Lewis Black jabs his index finger in the air, as if each violent motion could puncture his audience’s illusions about life. As he steps toward the lip of the Warner Theatre stage, his voice escalates. We live in troubled times, he bellows to the packed house. You want proof? America’s reigning Angry Comic then delivers the koan of a kicker: Because I, Lewis Black, am now mainstream!
The crowd laughs in double acknowledgment. The Grammy- and Emmy-winning comedian does indeed have millions of devoted fans. But there’s also the Groucho Marxian twist: If Black’s diatribes against this modern world strike such a wide and cathartic chord, what does that say about the state of things today?
On this “In God We Rust” tour two Septembers ago, the dyspeptic comedian rolled out rants against health-care costs, against greed, against poverty. Against leaders who insult our intelligence. From marijuana legalization to Americans’ wired lives, seeds from that tour will bloom in Black’s newest tour, “Running on Empty,” which comes to the Warner (Sept. 27-29) before heading next month to Broadway.
“I’m trying to get the through line,” Black tells me a few weeks ago. “It’s that the century is a disappointment. The baby-boom generation couldn’t fix anything. And we broke most of the toys we were handed.”
Black, born in 1948 and a teenager of the Beatles years, celebrated his own “When I’m Sixty-Four” milestone Aug. 30. It wasn’t until midlife that Black began to find mainstream stand-up success — largely by tapping into that sense of disappointment and disillusionment.
Personally, he says he’s mostly content. But onstage, he spews F-bombs of satiric exasperation. He inhabits a splenetic character who vents with fingers twitching, arms flailing, torso oscillating like a sprinkler head.
“I’m a happy person, but an angry citizen ... ,” Black tells me. “To get angry at the world around us is the most sane reaction you can have.”
But how did Black become a one-man ranting civics lesson? How did he become the comic voice of our national vitriol?
It is a broiling, nearly triple-digit day in Washington. As I slog my way to Hotel Rouge in Northwest, I rethink this whole coat-and-tie thing. I’ve met Black before, after night shows, but our first interview demands sartorial decorum.
I tug hard at my neckwear in the high-noon heat until, arriving, I appear as disheveled as the comedian’s volcanic “Back in Black” character on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” It’s a look Black has perfected for his hot-under-the-collar persona: tie pulled askew, lapels gone wild. Lewis Black the character, losing it on the Titanic of life, is the model of the modern id unleashed.
As I enter the lobby, up strolls Black in jeans and a lightweight blue-striped shirt, looking cool. Calm. Refreshed. We shake, we sit. Then: “What’s with the coat and tie? It’s a hundred degrees out, you f---!”
It’s a welcome sign: Black is cursing with me, not at me. Off come the tie, the coat and the formality. A man drenched in sweat wheels in his bicycle; Black needles him, too. The man introduces himself as John Bowman, Black’s longtime opening act. They trade easy jabs like comics can after sharing tour buses and friendship for decades.
Seeking a quieter place to talk, Black and I are directed to a pillowed nook painted so come-hither rouge, it looks like a waiting room for a harem. Settling in, Black shares memories of growing up in Silver Spring in the 1950s and ’60s; of finding a creative home at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he would experiment with playwriting, comedy and drugs; and of attending the Yale School of Drama in the ’70s, where he would grow his profound distrust of authority.
Black’s phone goes off. Then he does. Eye-rolling agitation. He thinks the world is going to hell in a hand-held. “I’ve got this insane Droid!” he tells me later. “I’ve got too much to do. I do 100 e-mails just to keep up, but I’ve got 3,500 e-mails in my inbox!” His voice builds. “And then there are the apps! Every time I use an app, part of my brain dies! We’ll get to the point where we go to bed and wonder: Did I have a thought today? You’ll have to go to your ‘Thought’ app!”
Black reholsters the Droid. Not just smartphones drive him batty. “There’s this Facebook thing and this Twitter thing — you’ve got new things!” says Black, who has hired a social-media pro to help handle these. “It’s a bombardment of information that’s at levels I never imagined.” His voice revs up for effect. “My generation takes LSD, and everyone gets into a hoo-ha about it. But the computer has the effect of a drug! It’s like we dropped a drug that has about 50 times the power of acid!”
