Getting a Fleeting Glimpse of Lewis Black in ‘Basic Black’

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

When comedy documentaries follow a living person, it’s normally at a time in their career when interesting things are happening: Conan O’Brien has just lost The Tonight Show, Joan Rivers is reinventing herself, Eddie Izzard is coming back with all new material. So the mere existence of Basic Black: The Lewis Black Story is surprising. Why Lewis Black? Why now?

There is, unfortunately, no persuasive answer to this in the movie itself. Even the film’s star seem a little baffled by the question at first as well; an early clip in the film shows Black on the phone with his therapist. “Is it a little much to be doing a documentary about yourself?” he says. “You know, it’s just over the last day or so I was thinking about it, and if I really comprehended what it was we were setting out to do.”

In fairness, there is more to Lewis Black than I, a casual fan, had realized. The documentary explores his early days as a playwright, and the odd turn of events that led to him teaching stand-up in Amsterdam in the mid-90s. In the present day, the film follows Black as he arrives in Detroit to film is 2010 special, Stark Raving Black.

It’s not that Basic Black isn’t enjoyable to watch. Black seems like an incredibly nice guy, who is genuinely lovely with his fans and has fashioned himself a good life being mad about things for a living. Produced by Black’s production company, the documentary was included as a DVD extra on Stark Raving Black.

In that context, it’s perfectly fine. Screened on its own (it was originally made for premium channel EPIX), it suffers from a lack of consequence. Clocking in at just over an hour, Basic Black reminded me of nothing so much as a video version of WTF With Marc Maron (of which Black has never done a full episode). The thing missing is Maron, asking uncomfortable questions and forcing out the truths that his guests are hesitant to share.

There are also huge gaps in the story. There are no clips, or even mentions, of The Daily Show, the show that really made Black famous. Even though he told the New York Times yesterday that his relationship with Comedy Central is “symbiotic,” its role in his success is overlooked.

In addition, Black’s personal life is unseen, outside of his decades-long friendship with his opener, John Bowman. Ex-girlfriend Kathleen Madigan is interviewed in the film, but there’s no mention of a time when they were more than friends (to my immense disappointment — those two make the list of my all-time favorite comedy couples).

It’s clear that Black values his privacy; his IMDb page helpfully lists a spouse as “? (?-?) (divorced)”. He doesn’t talk about his personal life on stage, nor does he court fame or celebrity attention. Obviously, that’s a fine way to live. But when making a documentary about your life, it’d be nice if you…told us a bit about your life.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Fans of Black will find it fun to hang out with him for an hour, but it’s not hugely compelling.

What does it have to say about comedy? One of the interesting things about the documentary is the impression that Black made his way up the ladder somewhat outside of the established comedy circuit. Is that true? Does he feel left out of the comedy community? Where is Marc Maron when you need him?

Is it funny? Averagely so — a few good gags, but not hysterical. One of the funniest bits is actually the poster, which shows a baby photo of Black, his index finger in the air, looking like he might go on a rant about the paucity of baby food options in the late 1940s.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. A documentary about her life would be amazingly tedious.

Getting a Fleeting Glimpse of Lewis Black in ‘Basic […]