Okay, so he's in first class some time ago, flying from Las Vegas to L.A. to an audition. Or was it L.A. to Las Vegas? Doesn't matter. Either way, it's like flying from Hell to Sodom and Gomorrah and back.
But we digress. The first class part is probably thanks to an upgrade. Comedy's been good to him, but he's not rich. He's sitting there, and on one side there's this singing group, a girl singing group (you know, the ones with the two white chicks and the one black chick. No? Damn. What is their name?), and on the other side, there's Bill. Nice guy. Really nice guy. You know. The basketball dude. The one who's running for president.
So he's sitting next to Bill, and he's got his ear. Bill has this knack of making you feel like he's really, really listening. Yeah, well, Bill doesn't know Lewis Black from Adam Ant. Doesn't matter. He's heard of Comedy Central. Which is cool. Bill's listening. And since Bill is listening, Black is begging:
Man, don't do it. Please. Whatever you do, don't do it.
Bill understands. Apparently, Mrs. Bill doesn't want him to do it either. (Something about if you want to run for president, you should consider running up to the rooftop of a 25-story building and jumping.) But Bill's gonna do it anyway.
Which means that Black, Yale School of Drama grad, stand-up comic and avowed basher of politicians, really has no choice: He digs him, but he's gonna dis him.
Feverishly. Flagrantly. Frequently.
As in every chance he gets.
"Al Gore and Bill Bradley? Dull and Duller."
There will be more to come. Much more. After all, Black's got the whole campaign ahead of him.
"It's my job to go after him," explains the Silver Spring native, whose acerbic political commentaries, "Back in Black," are a regular feature on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
"Which is why I don't want to meet these people," says Black, who performs this weekend at the Improv. "I have no desire. I don't need to know that they're human."
These people, of course, are politicians, a breed for whom Black, 51, holds exceedingly little respect. But then again, that pretty much sums up his feelings for all the nattering nabobs out there, from anchors on the Weather Channel ("What does 'meteorologist' mean in English? Liar") to the makers of candy corn ("Halloween proves more than any other holiday that we as a people are stupid") to denizens of IHOP who spout the inexplicable, like, "If it weren't for my horse, I wouldn't have spent that year in college." ("Don't think about that sentence any more. Blood will shoot out your nose.")
He's Every Boomer, highly caffeinated, bilious and befuddled, the idiots and idiocies of the world sending him into fits of apoplexy. He paces the stage, sometimes holding onto the wall for support as he spits out his words in tight little constipated bursts. It's a wacky world. And he just doesn't get it.
He's got this finger. It's the right finger, the index finger, and it is possessed by the Spirit of Rage. The Finger hears voices--namely, the voices of the morons of the world. These voices tick Black off. The more ticked off he gets, the more The Finger points, then wags, then wiggles until it's virtually vibrating, a fleshy weapon aimed straight at the audience. Sometimes another finger, the left index finger, gets into the act, too, until both digits are engaged full throttle in a rip-roaring debate. At which point Black's eyes start bugging and his jowls start flapping, sort of like--no, exactly like--Tricky Dick shaking his head Nooooooooooo! and, well, you get the point.
Of course, it doesn't take much.
"I don't know how you live in the capital," Black tells a packed house at the Improv Thursday night. "You have to read the paper every day and see what that [expletive] did. And it's not just that [expletive]. It's all those [expletive] in Congress. I'd get in my car every day. I'd say, 'Hey! There he is! [Expletive]!' I had to go away so that I could calm down."
He now lives in Manhattan. Not that moving away helped. Calm is not something he cultivates. Indeed, the rage is carefully nurtured, stoked and primed, mining real-life insults and amplifying them to the nth degree for the stage.
"He's angry, I tell you that," says D.C.-based comedy writer and video producer Schecky Fischer. "You can't blame him. It's a [expletive] world. You might as well make fun of it."
That's an impulse that started early, somewhere between Black's days at Springbrook High School, where he fell in love with drama, to his undergraduate days as a theater major studying play writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In high school, he says, he was the kind of guy who was "constantly in sort of an argument in one way or another with something at school." By the time he hit UNC in '67, he was positively foaming at the mouth: "They had a Confederate Day, and there was this guy riding down the street on a horse, wearing a Confederate uniform, and I'm like, 'Well, that's got to stop. You're out of your minds.' It was always that kind of being on the verge of blowing a gasket over something."
But it didn't dawn on him at first to use that man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown energy in his comedy. In fact, it took a while for it to dawn on him that he had a knack for stand-up comedy. He wrote a couple of musicals. One was performed at George Washington University in '69 and was duly eviscerated by a Washington Post critic. The other ended up touring the South while he was on a post-grad writing fellowship at UNC. Performing was an afterthought. Black took to the stage as a playwright takes to the stage, experimenting with performance as a way to give his words voice.
In the early '70s, Black, the son of a substitute schoolteacher and a man who built sea mines, returned to Washington, honing his stand-up craft in local clubs like Brickskeller and El Brookman's while working a federal government gig to pay the rent. His wasn't exactly an overnight success. Unlike today, he didn't yell at the audience. They yelled at him.
"I was learning in front of these people, and they could sense it," Black recalls. "As soon as the audience smells blood, they're going to go for it."
But in this business, he says, you learn by failure. You either get good--or you get out. Eventually, a comedian friend told him, "you're the one who's actually angry. I'm not even angry and I yell. Just do your act and yell."
Black did it. The reaction was, he said, unbelievable.
Work came steadily. He's written for TV, acted bit parts in movies like 1990's "Jacob's Ladder," appeared on "Oprah" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and can be found on the Showtime series "Hoop Life." He also ran a small theater in New York for nearly a decade.
Catch him on "The Daily Show," and you snicker. On his Comedy Central special, "Comedy Central Presents . . . Lewis Black," which debuted last December, he is funny, but not rip-roaringly so. But to glimpse him live is to be sucked into a tempest of venom. Smart venom. Exceedingly well-read venom. Venom with a sense of history and context--albeit skewed.
"You should go to Las Vegas," he snarls. "For the second time in the history of the world, they've built Sodom and Gomorrah--and there's hotel space."
"See it before it turns to salt."
For an hour or so, he rages while the audience roars, snapping on every public figure who strays within his line of vision.
And then suddenly he stops, almost as abruptly as he began.
"As much as I enjoyed being with you folks tonight," he says, "let's face it, I'm not a people person."