Lewis Black is happy to be the spokesperson for the terminally frustrated. In a phone conversation from a hotel in Denver, Colo., Black explained that he felt comfortable expressing the frustrations of people living in the United States.
"That’s why I’m screaming," he said, his voice sounding ravaged from doing just that, 250 nights a year from stages across the country.
As a commentator on Comedy Central’s news hour parody "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Black has honed his frustrated persona to a white-hot point. His sublime rants are punctuated by stabbing fingers and a jerking body that seem to be just this side of contained. Though he doesn’t perform his own material on "The Daily Show," his appearances have made him instantly recognizable to the cynical young cable viewers who rely on the program’s acerbic wit to give some comfort in what they may view as an otherwise bleak media landscape.
This is a comfortable type of fame for Black. "It’s not that big a deal," he says. "I have that type of celebrity that I’m not that well recognized. I’m recognized enough that it’s fun."
Mr. Black’s own material, delivered in his wickedly incredulous tone as heard on numerous comedy albums including the current "Rules of Enragement," runs the gamut from social to political commentary. He considers the split to be somewhere around 75 percent social and 25 percent political. Despite this estimate, Black is often considered a political comic, an interpretation of his act which he thinks is overblown.
"It has never been as political as people thought it was. Even when I wasn’t political at all, people were telling me I was political. So, you know… you can’t win." Instead, he considers himself "a comic that does more political material than most."
Given the political climate, one might think it dangerous to dole out criticism of the current administration, no matter what the percentage. "It’s not dangerous," he responds. "[President Bush] is filling seats for me, that idiot."
"They’re so big," he continues, "they don’t really care. They don’t even pay attention, you know? Criticism doesn’t disturb them." To validate his point, Black indicates the war and the failed search for weapons of mass destruction. "They get criticized for it and they say, ‘You can’t criticize us.’ Then, they don’t even find the shit… They still say it was the right thing to do. They’re insane."
Black does not hesitate to expose such "insanity," but does not believe it will make a difference, saying, "You’d have to be nuts to think things will change. No. I just want to make people feel better. I’m trying to make people laugh. That’s the most important thing."
Perhaps this importance stems from Black’s belief that if we lose our sense of humor we become dangerously close to what we hate about our enemies. In that case it seems he may be winning the battle. He notes: "More people are showing up to see me, so that’s a sign that something’s going on. More military are showing up to see me, more than I ever had. You know, people’s reactions… Sometimes I go, ‘Wow, these people must feel like there’re living in a cage somewhere.’"
Black is all for rattling that cage. Portlanders should expect one strong yank at the steely bars on the issue of gay marriage. "On the list of things you got to worry about," he says, "Gay marriage is on page six, right next to ‘Are we eating too much garlic as a people?’" he continues. "Look, if you’re that stupid that you actually have to write down that marriage takes place between a man and a woman, then you’re an idiot… Here’s the deal, in the heterosexual world, men marry women…" his rant begins to get its rhythm. "We don’t need to write that down… So, what, you need to lord it over these people? If you think that what they’re doing is a meaningless gesture, then it’s a meaningless gesture, asshole. If that’s not enough to satisfy you, that you have to shove it in their faces, then I think there’s something deeper going on… A lot of it is pure, simple ignorance. In a sense, it’s like the ignorance that black people were subjected to, or any fucking group that’s tried to integrate into this society." The sound of Black lighting a cigarette punctuates this last sentence.
This diatribe is similar to how Black creates his material. He will scan the news for something that interests him, think about it, go on stage and just talk. This is a method seemingly far from Black’s first foray into show business as a playwright. Initially interested in theater as an "intellectual sporting event," Black wrote over 40 plays that drew from Beckett, Albee and Shepard. Compared to his stand-up, "they were more surreal and darker," he says. Although he has always enjoyed what he has done, his play-writing career was not met with critical success. Stand-up was a way to get his work out to the public. "You learn in increments," he explains. "Eventually five things don’t work and it leads to the sixth thing."
Thus, Black’s advice is that "the most important thing, I think, that you can do is, do what you want to do. After that everything falls into place… Pursue what you’re interested in. If you do that it will be more gratifying than anything else."
This holds true for Black’s own experience. With a television show in the works, a book soon to be released and a hit stand-up act, it seems that pursuing what you’re interested in can be gratifying indeed. Even if you are the spokesperson for the terminally frustrated.
Lewis Black performs Friday, Jan. 20 at the Crystal Ballroom, 332 W. Burnside St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m.