Judge Daniel MacDonald walked into a bar. Ouch.
The way I see it…
As anyone who has seen the excellent documentary Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian has discovered, creating an effective stand-up comedy routine is not nearly as easy as it looks. Far from simply sitting down with a pen and paper for a few hours, pounding out the night's jokes, often a performance is the result of years of refinement, perfecting the words, the timing, the delivery. Professional comedians refer to huge files of jokes and ideas for jokes that they've collected over the years, each waiting for its moment on stage. It's an art form that requires dedication and the willingness to fail.
Lewis Black's formidable skills are on display here, in a performance captured at Washington D.C.'s Warner Theatre in 2005. One thing that drives me nuts watching stand-up is when a comedian moves from topic to topic with all the grace of an elephant doing interpretive dance—the jokes are funny, but as an audience member you feel like you're teaching your teenage daughter how to drive stick shift. Black (The Aristocrats), it seems to me, has put a great deal of effort into the sequence of his jokes; this is a very polished set, and he eases effortlessly from topic to topic like a man with a purpose. I found myself surprised that he was no longer talking about, say, President Bush, and was now on to Creationists. It's that kind of refinement that makes a routine worth watching multiple times.
The subject of Black's sometimes-venomous ire is often political, often right wing, but he also skewers some liberal and Democratic values while he's at it. Topics range from overreaction to bad language, to differences between God in the Old and New Testament, to hunting (specifically hunting with Dick Cheney), usually with hilarious insights and a highly-caffeinated delivery.
There are a few misfires here, but not many. Black does take his time getting warmed up, doing a bit on how this performance was originally to be given at the Kennedy Center, but they cancelled his show due to the language he used—to me, the joke is only marginally funny, and goes on too long. But about ten minutes into the 75-minute set, I was laughing out loud and trying to anticipate where he would go next.
Picture and sound are fine, nothing spectacular; in the 5.1 Surround mode, the surrounds predictably only engage when the audience is clapping. The DVD has a good number of special features for an HBO Comedy Special, although none of them is particularly memorable:
"Lewis Black Behind the Scenes" is footage of Black doing a sound check and other preparatory work, intercut with interview footage of a woman at the box office. Mildly interesting to see the type of work that goes into a spontaneous-looking show, but one viewing is probably enough.
"Ride the Short Bus with Lewis Black," as one might guess, is a tour of the bus on which the man travels from gig to gig. An episode of Cribs it's not, but learning that Black's driver also drove bus for The Grateful Dead and many other legendary bands is pretty neat. There's a weird, almost apologetic tone, to this segment, though, as Black goes out of his way to point out how the bus' amenities aren't as luxurious as they seem, and how tough life on the road is, etc. Listen man, if you wanna travel on a fancy bus, just do it—you don't have to justify it to us.
Then we get a brief interview with Black talking about growing up in Washington, in the form of "Lewis Black Buck Naked in D.C.," leading up to a description of streaking around the Lincoln Memorial.
The last two bonus features, "Lewis Black Probes Uncle Sam" and "Why Lewis Black Shouldn't Be a Doctor," exhibit the promotional spot shown on HBO for this special, and the making of said spot, respectively. The commercial is a funny, if a little on the nose, depiction of Black as a doctor debating Uncle Sam as he performs a series of medical procedures, the last of which involves his prostate. Really, if I didn't know and like Lewis Black, I doubt this spot would convince me to watch the special, although it's got some entertainment value. The latter featurette is behind-the-scenes filming the spot, basically a gag reel of Black screwing up his lines and cursing.
If you're familiar with Black's other work, especially his rants on The Daily Show, and you like what he has to say, you'll find much to enjoy here. On the other hand, if you find the man to be a left wing, obnoxious, blow-hard, this performance certainly won't change your mind.
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