Black is back: Comedian Lewis Black returns to Northwest Ohio for gig at StranahanWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The stereotype is that the best comedians don’t really have a “character” — they essentially play themselves onstage, but with the volume turned up.
This may never be more true than it is for the great comic Lewis Black. For over 30 years the Maryland native has toured the country, becoming a sensation with his trademark angry delivery, finding outrage in almost every corner of American life. But offstage? Black is calm, soft-spoken, patient, introspective. This is a man who takes his art seriously.
“When I was just starting out it felt like my feet were on a frying pan and that I had to keep moving them so as not to suffer third-degree burns to my frail confidence,” Black said in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “Sometimes it felt like I was bleeding in a pool of sharks. Now, after years of performing and learning somewhat the craft of comedy, it’s like what I imagine surfing is like, if I could surf. And when it’s really going well, you feel as if you and the audience are one. That you are merely the voice of the room. It’s exhilarating and it’s insane.”
The level of vitriol he expresses in front of audiences the world over may be amplified for comic effect, but there is no doubt it strikes a chord with audiences everywhere. Black, who will perform at the Stranahan Theater on Jan. 11, said that the development of his unique comic voice came over time.
“I think the hardest thing in comedy is finding out what makes you funny. You can write the jokes, but if you don’t know how to deliver them you are screwed. For the longest time, I wrote angry material but I wasn’t presenting it as angry. I was sitting on my anger, which can be very strange.
“After years of trying every which way to find my stage persona, a fellow comic, Dan Ballard, told me that I was angry, so when I got on stage next time I should yell my act. I should be angry up there. So I tried it. It worked. And I spent years refining it. Quite simply, I am funny when I am angry and sarcastic. It took years for me to realize something that was always a part of me.”
He came to comedy relatively late in life, compared to many contemporaries who seem to have had designs on stardom when they were barely out of high school.
Black’s first career was as a playwright, after earning a Master of Fine Art in theater from Yale in 1977. His first stage experience as a comedian came as a lead-in to plays he had written. Like most overnight sensations, it took years of fine-tuning and perseverance before he broke through to a mass audience after committing to his act full time. When did it really become apparent to Black that something big was happening?
“Sometime between receiving a very complimentary phone message from George Carlin and winning the American Comedy Award for Best [Male] Stand-up,” he said. “George told me he liked my work and thought I was funny. I wasn’t well known at all at that point, but the fact that George Carlin, a comic hero of mine, thought I was funny, I felt more successful than I ever imagined. When I won the award, I knew that the public had started to notice me. To this day, George’s compliment has meant more to me than any awards I have received.”
Black found his audience through appearances on Comedy Central, both in his own stand-up specials and his regular “Back in Black” segments on “The Daily Show,” where, introed by the driving beats of AC/DC, he railed against whatever injustices had caught his eye. Given their shared roots on Jon Stewart’s late-night news satire, Black expressed his support for Stephen Colbert as he prepares to take over for David Letterman on CBS’s “Late Show.”
“I think he will be brilliant as the host. Stephen Colbert is at heart one of the most extraordinary entertainers I have ever met. He will raise the level of the mass-market formula and make the mass market more intelligent. ‘The Colbert Report’ was great, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Not that Black has a slow year ahead, himself. He will star as one of the emotions in the head of a young girl in the Pixar film “Inside Out” this summer. (His character, naturally, is Anger.) In addition, whenever possible, Black streams the last 15 minutes of his stage appearances at the website www.therantisdue.com, giving audiences their fix of that trademark Black outrage whenever needed. Does he think his audience’s need for the kind of catharsis he provides will ever wane?
“I hope not. Especially if the idiots who run the world keep the insanity going in high gear. But I wish that they would all get a grip and I can go back to just bitching about the weather.
“People deserve a lot better than what they are getting.”