[18 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Just like other fine arts - of conversation, of letter writing, of human compassion - debate has been downplayed and demonized by modern society. We don’t like dissent. Instead, we enforce compromise, or even worse, claim that disagreement is something unfair or “Un-American”. Even our political candidates shun the once important intellectual exercise, instead opting for prepared questions and talking point laden speech/statements. Television, the great wasteland of McLuhan fame, has become the last bastion of anything remotely resembling discourse, and even then, it’s usually reduced to punditry vs. perturbing on the idea scale. Lewis Black’s newest TV venue, Comedy Central’s Root of All Evil, wants to advance the cause of discourse, and within its limited purview, it definitely does.
Using a mock trial format, Black introduces two famed ‘advocates’ (read: noted comics from the world of stand-up) who argue over which is worse - Oprah or the Catholic Church, Beer or Weed, for example. Like extended onstage riffs, the talent takes their position, and using quips, jabs, and other humor-based briefs, they try to convince the judge (the host) and the jury (a studio audience) of their position. Black asks questions to trip up the speakers, and something called “The Ripple of Evil” is also discussed. The attending crowd is asked to vote, Black reads their opinion, renders his verdict, and sentences the loser. Among the already mentioned conflicts featured on this Season 1 DVD (from Paramount Home Video) are YouTube vs. Porn, Donald Trump vs. Viagra, Las Vegas vs. The Human Body, Kim Jong-IL vs. Tila Tequila, American Idol vs. High School, and Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney.
For a long time now, Comedy Central has tried to come up with a successful comedian clash format. The most interesting was Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, a proposed companion piece of sorts to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. During its run, four stand-ups would battle it out over current issues of the day. Quite contentious - and entertaining - the show didn’t last long, mostly because of problems with production and topicality. Now we get Root of All Evil, and in some ways, it’s even less successful. Not that the show isn’t funny, engaging, irreverent, or controversial. In fact, it’s one of the best examples of the format. But with the focus on popular culture, and some clear interference from the network, Black and company are missing a golden opportunity to become the McLaughlin Group of mirth.
Frankly, for all his current stature, Black should be bigger. Outside of his Comedy Central co-star Stewart, and his slightly less exacerbated twin Bill Maher (whose Real Time has a hand in Evil‘s production) he’s one of the rare voices on the meaningful issues of the world. He’s like Mort Sahl stricken with Tourettes, a clever political satirist who never seems to get the respect he deserves. Granted, his attacks sound more like rants than reasoned arguments, but when you cut out all the curse words and sideways references, he’s right on target. If anything, Root of All Evil gives him a half hour platform to magnify his popularity. But when the company paying your bills nixes certain ideas (Comedy Central rejected a first season showdown between Scientology vs. Disney), your ability for an individual showcase is limited.
Still, the show is very good at taking down its intended marks. Highlights include Patton Oswalt’s flawless deconstruction of Dick Cheney (“He’s the leader of the free world, and the world has never been less free.”), Andy Kindler’s vivisection of American Idol (“calling it a ‘guilty pleasure’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m dead inside…’”) and Oswalt, again, on YouTube (”…and while we were all laughing (at online videos), we invaded Iran!”). Sometimes, the takes are rather obvious (beer = bad judgment) or overdone (“At least when you hang out with cokeheads, they only have one theory…what if we could get some more coke.”). Yet within the context of the show, almost all of it works. And you’ll be surprised at how serious the comedians take their charge.
Indeed, one of the show’s more compelling elements is the adherence to the format and the desire to be persuasive. Sure, this is really nothing more than well-prepared comedy bits strung out over a legal theme, but there are times when you can tell that the performers have forgotten about being funny and are really trying to make a salient point. Black sets the tone, opening the show with a patented screed and statement, and throughout the proceedings he drops in little bilious bon mots. It helps that his first season cast is so capable. Along with Kindler, and Oswalt, Greg Giraldo, Paul F. Thompkins, Andrew Daly (the series’ unsung hero) and Kathleen Madigan manage to make the most of their time. Still, there is an inherent flaw in the overall presentation. Sometimes, a subject is so ripe for ridicule that we, the home audience, can come up with equally clever insights. When the comics don’t completely deliver, Root of All Evil appears to underachieve.
Still, for what it manages to accomplish in the name of entertainment, Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil is an intriguing, often insightful offering. It dares to challenge conventional wisdoms while dragging spurious social topics through the satirically-slung mud. It may not be the best situation to platform the talent involved, and the areas of interest tend to stay within the easily recognizable. Yet with real debate a dead proficiency, and the media’s desire to make everything a clash - of cultures, of concerns, of commerce - there is something quite satisfying about Black and his buddies. While they may not be able to resurrect the artform, they always make us laugh. And in today’s troubled times, that might be what matters most.