Black says he gave up smoking pot as he neared 60. He looks as though he’d like to give up the phone right now, too, as if it’s another boomer toy gone wrong. But it’s also comic fodder for the angry citizen to incorporate into his “century of disappointment” show.
Society may not be evolving, but at least his act is.
A full confession: I am stalking Black because I am a comedy nerd. As a cartoonist, I study humor, like a magician trying to suss out other people’s tricks. In person, I’ve seen sets by most of our best living stand-ups, and that ol’ Black magic is about as good as it gets. His road to the top, though, had hairpin detours. You know the old line: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” Black got to Carnegie in 2006 — in a performance that spawned a Grammy-winning comedy album — by not practicing stand-up for much of his early career. He primarily pursued theater.
Black majored in dramatic arts at the University of North Carolina and won a Schubert Foundation playwriting fellowship shortly before graduating in 1970. He dabbled in stand-up at a Chapel Hill club called Cat’s Cradle — ironic since his act concluded by simulating doggie onanism. “I was dreadful,” Black recalls.
In the early ’70s, he moved back to Washington, writing plays and supporting himself by working at the Appalachian Regional Commission, which fought poverty. Every other weekend, he’d head to the old Brickskeller in Dupont Circle to experiment with stand-up. He tried to mine humor from twin woes — his government job and his sex life — but was painfully uncomfortable in front of a crowd.
“He was a mess,” says Leonard Hughes, a lifelong friend who now handles Black’s merchandising. “He would get up there and read his complaints off of a pad.” Another longtime friend, Torie Clarke, a senior adviser at Comcast, says she first caught Black’s stand-up at the now-shuttered El Brookmans in Anacostia. “It used to be hard to watch Lewis’s stand-up — I love the guy, but he was nervous.”
In 1974, amid a marriage that lasted about 10 months (“I was probably trying to prove to my mother I wasn’t a schmuck!”), Black entered Yale’s drama school. He says he challenged the faculty’s treatment of students; his distrust of authority flourished. A cynic’s continuing education.
To fulfill those playwright dreams, Black next moved to New York. He wrote about 40 works, some of which were performed at the West Bank Cafe Downstairs Theatre Bar, a small Hell’s Kitchen space where he was co-artistic director, playwright-in-residence and emcee. (He helped Aaron Sorkin and Alan Ball gain early exposure.) Although working the crowds paid off in confidence, the pay for playwrights, he says, is “just slightly below crack whores.”
In the ’90s, Black’s stand-up took center stage. His comic “voice” hadn’t quite jelled when one day, fellow comedian Dan Ballard said: “I’m doing angry, and I’m not really angry. You’re angry, and you’re not expressing it.” Black says that focused him: “I always sensed there was a frustration I could express that people seemed to feel.”
Equally important was getting audiences to relate to him. “Kathleen Madigan helped him with that,” Bowman says of their fellow stand-up and close friend. “Lewis is such a nice guy, and it doesn’t take you long to realize it’s from a genuine place. But onstage, you don’t have that immediacy. Kathleen got him to talk about the weather, just to let the audience know him first before he started pointing his fingers and screaming about stuff.”
At that point, Madigan says, “he needed a faster lane for more people to find him.” That lane was paved in 1996; Comedy Central called. Its new “Daily Show” would satirize the news. The producers were paging his rage.
In July, the comedian taped a “Back in Black” segment for “The Daily Show.” The subject was the “namby-pamby” content of campaign ads.
“Romney’s not the only [one] treating this campaign like a yearlong Opposite Day,” Black rails on air. “Obama’s accusing Romney of discriminating against gays who want to adopt kids.” The comedian plays video showing that in May, Romney actually said same-sex couples adopting children is “something which people have the right to do.” Then Black pivots to put Romney in the crosshairs: “Look, you don’t need to lie to make Romney look anti-gay. It’s unnecessary! That’s like Katy Perry adding fireworks to her breasts! We were already looking at them!”
His satire spans the political spectrum. Black, a socialist and registered Independent, says he doesn’t believe either major party knows what it’s doing. “Socialism appeals to me,” he tells me. “It’s like imposed Christianity. You’ve got to share. ... People say, ‘Oh, the socialists!’ and get all freaky. The real terror of being a socialist is, you always have to go to more meetings.”
