Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On DVD: "Stark Raving Black"

Early in his concert film Stark Raving Black, Lewis Black makes good sport of people who approach him and ask, “Now that George W. Bush is out of office, what’re you gonna dooooo?” (fans will recognize that high-pitched, sing-songy crescendo at the end of the question, which he frequently uses for comic effect). While granting that W “certainly did make my life easy,” he dismisses the question out of hand. But the fact of the matter is, he’s been a little off the last couple of years; during the Bush administration, Black was (for my money) the most potent political stand-up we had, his frequent albums and stand-up specials providing a keen, intelligent, and uproariously funny commentary on the increasingly ridiculous state of the nation. (Don’t believe me? Track down his 2004 special Black on Broadway or his 2006 show Red, White and Screwed.) But that razor-sharp focus has faded over the last couple of years; there have been distractions (good books and bad TV shows), but even his stand-up, his bread and butter, has been more personal and less political. That’s not to say he stopped being funny; he just loses some of his edge, which is his best comic weapon.

Stark Raving Black, which was shot in Detroit in the fall of 2009 and saw a brief theatrical distribution before airings on Epix and Comedy Central, begins in much the same mold; after briefly touching on things we learned from the Bush years and some general political material (“Our two-party system is a bowl of shit looking in the mirror at itself”), he goes inward, telling a long, funny story about following Vince Gill and Amy Grant at a benefit (he enjoys the dichotomy of the cheerful Christian couple being followed by “the miserable aging Jewish prick”). There’s some funny material about passing the milestone of the 60th birthday, some jabs at Dr. Phil, an enjoyable story or two about his parents.

It’s all good stuff—some comics paint with the “f-word,” and Black is a Picasso with it; he also makes particularly effective use of his jabbing index finger as a comic tool, pointing to his audience and to himself for inspired punctuation. There are plenty of big laughs in the first half of the show, but the timing is a little slow, the overall pace a little sluggish—a feeling that one might attribute to the comic’s advancing age, until he gets to the discussion of the economic collapse halfway through. It’s then that he really hits his stride, and we realize what we’ve been missing in the show so far.

We’re reminded, at that point, that what makes Black such a great (I would say brilliant) social commentator is that it’s not just an act. His material comes from a place of genuine, seething anger—and he lets that rage fuel the comedy. There’s a fire in his delivery, an unhinged fury crossed with an absolute bewilderment that recalls the best of Bill Hicks and late-period George Carlin. It’s there in the way he uses “fuck” as an adjective, spitting out lines like “more drugs than you can ever fuck imagine” in such a way that we feel he’s dropping the “-ing” because it’s slowing him down. It’s there in the skill of his vocal control—the specific moments when he chooses to use soft tones of barely contained impatience (as when he explains capitalism), and when he chooses to escalate that volume to a mad-dog frenzy.

Those bits in the second half, when he rails on the development of American greed, muses on the failure to develop alternative energy in the age of the iPhone (“I’m holding a computer in my hands. This is Star Trek time, fuckers… Don’t tell me we can’t have alternative energy!”), and ridicules the navel-gazing of Twitter (“If you’re describing what you’re doing… then you’re not doing it”) are Black at his absolute best. And, at the film’s close, he not only gets skillfully serious, but punctuates that solemnity effectively and wittily.

As a stand-up set, Stark Raving Black ends stronger than it starts. I admire Black’s desire to try new kinds of material and tap into more personal narratives, but he’s at his best doing what he made his name on: fiercely intelligent, sharply pointed topical comedy.

"Stark Raving Black" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 15th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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