I was momentarily struck by a Steve Harvey monologue featured in Def Comedy Jam Classics, Volume 2. Hosting a 1997 episode from Los Angeles, the comedian caught my attention when he explained that the typically New York-based HBO series had hit the road in an attempt to ease the whole divide between the Red and the Blue.
What's this? I thought to myself. I didn't think pundits had reduced the nation to a red/blue political divide until the 2000 presidential election and all the colorful electorate maps that accompanied it. But wait! The red/blue divide Harvey meant was the even dicier rivalry between street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Def Comedy Jam's excursion to L.A., Harvey continued, was an attempt to reconcile the gangsta rap wars then brewing between the West and East Coasts.
My, how times change.
The divide between Red and Blue might change, but what is considered funny remains fairly consistent. And that's where this DVD package falters. Def Comedy Jam Classics Vols. 1 and 2 are just as hit-or-miss now as was the HBO series during its initial run from 1992 to 1997 (the program has recently returned to the cable network).
Hip-hop recording mogul Russell Simmons started Def Comedy Jam as a way to spotlight African-American comedians who might have otherwise toiled away in obscurity. To be sure, some impressive young performers made their way to the program, a few of whom -- Dave Chappelle, Chris Tucker, D.L. Hughley -- appear on this two-disc set (three if you count the "bonus" DVD).
Nevertheless, truly funny bits are too few and far between to justify the "classics" label that HBO has slapped on this package. The DVD's producers would have been better served to edit together various standup routines from a multitude of shows. Instead, what we do have is of dubious, dated quality, comedians trying to elicit laughs from tired jokes about drive-by shootings, sex and – wait for it -- the differences between whites and blacks. When a comic reverts to jokes about (I kid you not) the way white people walk, you know you're in trouble.
The first two discs feature two episodes apiece, with a fifth episode on the "bonus" DVD. Martin Lawrence (the best host Def Comedy Jam ever had) hosts the episodes on Disc 1, Steve Harvey does the honors for those on Disc 2 and a pre-Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx hosts the episode on the bonus disc.
Episode 1 recorded Aug. 21, 1992
Featured performers: Dave Chappelle, D.L. Hughley, Mystro and Chocolate
Chappelle had yet to find the groove that would make him a star a decade later. Hughley is the most entertaining of the bunch, although the competition is pretty slim. After all, Mystro resorts to "her booty was sooo big" shtick.
Episode 2 recorded July 9, 1993
Featured performers: Chris Tucker, Warren Hutcherson, Sheryl Underwood and Garfield
Hutcherson delivers a clever bit about the travails of picking up women at church, but the knockout punch comes from Underwood's mega-raunchy routine. She boasts that her legs are up in the air so often, her IUD picks up cable channels. Tucker is a disappointment.
Episode 1 recorded Jan. 5, 1996
Featured performers: Rich Vos, Capital J and Arnez J
Vos, who holds the distinction of being the first white comedian to appear on the series, is mildly amusing. Arnez J pulls his pants high up on his chest before taking his pants off. Presumably, that's pretty funny stuff. At least he seems to think so -- judging by his ability to crack himself up.
Episode 2 recorded Jan. 24, 1997
Featured performers James Hannah, Chocolate and Jack Shepherd; "Bowl of Pork," a short film starring Dave Chappelle
Soggy comedy all the way around, with the exception of female comic Chocolate taking a page from the Sheryl Underwood playbook. The Chappelle sketch, in which he plays a black Forrest Gump, is a worthy precursor to his series on Comedy Central.
Episode recorded Jan. 26, 1996
Featured performers: Corey Holcomb, Barbara Carlyle and Affion
Carlyle spins some very old jokes, Holcomb delivers a "my homeboy's home is sooo dirty" routine (you almost expect to hear the audience respond, Johnny Carson-style, "How dirty is it?") and Affion impersonates Beavis and Butthead and Jim Carrey's fire marshal character from In Living Color. Any of this sound dated to you? Foxx's charm doesn't save things.
Each DVD is in its own plastic keepcase. The set is bound by a sturdy cardboard slipcase.
The full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio is watchable, but the earlier episodes seem a little soft and with just a hint of washed-out colors.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is perfunctory. All the standup is easily audible, if not always amusing.
Russell Simmons and co-producer Bob Sumner provide commentary for Volumes 1 and 2. In between long patches of dead air, they sporadically remark on whatever happened to so-and-so. Inane stuff.
A handful of comics deliver the goods here, out of an estimated 150 minutes of airtime – not a terrific ratio, to say the least. Only hardcore fans of Def Comedy Jam will appreciate this dreary trip down memory lane.