At rant’s end, Black gets a warm smile and handshake from Stewart. “He’s the Tasmanian Devil of comedy,” Stewart tells me by e-mail. “And I say that despite the fact that most people may not realize how politically astute and hilariously funny the Tasmanian Devil is.”
Black and “The Daily Show” exploded in popularity together. “We’ve been fortunate to have Lewis’s unique voice be part of our show for the last 15 years,” says Stewart — a run that predates even the host himself.
“Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead tells me she hired Black because his persona so naturally fit into the mock-news genre. She asked him: “I don’t know what the hell this is going to be, but do you want to be our Andy Rooney?” His populist-rage act, she says, is cathartic.
“He became a sell-out comic at the clubs,” says Rory Albanese, “Daily Show” executive producer. Albanese, 35, first worked with Black on the show in the ’90s. Black invited him on his tour to develop Albanese’s stand-up. “He threw me into the deep end before I was ready,” Albanese tells me. “I always imagined the other stand-ups going: Who ... is that and why is he opening for Lewis? But he cares so much about the people in his life who mean something to him.”
Albanese also got to see Black’s creative process up close. “He just gets out there and talks about it. He’s not the guy who sits on a laptop and creates every word and tweak. ... He’s one of those guys who finds it onstage!”
The theatrically trained Black also uses silences in ways that frighten even some other top comedians. “Lew can stop talking, and he walks back and forth, and he just knows how to inflate the balloon in the room,” the producer says. “He takes it to that moment — and then pops it!”
The first time I saw Black perform live was at HBO’s 2006 taping of his Emmy-nominated special “Red, White & Screwed” at the Warner. He opened by saying he tells people he was born in Washington. Then he deftly spun to the punch line:
“I wasn’t really born and raised in Washington, D.C. I was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. ... But I tell people I’m from Washington, because if you say you’re from Silver Spring, Maryland, it sounds like you’re a [wimp].”
He razzes his home town mercilessly. “Of course, there is no spring there, and I can assure you no one was mining for silver,” Black wrote in his 2005 bestseller, “Nothing’s Sacred.” “Its only claim to fame is that it is the largest unincorporated city in America. In other words, we were too lazy to govern ourselves. Our town motto was, ‘I’d like to vote, but I don’t feel like driving.’ ”
Black’s Silver Spring was profoundly different. “When I was a kid, this was a s---hole,” he tells me. “There was nothing here. We would hang out at Langley Park Hot Shoppes and the Little Tavern for burgers. Gifford’s for ice cream. ... The Beltway was the beginning of the change. What did it was the Metro. It created a boomtown.”
Black likes to say that as a comedian, coming from the suburbs was like coming from nowhere. Suburbia is “an oxygenated void,” he wrote. “As a result it prepares you for either depression or space travel.”
Yet it was here that Black found the footing to sharpen his cynicism. “From the first time I met him in junior high, I knew Lewis wasn’t in the ‘mainstream’ of what most kids our age fell into,” says Hughes, a former Post journalist. “I first saw that when he ran up to me yelling, ‘Lenny, there is no God!’ ” after reading a Post article about a woman killed by a manhole cover that blew off. “He was a serious kid, but he was fascinated, as all our friends were, by the humor in the ironies of dark events.”
The first time Black doubted adult authority was when the school conducted hide-under-your-wooden-desk drills in the late ’50s in case of a nuclear blast. “We were hiding under kindling!” he says in his act. The ’60s brought the Vietnam War and President Kennedy’s assassination, which Black says ripped a tear in a boy’s “protected” universe. To cope, he gravitated toward those dark ironies.
Black honed his wit with smart and somewhat rebellious friends, including class president/prankster Don Smith, now a Montgomery College administrator; schoolteacher Ray Larson, who lives near Black in Chapel Hill (Black has a home in Hell’s Kitchen, too); Edward Wasserman, a top journalism academic; Cliff Figallo, an online-communities expert; percussionist Rick Redcay, who has created music for some of Black’s specials; and physician Cary Engleberg, with whom Black wrote the college musical “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?,” staged at George Washington University in 1970.
