Lewis Black’s comedy act is anything but routine

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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"Lewis Black: In God We Rust." (Stark Raving Black Productions)

When Lewis Black says “we’re really rolling toward a bigger and better tomorrow,” most listeners should expect there to be more. Not a pleasant more.

After all, this is Lewis Black, famous for his rasping, curmudgeonly delivery of thoughts about the state of society on TV’s The Daily Show, TV specials, movies and concert stages, including E.J. Thomas Hall on Friday.

His thinking is backed by the formidable intellect of a man who is also an author, a much-produced playwright and the holder of multiple academic degrees — but all that might just make him angrier.

So here comes the more.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m, like, how come there are no adults left in the room?” he said. “I try to be a voice of reason but this is madness what we do. This is utter madness.

“The whole way they’re running the country is just insane. It’s beyond anything I thought would be possible. … “These people [in authority] aren’t adults. They’re not. Mitch McConnell, Boehner, Pelosi, Reid — they act like they’re 10 years old. Nancy Pelosi’s basically saying ‘We’re not going to cut our salaries. We’re going to sequester, but we’re not cutting our salaries’ — What level of arrogance do you live at? Who are you? You’re supposed to be an example. … And she’s old enough to know better.

“I get why Eric Cantor’s a schmuck,” Black said. “He’s a kid.” (Cantor is 49. Pelosi turns 73 soon. Black is 64.) “But people my age better square up, because this is nonsense. We’ve got a little time left on this planet, and we should be acting like adults.”

When Black is working on his stand-up routine, he says he looks for what makes him angriest — and when we talked not long ago, it was this idea of not being an adult that stirred him most. “I try to take that adult idea and make it funnier and funnier, and to come up with a joke for it. Basically, a lot of what goes on in terms of topical stuff is stuff that fits into the overriding arc of what I’m trying to talk about.”

Around the time Black and I talked, first lady Michelle Obama was being analyzed for joining Jimmy Fallon in a “mom dancing” sketch and then participating in the Academy Awards telecast. One commentator wondered if this was too frivolous behavior, and another asked if Obama was enjoying a sense of celebrity “while in Washington, stardom can seem frivolous.”

But Black shrugged that off as old news. “It’s Hollywood and Washington,” he said. “They’ve had a love affair for a long time.”

And he has a lot of other things to think about — although he occasionally sounds surprised that anyone is listening. Stand-up “is fun and it’s exciting. People really seem to be more excited to see me than I’ve ever been to see myself.” The age range in fans is wide. “I’m like the weirdest family comic ever. I sit there and I swear, I use bad words, I talk about stuff sometimes that might seem too much for somebody who’s 13, 14, 15 — but they’re sitting there with their parents.”

“Kids were the ones who discovered me first,” he said. “For many of them, they’d been watching me on The Daily Show.”

Still, he said George Carlin and Richard Pryor also had that knack for talking, often bluntly, across generations. But where they seemed willing to go just about anywhere in their comments, Black has found his audiences simply don’t want to hear about certain topics — or even a word like abortion.

“I said in the last special that I did, I would just say the word in a room, without doing anything else, and it was already way over the top,” he said.

“We’re the only civilized country on earth that has not come to grips with when life begins. We won’t make a decision, so we’re gonna figure that out for another hundred years. And talking about guns, I find to be a little tough. Because people have the same thing [as with abortion]. It’s ‘OK, I can see where this is going.’ They can’t. They don’t really see where it’s going because they’re not listening.”

Of course, he will try to find ways into some issues. Abortion has come up — but in the context of a New Mexico legislator who proposed that a woman who is raped and has an abortion face a felony charge of tampering with evidence. “You can work with that a little,” he said, “but it’s tough to find anything where both sides go, holy God, that’s even too much for me.”

When Black ventures into controversy, he does not worry about hecklers — who are seemingly more common as audiences treat comedy as a call-and-response event. “Unless the response is interesting, I have a tendency to beat them senseless,” Black said. “We’re not playing that game. Go find somebody else to do that with, because I didn’t come here to do that.”

Of course, he has plenty to do offstage, such as his plays and his books. While he tries to leave open spaces in his schedule, sometimes they get filled. “I’ve lost jobs because my touring schedule’s too much,” he said. “But this summer I want to write either a book or a play, so I will start to work on one or the other, depends on which catches my interest more. … The way the other books have worked, instead of getting off the tour bus, I just stay on it and keep working. I use the time between shows to work on the book.”

Play writing though “is way different,” he said. “It’s much more of an introverted kind of writing. … And I don’t write for myself [in performance]. I just go onstage and I start talking. I’m really writing onstage. But when I’m writing a book or a play, I’m locked up like some kind of hermit and working on my stuff.”

And which is more satisfying? “In the end, it’s always the stand-up, because it’s just me and the audience, and the only person that can screw it up is me.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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