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Wednesday, October 1, 2008
  DVD Review: Lewis Black's Root of All Evil

Lewis Black is a comedian I quite enjoy. I’m not the most hardcore standup comedy fan, but he’s one of the few comics with a full album on my iPod. Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Black through his rage-filled “Back in Black” segment on The Daily Show. As I expected, his standup routine is pretty similar: he picks a topic, like Dick Cheney or candy corn or Dr. Phil, and rants and raves until he’s almost literally frothing at the mouth. It’s funny stuff if you’re like me and you’ve realized that the only way to deal with the truly messed up stuff in the world, the stuff that should make you want to punch someone or blow something up or maybe even just push an old lady down the stairs, is to find the humour in it. (For the record, I may feel this way about Dick Cheney and Dr. Phil, but I like candy corn okay.) So when I learned that Black was getting his own show, Root of All Evil, I was intrigued. My initial reaction to the show was not great – I PVR’d the first two episodes, and I don’t think I even got through the second.

So I was actually very interested to revisit the show with the release of the show’s first eight-episode season with the release of this DVD set. Root of All Evil is basically a TV-judge show by way of Comedy Central, with an angry, ranting comic instead of a judge, with two other comedians as the lawyers. But instead of a plaintiff and a defendant (words I learned as a kid from The People’s Court; thank you, Judge Wapner), there are two dueling . . . things (these could be people, places, institutions or even concepts) both worthy of Black’s scorn – being dubbed the Root of All Evil – and each “lawyer” argues one over the other. Examples include Tila Tequila v. Kim Jong Il, YouTube v. Porn and Oprah v. the Catholic Church.

I enjoyed the show a bit more the second time around, so to speak. The first two episodes I saw that didn’t grab me are also the first two episodes, period, and the show does start working out some of the kinks and starts to gel more in the later episodes. But now that I’ve seen the entire first season, I know understand that my initial “underwhelmed” reaction was due to Root of All Evil’s two primary problems, both of which are so ingrained in the concept that the show has to work very hard to overcome them: the fact that the show is really only as good as the two other comics featured, and that Black himself – the ostensible draw of the show – really isn’t given enough to do.

Black starts each show with a quick video-assisted recap of the two dueling “evils,” before allowing the two other comics their “opening statements.” And it’s at this point that, with the exception of the odd aside here and there, Black basically just sits back and lets the others carry most of the show. Which is a bit problematic considering it’s Lewis Black’s name above the title. When one or both of the comics are less than stellar, the show’s 22-minute running time drags until the final segment, in which Black issues his verdict with an often-hilarious mini-rant. But aside from his interactions with the lawyers in the penultimate “inquisiton” phase of the show, that’s about all Black does.

Which brings me to the other issue with Root of All Evil, which is the comics themselves. I’m hardly a Comedy Central junkie (we don’t get the channel in Canada, but much of their content is shown on the Comedy Network up here), but I recognize comedians like Greg Giraldo and Paul F. Tompkins from guests spots in shows and movies and the Comedy Central celebrity roasts. They’re good, solid comics and certainly aren’t unfunny, but viewers (like myself) who tuned in to see Lewis Black do his thing may not be thrilled with Giraldo’s jokes about his Catholic upbringing. The real bright light in the bunch is Patton Oswalt, a fantastically smart and funny comic prone to describing bizarrely elaborate scenes and scenarios in dizzying, hilarious detail, often packed with obscure, and often nerdy, references. (I’m guessing regular readers can see why I enjoy his stuff; he’s like me, but far, far more clever and talented.) Oswalt turns up in several episodes, and his referred to the easy job of arguing that Dick Cheney is worse than Paris Hilton as having “the Glengarry leads” is probably my favourite joke on the whole show. He elevates the show with each appearance, and thankfully he’s in it quite a bit.

All of this probably makes it sound like I liked Root of All Evil less than I did. It’s not a bad show, and the fact that this two-disc set is uncensored is also works in the show’s favour. These comics are pretty foul-mouthed, and the show gains something from not being bleeped every few seconds. It really allows the comics’ personalities to come through even more, and once I got into the groove of the show (read: got used to the fact that Black doesn’t do a whole lot each episode), I found myself enjoying it more than I’d expected to. As Black himself says in the extras, one of the great things about the show is that it uses comedians, who are, as a rule, smart, funny people, but it’s not just a platform for them to go up and do pre-written, road-tested bits, but rather puts them on the spot and forces them to use their wits in a bizarre, curse-filled debate. And the fact that many of these guys (and one gal, the very funny Kathleen Madigan) are veterans of Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts means they spend much of their arguments taking wonderfully mean, personal (and yet clearly good-natured) shots at one another. Root of All Evil isn’t as great as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report (which is certainly not an insult, as both of those shows are legitimately brilliant), but it is a fun, if venomous, bit of comedy television. And really, who doesn’t want to watch two funny comics argue the merits of Weed v. Beer?



There’s a handful of extras on the Root of All Evil DVD, but none run more than a couple of minutes. There’s a brief segment in which Black sort of introduces himself and the show that seems like it was done as a promotional thing before the show’s launch, and ‘Meet the Lawyers’ is a few minutes of Black talking up how brilliant the other comics on the show are. The real meat is the extended post-ruling interviews with the lawyers (another convention lifted from TV-court shows), and many of them are funny. But even here, the show manages to fail somewhat; first, there are clips for each of the eight episodes, but no “Play All” functionality. In 2008, this is inexcusable. I had to watch all of them in three-minute bites that bumped me back to the DVD menu after each one. Also, while the main content of the shows is uncensored, the extended interviews are not, so you’ll hear Black drop an F-bomb on the show, and then have the same clip bleeped in the extras. It’s a weird oversight that I found strangely distracting.

Overall Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil is a decent show that will hopefully continut to improve – I’ve been seeing ads lately promoting the new season, so the show has some more time to grow into itself and its format. If you’re into comedy and a show in which comics argue the merits of American Idol v. High School, Root of All Evil will make you laugh.

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