In the opening salvo for Netflix's must-see Def Jam 25, Cedric the Entertainer -- on stage alongside heavyweights Sheryl Underwood, Steve Harvey and Dave Chappelle -- delivers one of the production's many killer lines.
"Some of you millennials might be asking, 'What the hell is Def Comedy Jam,'" he said. "Well, that's why we hate you little motherf---rs. You don't know sh--."
His joke encapsulates HBO's landmark series, which aired from 1992-1997, in a nutshell: no holds barred, outrageous, profanity laden, honest and really, really funny. As Underwood -- whom many might not know has a wonderfully filthy mouth -- said, "Push the envelope? We pushed, licked, stamped and mailed that b--ch."
While Def Comedy Jam was primarily a showcase for young black comedians (or, "the urban audience" as people used to say back in the '90s) Def Jam 25 reveals why it was so much more than that. For fans, it was a sacred experience: a rare place to see young black comics broadcast a never before seen style of riotous, over-the-top, outrageous humor in real time. To the world at large, it was a revelation -- and for many, highly offensive because of its raunchy, often borderline pornographic language. But for the hip-hop generation it spoke to, it was a weekly family reunion.
This may not seem like a big deal to the uninitiated, but by corralling a whole galaxy of alums, Def Jam 25 shows how seismic its impact really was. They were unknowns then, but Chappelle, Underwood, Cedric and Harvey are all now comedic giants -- joining D.L. Hughley, the late Bernie Mac, Chris Tucker, Katt Williams, Mo'Nique, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, first host Martin Lawrence, and many more-- who got their first big break on Def Jam.
No special (or revival, for that matter) could ever do the magic of the original Def Comedy Jam justice, but Netflix's delightful special is a fitting tribute, giving DCJ the reverence it deserves. Taped at a lush dinner/reception at the Beverly Hilton in front of an audience of celebs (P. Diddy), and power players (Netflix boss Ted Sarandos; Power showrunner Courtney Kemp) Def Jam 25 broke the show down into segments highlighting some of the attributes that made DCJ iconic.
There's a look at the inventive swearing, for example, and a riff on the ways DCJ let people sound off on current events of the day long before social media. They're brief, but remarks from alums like Chris Rock are hysterical, showing a deep respect for the institution that had them bringing their A-game to the party. The funniest moment -- when Dave Chappelle and D. L. Hughley go off script, butchering "Lift Every Voice and Sing," while roasting celebs in the audience -- captures the unpredictable, anything-goes spirit that's the essence Def Comedy Jam.
More piercing than the many, many laughs is resounding narrative, repeated over and over by the mega talent: We would not be here if it weren't for Def Comedy Jam. "They wouldn't put us on Tonight Show," Eddie Griffith, who went on to star in Malcolm & Eddie and goofball movies like the Deuce Bigalow films, said at one point in the night. "All of us motherf---ers had been doing [comedy] for five years and nobody would put us on."
It's a sobering, and somewhat sad fact that illuminates DCJ's most incredible feat; creating opportunity for people who'd been rejected by the mainstream. Twenty-five years later, a good deal of those alums are now industry leaders themselves. That's part of the reason that Def Jam 25 is so enjoyable: we get to see them all having the last laugh.