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May 2, 2006

At the peak of his career, Lewis Black takes his comedy one step further

Among the plethora ranting stand-up comedians, no one has refined the rant into a unique style quite like Lewis Black. With elastic facial expressions, flailing arms, and a voice that can switch among surprise, rage and matter-of-factness in mid-sentence, Lewis Black could have been a successful standup even without witty political humor. But his rants, as visceral and cantankerous as they are, express a refined frustration with political absurdity that rings true to many Americans young and old. It’s his combination of style and content that has made him one of the most memorable standup comedians of the decade.

Lewis Black’s fame landed him in Carnegie Hall last September, and throughout the recording, produced by Comedy Central records, Black is not afraid to hide how excited he is for the opportunity. He even devotes a track to a rant on how a week after appearing in Comedy Hall, he has to perform in Ft. Lauderdale.

Black has changed since storming the comedy world as a raging commentary on the Daily Show in 1999. From the very onset of his Carnegie Hall appearance, the wear of his constant ranting and raving is apparent. He seems older, more tired, and his frustration, while still manifesting into an over-the-top expression, takes a lot more out of him than it did a few years ago.

Black’s weariness is not only apparent in his style, but also in his material. Instead of searching for a creative outtake on the bizarre state of American politics, Black has turned more to narrative than to observations. One routine involves his experience with a Zippo lighter at airport security; another routine involves his experience at the Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner.

While Black does the best he can with these stories, they lack a certain punch that made his earlier specials so great. He has turned to a more belligerent approach from his earlier innovative writing. This does not mean that Black has, like many elderly comedians, become a caricature of himself; his opinions are insightful and entertaining as they have always been, but they lack quick surprises and jerky changes of direction that few have done better than Black in recent years.

While the lack of an energetic expression makes this problem more apparent, in all honesty The Carnegie Hall Performance is not the perfect medium for Lewis Black. A recorded album is a somewhat lacking forum for any comedian, but particularly for Black, who bases a lot of his laughs on distortions of his face and convulsions of his body. Often Black gets more laughs than what seem necessary for the joke. The listener is left to conclude that Black’s physical expression added something to the joke that the listener was unable to see.

Furthermore, The Carnegie Hall Performance is a double-album that lasts well over an hour. Black’s legend has been made on short appearances on The Daily Show and twenty-minute Comedy Central specials. In those frameworks, he has more room to deliver his trademark stinging blows without overloading the audience. In a longer performance, as hinted at in his HBO special Black on Broadway, he runs into troubles when his jabs at society seem less innovative forty minutes into a routine. Black has learned to use longer narratives with carefully placed yelps to make better use of his time, and, while the routine may not be the same chest-clenching remarks that made Black famous, it ultimately makes his comedy a little more satisfying.

Lewis Black spent decades devoted to the theater, and while he has made himself famous for a very specific style of comedy, the depth of his storytelling abilities and natural theatrical presence have been largely ignored in his rise to fame. In The Carnegie Hall Performance, by far the largest venue he has ever played, Black returned more to a theatrically oriented style that still holds his renowned disgust for political incompetence. The resulting product, while perhaps a regression in terms of standup, is a vast improvement in his stage personality.

At 57 years old, Lewis Black has exhausted his capabilities to be a loud, screaming man—even his Daily Show appearances have become more subdued as of late. When taking on FEMA, Paul Wolfowitz and Rick Santorum, Black sounds less like a raving madman and more of a concerned citizen pissed off at the irrational, misguided political situation of the US. While Black has always been frustrated by people in power, he’s doing a better job channeling that frustration than ever before.