Daily Show star Lewis Black raises ranting to a fine art in Tampa tonight
Lewis Black has a theory about why life seems so jacked up these days.
“In my humble opinion, we all have ADD,” he pronounces, using a slightly less energetic version of the feverish shouting fans know from his standup specials and appearances on The Daily Show.
“I didn’t get it until I was 45, but I’m certain I have it now,” added the comic, 64. “Twitter and Facebook and all the other distractions we’ve managed to accumulate in our lives that have nothing to do with what’s really in front of us…Multitasking is a just a euphemism for ADD.”
So does that mean he’s off the social media grid, like some wisecracking, media savvy curmudgeon?
“Well, I got drunk with my friend (and fellow standup comic) Kathleen Madigan and she insisted, so now I’m on Twitter,” Black admits with a sigh, saying he only entered the social media world to let fans know when he was coming to their towns. “I have a Facebook page, I have a website, I got all the crap you could possibly have, and people still didn’t know I was coming to town.”
Welcome to the world of Lewis Black, where no disappointment or shortcoming is too slight to acknowledge with an energetic rant. Or two.
Once upon a time, he was a struggling playwright with a master’s degree in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama. Born Lewis Niles Black in Silver Spring, Md., he was raised the middle-class, Jewish child of a teacher and an engineer who spent 20 years writing plays no one went to see.
“I would get ‘em up and done, but mostly nobody showed interest. I think I was mentally ill,” he said, shrugging off the suggestion that perhaps he was just a stubbornly creative artist.
“No, I was stupid; stupid is a better word,” Black insisted, recalling one 25-minute play in which Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz goes back to her black and white world, only to find everyone got killed by the tornado which whisked her away to the land of Oz. “It’s 25 minutes long. By the time you realize you hate it, it’s over.”
Black’s work hosting productions of his plays led to a standup comedy routine which, thankfully, proved more successful. Based on acerbic, borderline bitter amazement at how absurdly disappointing the world can be, his jokes reflect the artful, politicized rants also indulged by contemporaries like Dennis Miller and Will Durst.
Consider this joke: “"In my lifetime, we've gone from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. We've gone from John F. Kennedy to Al Gore. If this is evolution, I believe that in twelve years, we'll be voting for plants."
Or this, on The Apprentice star Donald Trump’s possible candidacy for president: “Finally, a leader that talks to other countries the way they deserve -- like a bookie from Staten Island."
Small wonder Black found a home on Comedy Central, which broadcast a number of his standup specials and made him a regular part of its news satire The Daily Show back in the mid’90s, when original host Craig Kilborn was in the driver’s seat.
The big difference between the Kilborn days and Jon Stewart’s current reign? Focus.
“Jon really spent, I would say, a good three to five years getting the show focused,” Black said. “There’s few shows that have substituted as well as they have…They never skipped a beat from losing Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, which was major. The show became what Jon wanted it be…it takes the issues we’re pounded with every day and says ‘here’s the funny.’”
That’s what Black also hopes to do in a new standup special airing at the end of August on a platform yet to be determined. Fans attending his show in Tampa tonight will get a sneak preview of that performance, which is a still a bit of a work in progress.
But even as contemporaries like Louis C.K. rewrite the rules for standup specials – he distributed one show directly to fans online; his next one aired on HBO last Saturday – Black worries the lack of profit makes it tough to keep the form around.
“I was producing something for X amount of dollars; now it’s half that,” he said, noting that, because cable channels are paying less for specials, he’s working with friends to find an alternative model. “If I was 40, I might have a part of my day and brain that could deal it with it. But I have people around me that I trust and we’ll see if we can pull it off.”
He’s also developing a play to be produced in Cape Cod later this year called One Slight Hitch, along with a book project. Though it all, Black holds onto that peculiar mix of hopefulness and cynicism that keeps fans engaged.
“I felt that the election was a reboot…the American people basically said, ‘We do want healthcare and we do want this other stuff…it’s basically a civic duty. (Voters said) ‘Somebody has to fix the world, a—hole.’”
In Black’s world, politicians seem like deliberately clueless boyfriends, acting like they don’t know how to get things done until their girlfriend – the American people – stop asking.
“That’s exactly what it is,” he said, laughing. “It’s really like a bad date.”
Get ready for his show tonight at the Straz Center in Tampa by checking out his latest Daily Show rant on consevatives and the poor below.