Judge Neal Solon is sending this DVD inmate to the Hole.
"You miss it out there, right? Well, they don't miss you."
I should begin by getting my biases out in the open. When it comes to stand-up comedy, I prefer cynical, satirical, and political comedy in the vein of George Carlin and Bill Hicks. Observational humor can be funny, when done right. Hell, I even like slapstick comedy on occasion. But one thing that I don't understand is the sex joke. Shock value stopped being enough to make the run-of-the-mill sex joke funny sometime in my teens. A joke needs something more.
Knowing these things, I sat down to watch Paul Rodriguez: Live in San Quentin hoping to laugh. Looking at the comedian hamming it up on the cover, I wasn't expecting Lenny Bruce or Lewis Black, but I was hoping for more than jokes about sodomy and O.J. Simpson.
The year was 1995, and comedian Paul Rodriguez was getting big enough that HBO offered him an hour long, live television spot to do his stand-up from San Quentin prison in California. The audience was to be the general population of the prison, and HBO viewers across the country. While presented to both of these groups simultaneously, Rodriguez's act is clearly aimed at his in-house, "big house" audience. The bulk of the nearly hour long set is spent exploring self-love and the finer points of "being someone's bitch," whether that someone is your cellmate, your father, or your proctologist.
When Rodriguez does move outside the realm of these off-color jokes, he falls back on topical humor that holds up poorly today with all of its references to the early '90s. Even the casual television viewer can easily date the performances, thanks to the O.J. Simpson jokes and the convicts in the audience doing the Arsenio Hall arm-pumping "woo woo woo" routine. You'd think Rodriguez would have suspected that Newt Gingrich, the Menendez brothers and M.C. Hammer don't make for lasting humor. Surprisingly, Michael Jackson's brief marriage is still amusing, but only in a creepy sort of way, akin to the way we all slow down and crane our necks when we drive by a car accident.
The biggest problem that I have with this feature performance is that I just didn't find it funny. It seems, however, that Rodriguez's prison audience did, and the divide between the convicts' reactions and mine does give some credence to his talent. This was Rodriguez's third performance in San Quentin, and based on the clips in the extra features on this disc, he increasingly molded his act to pander to stereotypical prison humor. The ability to play to an audience is an important skill for a comedian, but there were two audiences here: the prison audience and the television audience. It is a shame that Rodriguez only catered to one of them, because the majority of people who watch this DVD will not have spent time in San Quentin. Though this performance left me cold, I am not ready to give up on Paul Rodriguez comedy entirely; I do hold out hope that this was just his "prison act."
I hold out hope because the extra features on this DVD are funnier and more interesting than the feature presentation. Paul Rodriguez: Behind Bars is the television special that resulted from Rodriguez's second visit to San Quentin, in 1991. In it we see a large part of his standup act, which is funnier than the feature routine, and we see his interest in his fellow humans beings. Much of the 35-minute runtime of this featurette is spent listening to conversations between Rodriguez and inmates. Rodriguez hasn't scripted these conversations, but the featurette quickly becomes an anti-crime, anti-gang piece as the gang leaders, gang members, and drug addicts sound off about the mistakes that they have made. They make it clear that prison is "for real" and not somewhere that you want to end up. Rodriguez asks pointed questions, but he never forces the convicts to give him the answers he wants. The messages are authentic.
The other featurette included here is San Quentin Remembered, which also runs about 35 minutes. It consists of Paul Rodriguez talking to the camera about his multiple experiences at San Quentin, and how they affected his career and his life. It is thoughtful and interesting, and is full of anecdotes that allow Rodriguez's charisma to shine through while adding context for the performances included on the disc.
Clearly, now, the question is whether the extras presented here are enough to make up for the lackluster feature. They surpass the main stand-up act both in length and in merit, and if I were a die-hard Paul Rodriguez fan, they would be the draw. As it stands, however, they are not enough to make me recommend this disc. While everything looks and sounds okay and the extra features are interesting, I didn't pick up this disc to see a pretty picture of how Paul Rodriguez improved the world or his life. I put it in my player expecting to laugh. Unfortunately, an occasional smirk just doesn't cut it.
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