In high school, Black and friends would make Manischewitz runs to Ernie’s Liquor. In college, some tried psychedelics. Amid the “Sgt. Pepper’s”-era experimentation, Black says, he also had his mind expanded by scathing humor from such writers as Yippies “investigative satirist” Paul Krassner. In the work of Krassner and Kurt Vonnegut, and later George Carlin, Black discovered a way to take on the world.
“Satire,” he says, “both shocked me and reinforced the way I look at things.”
It is a warm June night in 2007, and there’s high anticipation at Silver Spring’s Springbrook High: Black — big-time comic and Hollywood actor — is set to take the stage at his alma mater for the first time in 39 years. The event is a stand-up benefit for the school, so the crowd mostly consists of Friends of Springbrook, including many students, who embrace Black’s edgy material.
The room brims with warmth. Black points out faculty members from back in his day. There’s Mr. (Richard) Ahlberg, the school’s first principal, and Mr. (Ephraim) Salins, the math teacher who kept Black from being valedictorian. “Gave me a ‘B’ — p----!” Black jokes later.
After the benefit, I meet Black’s parents, Sam and Jeannette, both now 94. Longtime friends, like Wasserman, detect the comedic influence of both. Black breaks it down simply: “I think I am my mother when things piss me off — I’m my dad the rest of the time. I think they are a synthesis in my act.”
Sam Black — a placid, easygoing man — briefly tells me he used to work for the military before pursuing art professionally. He was employed at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak. His work involved sea-mine engineering until he discovered that the mines were being used as offensive weapons in North Vietnam waters, and not as defensive deterrents. So, at 53, Sam quit — in a moral decision that sticks with Lewis still.
Then there is Jeannette, quick and bitingly hilarious. In the ’50s, after getting a master’s in biology, she taught at an all-black D.C. school during segregation. According to Black, she tried to make the math curriculum relevant; the administration objected, so she quit. She later substituted in Maryland schools, using withering sarcasm to keep teens in line.
Black says nearly half his act is rooted in interactions with his parents, who live in Owings Mills. Plus, there are the genetics: Withering sarcasm runs deep in his veins. “You listen to Lew,” Bowman says, “and you can’t avoid Sam and Jeannette.”
The other family member mentioned often is Lewis’s younger brother, Ron. “They were as close as I’ve ever seen two people be,” Bowman says. Ron worked in finance and was “brilliant,” says Torie Clarke, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs under Donald Rumsfeld.
Ron moved to New York, worked at Lloyds Bank and lent his brother money when pay as a playwright was thin. “He was just hugely supportive,” says Black, emphasizing that Ron broadened his brother’s horizons. “He moved to Norway, and flew me over to France. I was broke, and he basically took me around wine country and Spain.”
When Ron died of cancer in July 1997, Black wrote in his 2008 book “Me of Little Faith,” he stared at Ron’s “ashen, lifeless body and knew that he was gone. Yet his spirit filled the room. I felt it all around me. It was so strong that I knew he was still there. In this moment of extreme loss, I was comforted by him, by his presence.”
Shortly after Ron’s death, Lewis’s stand-up career took off. “Career doors that had been closed to me began to swing open,” he wrote. “I have no doubt that my brother was the one who was helping to unlock them.”
Amid his soaring stand-up career, Black never surrendered his sometimes agonizing passion for playwriting. “Being a playwright is like the equivalent of doing a jigsaw puzzle that has 1,500 pieces, and it’s a jigsaw of a blue sky,” he tells me. “Not a cloud in sight.”
Off and on for 30 years, he has nurtured a play he wrote after a breakup. At Yale Drama, he met talented student Caitlin “Katie” Clarke. After his 1977 graduation, they lived together for nearly three years. She did not want to get married, the comedian says, preferring to focus on her career. She headed to London to be the co-lead in the 1981 fantasy-action film “Dragonslayer.” She and Black broke up. Several months later, she was engaged to another man.
Black was stunned, as was Caitlin’s family. “We adored Lewie,” says Clarke, one of Caitlin’s four sisters.
Black channeled his emotions into a romantic farce based on Caitlin and her family. In “Hitchin’,” the dumped boyfriend shows up at the Cincinnati wedding attempting to derail it. The original production was staged at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio. “The entire family went,” Clarke says — except Caitlin.
