Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lewis Black Is Funnier Than His New Show; “Human Giant” Is Funnier Than Most

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

What is it with funny performers choosing to star in mediocre programs? Add Lewis Black to this ever-growing list with the appearance of his new Comedy Central show “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil” (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, after “South Park”).

In the past month alone, I have twice lamented in this space the cases of funny people being stuck in series and roles not up to their talents. I wondered why Rashida Jones would follow-up her career-making stint on “The Office” with a second banana (at best) part on the silly “Unhitched.” I also complained that Judy Greer, who has made a career stealing scenes in supporting roles, settled for a one-dimensional character surrounded by an inferior cast when she finally got a lead, starring in the sitcom “Miss Guided.” (As an aside, “Miss Guided” has grown on me, while I’m finding “Unhitched” more an more unwatchable, with its repetitive date-gone-wrong plots and insanely predictable punchless punch lines.)

And now Black, who is sharply funny in his stand-up specials and memorable “Back in Black” segments on “The Daily Show,” has made a questionable choice with “Root of All Evil.” Each episode pits two comics against each other in a mock trial to determine which of two nominees is the titular root of all evil, with Black serving as the judge. The topics range from the controversial (Oprah v. the Catholic church, in the series debut) to the mundane (last week’s showdown between weed and beer). The advocates come from a pool of veteran comedians that includes Andrew Daly, Greg Giraldo, Andy Kindler, Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins. The comics present opening arguments/monologues, followed by a pre-recorded segment (usually interviews or man-on-the-street pieces), an “Inquisition” from Black, and each side’s “Ripple of Evil” (that is, why this bad thing will lead to the end of the world). After closing arguments/monologues, Black renders his decision.

Oddly, the format puts the spotlight on the comics, relegating Black to acting as a traffic cop for the comedians around him (think Colin Quinn on the old Comedy Central comedy “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn”). And hosting does not work to Black’s strengths as a comedian. The guy has made a career based on his stage persona as the rumpled, cranky (angry, really) contrarian who gets agitated and animated about things that piss him off, especially in politics. In “Root of All Evil,” Black gets to be cranky, but too often he is forced to squeeze rushed, well-rehearsed, television-friendly zingers into the super-structured action, rather than letting his angry persona have room to breathe.

I couldn’t help thinking that Black would be funnier than any of his guests at taking one of the positions. If Comedy Central wanted to give its long-time collaborator his own show, maybe the format should have been to have a different comedian debate Black each week, rather than pushing him to the sidelines as the judge. That show, I think, would have made better use of Black’s comic gifts.

Having said all of that, once you get past what “Root of All Evil” could have been, the show does have its charms. Black manages to throw in some good jokes throughout the proceedings. During the beer v. weed debate, he noted: “Weed should be harmless enough, because as pot-heads argue, mother nature put it here. But, mother nature gave us other things that aren't a good idea to smoke, such as oregano, magnesium and puffer fish.” I like the good-natured insults that the advocates throw at each other, like when Kindler referred to Giraldo as the “poor man’s George Lopez” during the debate of Donald Trump vs. Viagra. Some of the segments provide laughs, like when Tompkins interviewed Aimee Mann to prove that songwriters can be creative without getting high. And each episode does find the comics hitting pay dirt on the occasional observation, like when Giraldo, who comes up with many of the best lines on the show, observed: “The Virgin Mary. God impregnated Mary. We have a whole religion based on one woman who really stuck to her story.”

But too often, the monologues descend into lowest-common-denominator clichés. During the beer v. weed debate, Tompkins sadly went the well-traveled route of pointing out that the Grateful Dead’s music was bad and only sounded good to people who were stoned, and Daly offered the dead-on-arrival line: “Hops are what you find in a basketball player’s shoes.”

“Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil” takes a very funny comic and a premise filled with potential, but manages to squander it. I wouldn’t say the show is the root of all evil. It’s funny enough. But you would be better off waiting for Black’s next comedy special.

Or tuning into the MTV sketch comedy program “Human Giant” (Tuesdays at 11 p.m. Eastern), which is currently in its second season. The under-the-radar cast members -- Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer -- perform funny, irreverent sketches. While they push the boundaries of basic cable propriety (the air time is 11 p.m. for good reason), the performers never rely on the raunch at the expense of wit.

More often than not, the sketches strike at the heart of cultural phenomena. I liked Huebel’s character that was so desperate for fame, he made a viral video in which he cuts off his own penis. The whole thing cleverly ends up with Huebel’s character on a talk show, where he shares the bill with Ansari’s funny-face-maker, who secured far more views of his video, and did so without doing harm to his body. I also really liked the parody of the true-crime shows that can be found all over the air, with the actor in a re-enactment of an office shooting spree similarly going postal and shooting people on the set, leading, of course, to the inevitable re-enactment of the re-enactment. The original killer (played by guest Brian Posehn) notes that the “re-enactment had become an enactment.” Posehn isn’t the only veteran to guest on “Human Giant.” This year’s episodes have featured Bill Hader and Andy Samberg of “Saturday Night Live” and Will Arnett.

I especially liked a sketch in which Ansari played a guy in a car wreck who is haunted by the ghost of a gay porn star killed in the accident. The ghost turns Ansari’s daily activities into instances of homosexual sex, leading to an unanticipated “Sixth Sense” twist ending (complete with an M. Night Shyamalan credit). The sketch was a reflection of the show: dirty but smart. It also showcased how “Human Giant” films its sketches like short films, not relying on live-audience performances on more theatrical sets (like “Mad TV” and “Saturday Night Live”).

If you want to let your TiVo keep running after “South Park,” there are worse comedies on the air than “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil.” But you can find even more laughs over on MTV with the out-there antics of the cast of “Human Giant.” Let’s wish Ansari, Huebel and Scheer good luck on choosing their next projects. After the past month of talented performers debuting in inferior shows, history says they’re going to need it.