Lewis Black's The Prophet is undoubtedly the most unusual project I've reviewed since Comedy Reviews first popped online. Although it is technically a "new release" the material was recorded wayyyyyy back in 1990. Researchers and archivists have delved deep into the annals of comedy and unearthed this treasure trove of never-before-released material from one of the great comedians working today.
This album is a must-have for comedy fans, as it gives us a rare glimpse at Black as a young(er) comic, still working out the kinks and finding his voice. It's an amazing study of stand-up, as we can see what aspects of his comedy he chose to keep and perfect and what he decided to leave behind. If nothing else, this project serves as further proof of Black's ear for comedy and what clicks with the crowd.
As a guy who's spent more than his fair amount of time listening to the director's commentary on more than his fair share of DVDs, one thing I've grown to admire about good directors is their ability to recognize scenes of a film that don't help move the story along and end up on the cutting room floor. A lot of those excised scenes share a common thread: They were really hard to say goodbye to. Often times it's a scene that was one of the director's personal favorite pieces of the movie and they had to come to the sobering realization that, as much as they love it as a stand-alone moment, ultimately it had to go.
Likewise, Black has made similar decisions with his approach to the craft of comedy. I can't speak for him and say it broke his heart to leave certain things behind, many of them bits that garnered respectable laughs, but I certainly commend him for his ability to step back and take a big-picture look at where we was at and assess whether or not it was where he wanted to be.
Which is why this review won't have any real "critiques" to offer. Let's be honest: There really wouldn't be any point to it because Black has already made the necessary alterations to his act that needed to be made in order for him to be the successful and highly-regarded comic he is today. The album serves as one of the best educational resources a new comic could get his hands on.
The CD starts off with a Black I wasn't familiar with and hardly recognized. His delivery was less frazzled and manic and more standard observational comic. At times his timing and inflection reminded me of Paul Reiser (of all people) and it was definitely interesting to hear Black speaking in such a different voice.
As Black covered standard comedy topics like crazy people in New York City, NyQuil, and being unable to smoke on planes, at times it's almost impossible to see Black for the comedian he would ultimately become over time. In fact, early on in his set the only glimpse of his trademark Furious Anger is in his crowd work. When he's cut off by an over-enthusiastic audience member, Black's switch is flipped -- and flipped big time -- and he unleashes both barrels on the poor guy with such a white-hot intensity, it seems to take the crowd a few moments to recover.
But when Black finally comes to his bread and butter -- politics, government, and the corruption found therein -- he shines. This is who he was meant to be. He finds his happy medium between hardly-angry and way too angry and the laughs really start to roll in. Black has shifted his laser sites from the audience to The Man and he finds he gets the biggest reactions when he asks the crowd to join his side rather than draw a line in the dirt and square off against them. He's found that Don't talk back to me! doesn't work nearly as well as Can you believe what these guys over here are telling us?!
Not only is this project an illuminating look at one comic's evolution, it's also an incredible study of humanity. Of all the amazing discoveries that came with listening, the one that stood out and most struck a chord with me is just how much history truly repeats itself. Comedy fans aren't the only ones who will appreciate this release. Students of government, sociology, political science, and economics will also marvel at the hot-button issues Black addressed then that are still with us today.
A few of the parallels that leapt out include:
- An oil spill (the Exxon Valdez) and the laughable response from the oil company
- President Bush (then George Sr.) and his lack of reaction to an ecological disaster
- A high-ranking government official and a "conflict of interest" (or claimed lack thereof) regarding his current position and previous employer
- Frustration with our inability to track down and capture one of our 'most wanted' (Manuel Noriega here)
Wow. Any of those stories sound like anything you've heard in the last few years? It was mind-boggling to listen and come to the realization that, yep...we really do make the same mistakes over and over again if we don't bother to learn from them the first time around.
Going into this project, I was curious to hear what Black sounded like 20 years ago, with 20 years less experience, and with the news of 20 years ago as the fuel to his fire. Sure, it was fun to hear the small differences in his act from then to now, but I was also impressed to see what was still the same. What Black excelled at then -- pointing out the insanity swirling around The Powers That Be -- is still his strongest suit today.
And, if we as a society continue on the path we're on -- and apparently have been for the last couple of decades -- Black will have more than enough material to work with for the next 20 years.
It's a real eye-opener to see just how deeply we may be stuck in a rut, but as long as Black is here to be the guy prodding us to take a different path, it's a comfort knowing that at the very least we've got 20 more years of solid laughter to look forward to.