Back in Black
WHEN LEWIS BLACK was a young, struggling stand-up comedian, his material was just as topical and opinion-filled as it is now, but he checked his rage at the stage door. When a friend suggested he integrate his natural vitriol into his act, he took the advice. Black has been beating audiences into hysterical submission ever since with furiously funny rants on the news of the day and the absurdities and hypocrisies of life.
Wickedly subversive but also personable and even vulnerable, Black gives performances reminiscent of Howard Beale, the cynical, deranged newsman (played by Peter Finch) in the film Network, a dark, prophetic satire on American TV news. Black isn’t insane like the fictional Beale, but he is undeniably mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore.
“When I first put the anger that I’ve always had into the act, I bellowed from beginning to end. You can’t do that for 50 minutes,” says Black, a 58-year old Maryland native. “Now, I’m almost expected to come out and just do the angry thing for an hour. When I was on Larry King recently, I heard the guys talking in Larry’s ear——they were telling him to rile me up. If I lived as angry as I act onstage, I’d be dead. But the anger is real. It’s me.”
Black, whose act is in the time-tested tradition of such other angry American comics as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Alan King, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks, knows this is an inherently risky technique. Raw anger can be off-putting. But Black’s rancor is disarmed by his likeability and the reassuring smile he flashes mid-rant that tells the audience he’s in on the joke and that he’s not stark raving mad——just mad.
“I don’t know what it is, exactly, but people have really responded to what I’m doing,” says Black, who is also an author, playwright and actor who graduated from the Yale School of Drama. “I have families coming to my shows now, people in their 50s, along with 16-year-olds. I guess I’m the weirdest and most unlikely family comic around.”
Black first tapped into the national consciousness in the 1990s with his regular appearances on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. As that show’s resident “mad” man, he delivered venomous five-minute behind-the-desk commentaries that touched a nerve and catapulted him onto the comedy A-list with HBO specials, CDs and his first book, Nothing’s Sacred, in 2005.
Black’s cathartic routine plays well even in sunny San Diego. “I don’t change my act based on where I’m playing. I slow it down in the South a bit,” he says with a laugh, “but otherwise I don’t tailor my material, not even in San Diego. I actually have a very big military following. The guys in the platoon, they get it. But of course the leadership doesn’t.”
Relentlessly critical of the Bush administration, Black has been equally tough on Democrats, and doesn’t see any presidential candidates on either side that he likes. And he’s about to tackle yet another controversial subject.
“I’m currently working on my second book. It’s on religion,” he says. “In a nutshell, my take is that religion is wonderful if it makes you happy——now just shut up. Stop trying to convert. If it works for you, fine; why do you need me? Yes, this book should pretty much end my career.”
Black appears September 16 at Copley Symphony Hall. For tickets, call 619-220-TIXS.