With an election year approaching, this is a very trying time for most Americans, but especially Lewis Black. While Democrats wonder what President Obama will achieve by the end of his first term in office and Republicans try and keep up with which candidate will nab the nomination to run against him, Lewis Black is pounding his head against the wall over both prospects.
“Republicans have bad ideas, Democrats have no ideas,” Black laments from a hotel room in St. Louis on his current stand up comedy tour. “And the worst part is that all the Democrats do is just take the Republicans’ bad ideas and make them worse.”
A political “analyst” for decades, Black’s comedy is based on one thing—whatever makes him angry. And nothing makes Black angrier than the political climate in the United States.
“I feel like I’m on the Titanic and I’m the only one that knows what’s going to happen,” said Black. “Obama deserves credit for killing Osama Bin Laden because it happened on his watch, but what the Republicans don’t want to give him credit for is saving the auto industry. What a huge win for the economy.”
A fan of neither party, Black has plenty to say about both in his new cable special on Epix called “Running on Empty,” which he’ll bring to the Tivoli Theatre stage live at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24.
In fact, Black has been offering up jeering observations on subjects such as history, social mores and politics on stage since the 1970s. But it wasn’t until 1996 when friend and producer Lizz Winstead asked Black to create a regular three-minute segment for a new Comedy Central program called “The Daily Show” that most people started to take notice.
“I was actually hired for the show long before Stephen Colbert or even Jon Stewart for that matter, but it was a happy accident for all of us,” Black explained. “We all have a knack for conveying our disgust for the system in a way that makes people listen and laugh. Playing off of each other just served to hone our skills and keep each other pissed off.”
Free to rant about whatever was bothering him at the time, his appearances on the show evolved into the popular “Back in Black” segment that became one of the longest running skits on the show and earned him national acclaim. In fact, his successful relationship with Comedy Central has generated four stand-up specials and two series, “Last Laugh with Lewis Black” and “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil.”
It was his continued exposure on “The Daily Show,” however, that earned Black Best Male Stand Up at the American Comedy Awards in 2001 and a recording deal with Stand Up! Records. Releasing eight albums, six under the Comedy Central Records label, Black has won two Grammies for Best Comedy Album, the first in 2007 for “The Carnegie Hall Performance” and the second in 2011 for “Stark Raving Black.”
He’s filmed two HBO specials, “Black On Broadway” and “Red, White and Screwed,” the latter of which was nominated for an Emmy in 2007. His regular feature on two seasons of “Inside the NFL” earned him a sports Emmy for Outstanding Studio Show in 2005. In 2009, Lewis filmed his first feature length concert film, “Stark Raving Black,” at the Fillmore Theatre in Detroit.
Pretty good for a playwright. Yep, you read correctly, Black is a degreed, achieved and wanna-succeed playwright. Long before he ever thought about taking the stage as a stand-up comedian, Black fell in love with the theater as a child. This ultimately led to his studying drama at the University of North Carolina and earning a master’s from Yale Drama School.
Black eventually settled down in New York City and became the playwright-in-residence at the West Bank Café’s Downstairs Theatre Bar, where he oversaw the development of more than 1,000 plays, including works by “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin and “American Beauty” writer Alan Ball as well as his own original works. As the emcee for every show Black honed his skills as a stand-up and eventually, as the popularity of his comedy grew in the ’80s, he left the West Bank to pursue stand-up full time.
Despite this focus on comedy, Black has penned more than 40 plays over the years, many of which have been produced around the country. “The Deal,” a dark comedy about business, was made into a short film in 1998 and picked up by the Sundance Channel. In 2005, Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles produced “One Slight Hitch,” a play later produced in Tampa Bay in 2006 and more recently in Seattle this year.
“ ‘One Slight Hitch’ is a romantic comedy that you’d never think was mine unless you read the credits,” said Black. “I wrote it more than 30 years ago in an attempt to become rich and famous as a writer. Most of my plays are dark, surreal comedies more in line with my personality on stage as a comedian.”
His views on politics and the general weirdness surrounding us fuel the content of both his plays and his stand-up material. Never further than arm’s reach of an opinion on current events, Black shared with me his views on two key newsmakers.
“I kind of like what the Tea Party and Occupy Movement are all about if I’m understanding their views correctly,” he said. “They need leadership. They need someone to say ‘here’s the deal.’ But they seem to be saying something I want to hear. Actually they should be listening to Romney and Newt, because both have recent speeches that mimic some of the key points of both groups.”
On his predictions regarding the topsy-turvy Republican primaries, Black said, “I think Romney will take the Republican nomination because he may be the lesser of two Republican evils. What kills me is that Newt actually has two women. I would rather imagine my parents having sex than Newt with any woman.”
Towards the end of the interview, I asked Black about his soft spot for the South.
“If I lived there all of the time I’d weigh 300 pounds,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could put fat on top of fat and then drizzle sugar on it.’ But I do love barbecue, and that’s what I look forward to around the time I make it to Chattanooga.”
That’s good, because we’ll be looking forward to Lewis Black.
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24
Tivoli Theatre 709 Broad St.
(423) 757-5050 chattanoogaonstage.com