Lewis Black sounded like he had just finished gargling with gravel when he picked up the phone the day before Christmas.
He excused himself to grab some coffee, a news show blaring in the background which he commanded to “shut up” in exactly the tone that you would expect from a man who has made his comedic living out of unhinged rants — frustrated, but delivered with a chuckle that leavened the anger.
Asked if he was on tour and talking from a hotel room, his response made it feel like the interview could teeter into grumpy-subject territory, a potential problem when asking any highly-intelligent, super-sarcastic person questions they may not be in the mood to answer.
“God no, it’s Christmas Eve. Where am I going to be touring? Yes, I’m touring as Jesus Christ Superstar. No, I’m home.”
And from there Black was charming, hilariously profane, and engaging beyond any reasonable expectations. Probably best known for his “Back In Black” segments on The Daily Show, Black is bringing his topical and searing style of comedy to the Stranahan Theater on Thursday.
Perpetually rumpled in a loosened tie and jerking around spasmodically when he talks, Black is the king of the rant. His ripped-from-the-headlines humor represents a logical extension from George Carlin as he picks at the scabs of anti-intellectualism, absurdity, and irrationality that are at the core of daily life in America.
He’s earthy, loud, and — best of all — incisive, zeroing in on those things that the general news media and most commentators seem to miss.
For example, he was asked about the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and the arguments in favor of high-powered firearms presented by pro-gun folks that are difficult to reconcile with a massacre of schoolchildren by a mad man using those exact same weapons.
“They take the argument off the point — you know? ‘Guns don’t kill people, people do.’ Well, where do bullets come in? The bullets have nothing to do with it? Bullets kill people, (and here he uses a word to describe someone’s anatomy that can’t be printed in a family newspaper)!
“I mean, seriously, it’s like they’re insane and they force you as a comic who deals in this kind of crap to sit around and think about stuff like, What does it take to stop them? Does somebody have to go into an infant ward and shoot up a maternity ward? It’s kind of like, at what point don’t you get it?”
Black’s entry into the world of standup was accidental and in many ways unlikely. He grew up in Silver Springs, Md., in a close-knit family with parents who nurtured his love of theater and taught him to question authority.
He received theater-related degrees from the University of North Carolina and Yale Drama School and eventually owned his own theater in Colorado before settling in New York and writing plays.
Standup was always a sideline gig for Black as he wrote, directed, and produced original works and plays for other people. By the late ’80s he said his comedy routine began to develop “unconsciously” as he did the occasional act on the same night that friends like Denis Leary were performing.
Black, 64, said the rants about politics, pop culture, relationships, or whatever else came to mind were natural topics for him and he found that over time people enjoyed listening to him go off. But first he had to learn how to pace his routines and modulate his approach.
“Like, I used to scream all the time. When I started out, it was freakish. My friend (comedian) Kathleen Madigan said at one point, ‘You used to just get up there and they didn’t laugh, you just would start full bore and no one was laughing for like six or seven minutes.’ And I said I didn’t really notice,” he said, chuckling.
He reads papers voraciously and watches the news for material.
“It starts with something that gets me angry. It always starts with that. I’m funniest, I think, when I’m angry, or that’s what people seem to enjoy. And then I kind of focus in and try to find out exactly what is the absurdity in this situation that makes me angry and then how can I show that absurdity to others,” Black said.
The question is whether all this vitriol is manufactured and could drive him nuts or if it’s part of an act. His answer is that he uses the little niggling, annoying things that happen to us all day long to fuel his performances.
“A good rant not only gets rid of whatever it is that could cause an ulcer, but I think the basis of a good rant in terms of the seed of it when you’re performing is all the (stuff) that happened to you during the day that has nothing to do with the rest of it — every petty frustration,” he said, before launching into a mini-rant.
“‘What do you mean you only have Miracle Whip? What do you mean there’s no mayonnaise?’ It’s that little pile of little things: the paper didn’t come, you finished an email and pushed the wrong button, that little stuff adds up and that’s really where I think the energy for a rant ultimately comes from.”
He’s actually a pretty happy guy, albeit one who seems to feel perpetually motivated to never be overly sentimental. At one point in the interview his doorbell rang and he thanked whoever was at the door before saying:
“Oh, yay, gifts. Yay! Somebody sent me gifts,” and then adding, with a laugh and a throat-clearing cough. “It’s about time. They’ve been coming in slow this year.”
His “Back in Black” segments have been ongoing since 1996, making them one of the longest running segments on the popular late-night comedy show hosted by Jon Stewart.
In them Black is apoplectic and slightly crazed, spittle flying from his mouth as he goes off on three-minute tirades about something in the news. The skits are the result of a collaboration between himself and Stewart’s writers and they often are augmented by video clips, so he said they are rehearsed in advance despite seeming off-the-cuff.
For his standup tours, about 80 to 90 percent of the material is prepared in advance and then he adds pieces to it as news merits.
“I futz with it all the time. Stuff happens every day, things start to percolate and I start bringing them in. Basically I try to shoot for a larger arc. I try to find a context for their insanity,” he said, mentioning President Obama and Congress dealing with the fiscal cliff.
“So I’m watching these guys now and it’s unbelievable. When I was a kid I looked at adults around me and thought, ‘You know, you people are nuts.” Now I’m an adult and these people who I grew up with are nuts. It doesn’t change. They’re even crazier than when I was a kid.”
He has released eight comedy albums since 2002 and done a number of specials on Comedy Central. Single, with parents who are well into their 90s, Black also is heavily involved in a number of charities, which are listed on his Web site, www.lewisblack.com.
“I can help at whatever minimal level I can to direct money to things that I think are important,” he said, adding a reference to what he feels is wrong with the country’s attitude toward the poor and sick. “Since we really care about the few and don’t care about the many anymore, I can help in terms of their cash flow.”
Lewis Black will be at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $38 to $48 and are available at the Stranahan box office, www.stranahantheater.com, www.etix.com, or by calling 419-381-8851.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.