I'd venture to guess that there probably aren't that many Yale grads out there on the national comedy circuit. In fact, it's hard to imagine how Ivy League affiliations would necessarily translate into bankable currency anywhere in the entertainment industry. Yet Lewis Black is a Yale man.
"Well, you know, it was drama school," he clarifies. "But no. I guess Robert Klein and Dick Cavett, and that could be it."
Black's stand-up persona is that of a caustic, cranky and remarkably insightful bell-ringer with anger management issues and one foot in the cardio ward. As an actor, he's worked in theater, on the tube (Homicide, Mad About You, The Conan O'Brien Show) and has appeared in such films as Hannah and Her Sisters, Jacob's Ladder and The Hard Way. He's also authored more than 40 plays that have been produced in theaters all over the country. He does summer theater. He does volunteer work with New York City's inner-city youth.
But it's his spot-on social and political rants (as "America's Foremost Commentator on Everything") each week on Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart that have made Black an icon among America's late-night TV denizens. Sick of the schlock that passes for news at 11? Click over to The Daily Show for all the news that matters, spun just the way you like it -- with humor. You can also catch Black up close and personal when his "Rules of Enragement Tour" makes a stopover at the Met this Saturday night along with fellow comic John Bowman.
A studied playwright and actor, Black says that his stand-up gig (which he began pursuing in earnest 15 years ago) is something he had always done on the side.
"I was schooled in playwriting, and the acting was something I started doing at Yale so that I wouldn't lose my mind. Stand-up was just a way to write and get things done -- rather than waiting for them to do a play, which is like waiting for a tree to grow."
His comedy routine, aside from being hilarious, is so animated, in-your-face and heated that -- given Black's background in theatrics -- one can't help but wonder: Is it real or is it shtick?
"It's real in that it's based on me," he explains. "A really blown-up extension of me. But I actually am like that. If I'm in Los Angeles, that's the way I feel. And when I watch Meet the Press or Face the Nation, and am confronted with authority figures speaking for more than a minute, then I'm, like, psychotic."
Certainly, there are a lot of current developments on the national and world stage to be pissed off about.
"I can't even keep up with it," he says, raising his voice just a tad. "And what kind of an idiot says I'm outraged at the outrage? What planet am I on?"
Does Black get little old ladies complaining about his material and presentation? Like, "Why can't you talk about bunnies and kitties instead?"
"If I could've talked about bunnies and kitties," he bellows, "it wouldn't have taken me 500 years to make a living!"
Black breaks away from our conversation for a moment to take a call from someone he's sent on a vitamin quest.
"You don't even want to know," he says upon his return.
The exchange prompts a question: Is Black in good health?
"I'm as good as you can be living this lifestyle," he says. "I might as well be on a hospital ship, really. You know, the traveling, and traveling some more. And then 'Oh, let's go to a bar.' There's an odd thing to do after a show. Of course, that's one of the reasons you get into it."
Black had the opportunity to put his liver and his comedy routine to the test last year on the Comedy Central tour with comrade, comic, and infamous boozehound Dave Attell (of Comedy Central's Insomniac).
"It was great," he enthuses. "I'm not dead, so that's terrific. It was always a question of which one of us was going to have to go into detox first. But it was a lot of fun. I had as much fun on that tour as I've ever had as a comic."
Black has been involved with The Daily Show since the beginning. And he seems to love it.
"It's the longest relationship I've had with anything," he laughs. "But The Daily Show is really good. It acts as a filter. We're being bombarded. I mean, how much of this can you take? We at least try to focus on what we think is important, which helps. And then we try to make it palatable."
In a nation so deeply divided politically, socially and economically, Black's rage resonates with people, while his thorny satire offers a way to cope with the pain and the horror.
"People are fed up. Politically, I'm actually between parties. I keep saying I'm a socialist, which puts me nowhere. People don't know what it is. And if they do know what it is, they're appalled. It's like, 'What do you mean the guy who started Microsoft shouldn't have 400 gazillion dollars?' Well, yeah, that's what I'm telling you. That's exactly it."
When reality gets to be too much, you've got to make room for a little fantasy. In that spirit, I wanted to know: If Lewis Black could put three pop culture or political personalities on a rocket ship into the sun, who would they be?
Black considers the question carefully, savoring his options, "It would be a toss-up between... well, Justin Timberlake. Then Simon Cowell. And politically, I'd have to pick... God, it's tough. You know, what? Karl Rove. Let's just cut to the chase. And you don't even have to fire them into the sun. I would have them orbit the Earth and just talk to each other until they ran out of air."
Publication date: 6/03/04