(Caitlin would go on to appear on stage and screen — including Broadway’s “Titanic” and brief roles on TV’s “Moonlighting” and “Sex and the City” — before dying of cancer in 2004.)
Black’s “Hitchin’,” which became “One Slight Hitch,” had readings at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater and Baltimore’s CenterStage; it has been performed from Tampa to Seattle, and at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival. “I do stand-up and get treated nicely and get a certain amount of respect,” Black says. “But I write a play and put it out there, and some of the [this summer’s reviews] I read in Seattle — it hurts that they don’t get it.”
One reason Black sticks with the play is a “greatest generation” speech by the bride’s mother, about life in the wake of World War II:
“Your father calls from six thousand miles away, wondering if I’m still ready to marry him or if he should just roam around the globe. Yes, yes, of course, I say, yes, I have no fingernails left. I need him. He arrives home to tickertape and bride-to-be. Everybody’s doing it. The whole world is getting married and having babies. In the greatest celebration of life I’ve ever seen on my own block. We ache for life, hoping to flood the world with innocent children, replacing the smell of death with baby powder. ...
“We tried to share that dream with you, our children, but the smoke had cleared and you couldn’t smell it.”
“Boomers,” Black tells me, “felt an urgency to marry and make money” and have it all — but many didn’t necessarily inherit their parents’ deep sense of commitment.
“To me,” Black says of the mother’s speech, “it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”
Black’s 2010 Warner Theatre run has wrapped, and his crew is moving efficiently to get on the road. Parked behind the venue is the physical hub of it all: his tour bus, a gleaming Prevost.
Being on that bus, Albanese says, “is really cool — the closest I’ll ever come to living like a musician.” There’s Black’s big bedroom in the back, plus bunks when needed for others, including tour manager Benjamin Brewer and driver Frank Moreno, an ex-Army Ranger who once worked for the Grateful Dead. “I think he loves that bus more than anything on the planet,” Madigan says of Black, who is on the road about eight months of the year. “Those guys ride along like an old family of misfit toys. ... It’s the happiest little moving place on Earth.”
“On the ground, you see stuff — unlike flyovers — so you don’t feel so disconnected,” Black tells me. “I’ve got a laptop, a big-screen TV.” (An Emmy winner for his NFL rants on HBO, he’s a Redskins and Orioles fan.) “I’ve got a refrigerator, have a wine at the end of the day. I’m lucky.”
The wine has replaced that recreation of many a musician’s tour: drugs. Black says that his generation has squandered the opportunity to leave a great collective mark, that its best last hope is to legalize marijuana. “The medicinal factors we are pissing away is epic!” he rails. But Black says he no longer partakes: “I may smoke it once a year, but it’s too much for me now.”
Black’s main drug on the road is golf: “It’s a vacation from my brain.”
“Once we were playing in Florida, and Lew threw his 7 iron into an area marked ‘Snake and Alligator,’ ” Madigan says. “Now, Lew is afraid of squirrels, but he wanted to go in there to get it, he was so angry. I said: ‘Lew, a trip to the emergency room is $500 minimum; your club is $140. ... But if you’re willing to trade a prosthetic limb for a 7 iron.’ ”
It’s after midnight now, and Team Black is congregated around a large table in a back room at Old Ebbitt’s Grill. Spirits and esprit de corps flow. Jeannette and Sam are there, too; he smiles, she chats. And never forgotten is Ron Black; when Jeannette mentions him, his memory and spirit fill the room. This is Lewis Black’s family, the hearth of his comic genius.
Lewis, juiced on post-show adrenaline and love, is enjoying himself.
In the middle of the meal, a young Grill employee steps up to meet Mr. Black. He and the missus are both fans, he says. “My wife and I got married because of you!”
“Well,” Black replies, not missing a beat, “don’t blame me!”
Then he swings toward me, index finger jabbing the air, and mock-bellows: “Well, that’s your lead, you f---!”
I laugh. Because he’s right. Unless, of course, it’s the kicker.
Michael Cavna writes the Post blog “Comic Riffs.” His last article for the magazine was a profile of Richard Thompson, the “Cul de Sac” comic-strip creator. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.