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.
The anamorphic widescreen image is quite good--it was originally shot in HD, and while the stage design and wardrobe are all shades of black, grey, and dark blue, the image is rich and nicely dimensional, with no noticeable artifacts or the usual blockiness of stand-up specials.
Viewers are offered the choice of 2.0 stereo, 5.1 DTS, and 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes. I went with the DTS track, and was impressed by the immersion of the mix. As should be the norm for stand-up specials, the comic takes up the center channel, while audience laughter and applause are nicely distributed throughout the soundstage--ably replicating the audience experience for the home viewer.
English subtitles are also available.
Only one, but it's a winner: the documentary "Basic Black: The Lewis Black Story" (1:09:11), which goes behind the scenes of the Detroit show and surrounding tour, and uses that as a framework for a biographical portrait (early in the film, he's on his phone with his therapist, asking if it's wrong to be making "a documentary about yourself"). It delves into his childhood, his early performing experiences (including some great old tapes), his time at the Yale Drama School and early stabs at playwriting, as resident playwright and comic for the West Bank Café Downstairs Theatre Bar in New York. He remembers his early days of touring with his current collaborator John Bowman, and we see how they work together now--on the road, prepping for shows, interacting with fans. The film then backs up to the mid-1990s, where he took some peculiar detours (like teaching comedy in Amsterdam) on his way to success, and tracks as he finds his comic voice and eventual fame. It's a well-made doc, nicely intercutting tour footage, performance clips, interviews, and archival tapes.
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.
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.