Mad for 'Stark Raving'

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Comic Lewis Black, famed for his volcanic rants, is simmering about having hit 60. In his new comedy-concert film, "Stark Raving Black" (showing Thursday night at E Street Cinema), the Silver Spring native recalls growing up amid chatter about the newly deceased. "What he'd die of?" would come the question. The sufficient reply: "Sixty."

Fortunately for Black's fans, though, at 61 the spleen-venting comedian is only getting bitter -- that is to say, better -- with age. Watching "Stark," you're reminded that Black -- despite his signature image as an edge-of-sanity observational madman -- is no mere three-chord Howard Beale.

Sure, on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," his furnace-blast "Back in Black" segments are high-octane fury. Yet settling into this 80-minute film -- perhaps his most artful recorded performance since 2004's "Black on Broadway" -- you witness a comedy of expert modulations, subtle time-signature changes and just-right rhythms. To tune in only to the distemper, one misses the very music.

Black the Yale drama alumnus is a life-student of sound, and here, Lewis the Vesuvius of Indignation gives a master class in how to deliver flowing fury. The effect is consistently uproarious, with three bits in particular pinging the funny bone.

Early on, Black recounts performing at a celebrity fundraiser -- at which he has to follow not only the honey-toned country-music deity Vince Gill, but also Gill's ethereal queen of musical Christendom, Amy Grant, who Black says is so perfect in person, "she is made entirely of cream."

The tale unspools expertly, as Black bemoans the illogic of having such figures of goyishe love precede such a cranky and self-loathing "miserable Jew." Black says he turned to fellow comic Kathleen Madigan, who got him the gig, and quipped: Look at your watch. This is the precise moment we are no longer friends.

Toward the end of the film's concert -- taped in early August in Detroit -- Black delivers another brilliant bit: a soliloquy on the wonders of the iPhone. The riff is sure to be an eventual YouTube favorite, if not a comic call to Steve Jobs: Hire Lewis and let him be your new John Hodgman (the Mac co-pitchman).

The high point, however, comes halfway in, as Black describes sharing cheesy Quonsets-of-coitus in the Poconos (he has a funnier term for the lodging we cannot repeat here) with his then 83-year-old parents. It is the one moment we actually get to see audience members clutching their sides.

If there is one reservation I have with this film, it's that I long to hear more about Black's parents (whom he described in one HBO special as small, matching salt-and-pepper shakers). Jeannette and Sam Black, now in their 90s, are comedy gold. I'd love, in fact, to see an entire documentary-style film about Black and his parents, who with their ready wit easily rival any parents ever depicted on "Seinfeld" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

In the interest of full disclosure, I've seen Black perform five times around Washington -- from the Warner Theatre to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue to even his alma mater, Springbrook High -- and met his parents after two of those shows. Both times, in their quick-witted interactions with Lewis, they "killed." We yearn for the day that Black makes a film that includes the fountainhead and wellspring of all his overflowing humor.

Stark Raving Black (80 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated, but contains adult language. The film is scheduled to debut on the new cable channel Epix on Dec. 5.

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