Spike Lee's Kings of Comedy rested on the shoulders of its four well-established comic performers. DL Hughley, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac had already solidified their fan bases (largely African-American) through years on the stand-up circuit, in a few cases graduating into the ranks of comedians with television sitcom deals. Lee's presence behind the lens barely registers in the taping of shows over the course of select appearances during the Southern swing of the Kings of Comedy tour.
In contrast, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show draws directly on the comic actor's ability to emcee a raucous mix of sketches featuring a rotating crew of his Hollywood friends (such as Swingers' Jon Favreau, Dodge Ball wingman Justin Long and Wedding Crashers' crush Keir O'Donnell) and a four-man team of hardworking comedians (Ohio native John Caparulo, Ahmed Ahmed, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Maniscalco) eager to break through. Vaughn's true aim is to provide a showcase for these four guys, close personal friends and hidden gems from the underground.
He has concocted a grueling format. Beginning in Hollywood, the tour travels by bus and headlines 30 shows in 30 nights, stretching across the country. Shot in 2005, the cross-country comedy express ran smack dab into hurricanes Rita and Katrina and led to a few unscheduled appearances and makeshift sets dedicated to entertaining and supporting families displaced by the hurricanes.
Interestingly, though, the far-more compelling storyline becomes the comedians, who we see both onstage, as they adjust to the various audiences they encounter, and off, as they share their experiences and connect along the way with their families, in some cases seeing them perform for the first time.
Caparulo emerges as a real standout — his plain-spoken, somewhat raunchy delivery flows directly from his persona and by extension from his upbringing, as seen in his exchanges with his family during the tour's stopover in Cleveland.
Despite his insecurities about his appearance (he's a short, slightly dumpy white guy in T-shirts and baggy jeans) and his dating travails (no real long-term relationship experience), to see him among his hometown faithful after his set is to witness the triumphant return of a prodigal son.
Each of the others also claims his moment in the spotlight with the same power and persuasiveness. The film lives on and becomes more than a gimmick or a mere collection of stand-up highlights because along the way the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This Wild West trek across the heartland wasn't supposed to be about Vaughn and the celebrities, the harsh realities of life on the road, the four rising stars or the state of comedy. It captures the big tent and everything it contains. Grade: B+
Opens Feb. 8. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.