Lewis Black seems surprisingly calm. He shouldn’t. As he politely rids himself of the stream of callers on the cell phone he holds in his free hand, he speaks to me from the land line in his Manhattan home.
He sounds nothing like the ranting demagogue he portrays on what is arguably the best program on TV, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Black’s serenity makes me think for a second that I’ve got the wrong guy.
I keep waiting for the gravel-voiced finger-pointer of his weekly “Back In Black” segments to come through.
I recall one memorable “Back in Black” pith, a jab at government spending to improve school lunches.
“Why should we fund school lunches? We had to eat that shit — so should they!”
Although his prickly exterior may lead the average watcher to believe otherwise, there is an altruistic side to Black, a Yale School of Drama grad. He spent his high school years volunteering for political campaigns. Much of his 20s and 30s were spent as a starving NYC artist at the West Bank Café Downstairs Theatre in Manhattan.
“Even though a lot of us [WBCDT actors] ended up with agents, the last thing we were looking for was power,” he says.
Black’s devotion to the theater kept him on staff longer than most. In addition to regular roles in WBCDT productions, one of Black’s responsibilities with the troupe was to MC performances.
“I was able to hone my craft there,” he says. “It was the perfect forum to yell. I’d pick up a paper before I got to the theater, and I would take aim.”
To make some extra cash, Black began a stand-up rendezvous at local bars. The income helped him to focus on his writing.
Black is a bona fide playwright and actor. He has appeared in such movies as Hannah and Her Sisters and Jacob’s Ladder. His most recent play, A Slight Hitch, was recently picked up by Hollywood producer Garry Marshall — it is scheduled to open on stage in L.A. next Valentine’s Day.
Black is a busy guy, but it never distracts him from the crazy shit that surrounds him, and it doesn’t seem that he’ll get off his soapbox anytime soon.
For Black, ignorance ain’t bliss. One sardonic bit from his popular stand-up routine is a piece about a real-life subway experience. Titled “The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Heard in My Life,” it’s a prime example of the exasperation that feeds Black’s ethos. It goes: “… out of nowhere, this 25-year-old woman comes up to me and says: ‘If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.’”
Black pauses, shakes his fists and advises: “Don’t think about that sentence for more than three minutes, or blood will shoot out of your nose.”
Absent the predictable litany of “zingers” and one-liners, Black has made a name for himself in comedy because of his oratorical genius, his storytelling skills and his singular perspective on the world around us.
He says, “I realize I use the word ‘fuck’ a lot, and I’d apologize, but, well, I don’t give a shit. I’ve lived in New York City for so long that ‘fuck’ isn’t even a word … it’s a comma.”
Yet under the guise of righteous anger, a certain hopefulness always comes through. His hollers are an unexpected buoy for human foible. For that, you gotta love him.
Lewis Black will perform at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle (269 E. Fourth, Royal Oak) July 10-12. Call 248-542-9900 for information.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]