obsessively choosing a suit and matching hat--and the anticipation rippling through the crowd. He pans an audience that's full of black faces with perfectly combed hair, freshly painted nails and colorfully matched outfits, while tunes by Marvin Gaye and Bobby Womack float in the background. It's a funny movie but, cooler still, it's a night on the town. Harvey and Hughley et al aren't name-brand comedians but, thanks to TV, they've begun crossing over. "Funny is funny," says Harvey, whose WB show bears his name. "I see people in the airport--black and white--who come up and love my show. The network says the ratings are good. None of the black people I know have them Nielsen boxes in their houses, so a whole lot of white people have to be watching me."

"Kings" opens next week, but Lee has already left comedy behind. (His next drama, "Bamboozled," stars Damon Wayans as a TV writer who's so furious with his racist network that he creates a black minstrel show--then watches it become a smash.) The 2000 comedy wave, however, will roll on without Lee. By year-end, every major black comedian will have released a movie, including Chris Rock, who delivers a "Heaven Can Wait" remake in December. And there's more to come. Keenen Ivory Wayans has yet to pick a project from the many offers suddenly on his table, but Murphy is readying "Dr. Doolittle 2" for 2001 and Lawrence just signed a $16 million deal for "Black Knight."

Like film historian Bogle, not all black stars and filmmakers are convinced the bonanza is going to last. Murphy and Wayans have long known what it feels like to be on top--they were buddies back in the mid-'80s when the "black pack" reigned supreme--as well as what it feels like to tumble. Both declined to be interviewed for this article. But Paul Mooney, who was Richard Pryor's chief joke writer for 20 years, was at the "Nutty II" after-after party and sensed a coolheaded pragmatism in the air. "None of us are really excited about this so-called wave--not even Keenan and Eddie," he says. "That's what we were talking about at the party--being in for the moment, because it will be over like that. The money made off these black films will probably finance a bunch of bad white movies next year." Here's to the moment. When the after-after party's over, there's only the morning after.