I'm sure I'll hear from plenty of folks who beg to differ, but for my money, Lewis Black is one of the finest stand-up comics working today--frequently as laugh-out-loud funny and insightful as Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, and Eugene Mirman. His topical, angry-man schtick (a potent mix of Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and a mostly-verbose mental patient) has found a forum on HBO and Comedy Central specials, several terrific albums, two books, supporting roles in films, and a regular (and uproarious) commentary segment ("Back in Black") on The Daily Show. So when Comedy Central announced that Black was getting a show of his own, this fan was thrilled. Imagine my disappointment when Lewis Black's Root of All Evil was the result.
The premise is this: Each week, Black serves as the judge in his "kangaroo court", where a pair of comedians take on the roles of opposing attorneys in the battle over which of two chosen causes célèbres are, in fact, "the root of all evil." The topics here aren't exactly high-minded (Weed vs. Beer, YouTube vs. Porn, etc.), but there is potential for laughs, especially when he has a particularly funny guest comic like Andy Kindler or the aforementioned Oswalt.
But the show has two major problems. First is the format; in a nutshell, the show is too tightly produced and doesn't give Black enough opportunities to do what he does best. His name is in the title and the show is ostensibly his vehicle, but Black is basically reduced to acting as an emcee. He provides a brief introduction to set up the two sides, often with the help of a taped package with voice-over. He then introduces his guest comics, who each give an "opening statement" (essentially a monologue about their topic). Next, each comic presents their case in greater detail (with occasional, and often obviously and poorly scripted, interruptions by their opponent), sometimes using visual aids and taped "evidence". After that, we have Black's "inquisition," in which he cross-examines the comic/counselors. Then the comics offer another monologue, the "ripple of evil," explaining the consequences of letting their topic go unchecked. Finally, each comic gives a brief "closing statement," and Black renders his "final verdict," explaining why he's chosen one of these evils over the other.
If it sounds mighty busy, that's because it is. Beyond its under-use of the host, the show's tight format is too rigid and the result feels altogether over-cooked. Each episode has so many segments to cram in, and the performers are under such pressure to stick to the topic and adhere to the format, that the result feels stifled and strangulated. Spontaneity isn't a requirement for good comedy, of course, but it shouldn't be as alien a concept as it is here. One gets the feeling, while watching Root of All Evil, that some very funny people are being straight-jacketed by an overambitious producer.
That might all be moot if it weren't for the show's second big problem. To put it bluntly: It ain't that funny. I'm not sure how much of the material is written by the show's credited writers and how much is contributed by Black and his guests, but no show with this many funny people should have so few laughs. Why bother getting Lewis Black to front your show if you're not going to give him anything funny to say? It boggles the mind (not that you can tell from the audience's reactions, which seem not only out of sync with the quality of the material, but with the shots where the audience itself is seen--this reviewer suspects some laugh and applause sweetening in post).
With that said, you may find the show funnier than I did; you might also find, as I did, that individual episodes may be influenced by the amount of goodwill you already have for the guest comics. I've admired Oswalt and Andy Kindler for years, for example, so their episodes were of greater interest to me; you might have a soft spot for Greg Giraldo or Paul F. Tompkins, and may adjust your opinion accordingly.
The DVD features the show's complete first season (though, strangely, that isn't indicated anywhere on the discs or packaging, which seems to treat the show as a stand-alone entity even though its second season is currently on the air), comprised of eight episodes split over two discs. Disc one features "Oprah vs. the Catholic Church" (featuring Giraldo and Tompkins), "Donald Trump vs. Viagra" (featuring Giraldo and Kindler), "Weed vs. Beer" (with Andrew Daly and Tompkins), and "YouTube vs. Porn" (Giraldo and Oswalt). Disc two includes "Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney" (Giraldo and Oswalt again), "American Idol vs. High School" (Kindler and Oswalt), "Kim Jong Il vs. Tila Tequila" (Giraldo and Kathleen Madigan), and "Las Vegas vs. The Human Body" (Andy Daly and Oswalt). Much is made on the packaging of the fact that these shows are presented "uncensored", but that doesn't seem to make much difference; there weren't an abundance of profanities in these shows to begin with (and the "uncensored" memo doesn't appear to have made its way to those who prepared the bonus features).
The video presentation is nothing to write home about, nor is it expected to be. The show is shot in full-frame standard-definition video, so the image is fairly crisp and detailed, though the abundant blacks on the set (and in Black's suits) get a little blocky on high-def monitors.
As with the video, the audio quality is decent and not exceptional, meeting expectations for a talky cable comedy show. The 2.0 stereo mix keeps the dialogue clear and blasts the frequent music beds with vigor.
Comedy Central offers up a pretty solid platter of extras for this release (mostly ported over from the show's website), all of them on the first disc. First up, we have the "Post-Show Interviews", separated by episode (without a "play all" option). These interviews are considerably looser than the show proper, and sometimes contain more laughs than the episode connected to it. "Your Day in Court" is a brief promotional piece in the style of the old educational shorts, in which Black offers advice about the legal system. The retro device works, and there are some real laughs to be found in this three-minute promo. Next is "Meet Judge Black," a very short profile of the show's star; it's more of an extended (and laugh-free) commercial than an honest-to-goodness bonus feature. The same could be said of "Meet the Lawyers," in which Black is interviewed (briefly) about each of the show's guest comics; his comments seem genuine and complimentary. Finally, we have an item called "PoliBites", a show promo in which Black goes off on a quick rant about lying politicians. It's a nice added treat for Black fans.
The disc also includes a few previews for other Comedy Central releases, and a batch of four "Comedy Central Quickies," featuring short clips from Reno 911!, South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.
Though some of the extras add some valuable laughs to the overall experience, Lewis Black's Root of All Evil remains a disappointment. The series is so heavily over-produced that the host and comedians involved (many of them very talented) don't have much of an opportunity to strut their stuff, and the poor quality of the writing does no one any favors. Black certainly has the talent and comic agility to front a great show; Root of All Evil just isn't it. Hardcore fans of Black or the guest comics may want to give it a rent--everyone else should Skip It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.