Two-time Grammy award winning comedian/actor/writer Lewis Black has built a remarkable career exposing the absurdities of life by cultivating a trademark style of comedic outrage that has landed him Grammy award-winning albums, two successful runs on Broadway, three bestselling books, and appearances in Oscar-nominated films.
Now this artist who polished the art of using finger-pointing as a baton to expose life’s hypocrisies on the stage of Carnegie Hall will be coming to Saginaw’s own Temple Theatre in a couple of days on Thursday, November 9th to engage and entertain audiences with a one-night only performance at 8:00 PM.
His latest stand up-special, Tragically, I Need You, has already surpassed 1.3 million views on YouTube and explores topics including his ways of coping with the pandemic, his frustrations with the evolving world, and of course his thoughts about the chaos of America these last few years and the rampant insanity he sees in the world.
In addition to being the longest-running contributor on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, in 2015 Black appropriately voiced the character of “Anger” in the Pixar Academy Award-winning film, Inside Out. He also starred in Man Of The Year opposite Robin Williams, and has released eight critically acclaimed comedy albums, including the 2007 Grammy Award-winner, The Carnegie Hall Performance, winning his second Grammy in 2011 for his album, Stark Raving Black, and has a total of 6 Grammys nominations.
On the literary side of life, Black has published three bestsellers: Nothing’s Sacred (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Me of Little Faith (Riverhead Books, 2008) and I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas (Riverhead Books, 2010).
A published playwright, Black has also written over 40 plays and has found his work performed throughout the country, including at the A.C.T. Theatre, the Magic Theatre, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, and The Public Theatre, which leads one to wonder how he also finds time to pack 120 shows into his schedule each year.
In advance of his Thursday evening performance at The Temple, this uniquely philosophical stand-up comedic treasure known as Lewis Black agreed to discuss this topic and more in what turned out to be a typically candid discourse about cultural displacement, and how laughter is still the best way to navigate oneself through a world that truly is ‘off the rails’.
REVIEW: Given the number of talents and interests you’ve been able to successfully navigate as an author, playwright, and performer, how did you first become engaged with comedy and at what point did you decide to pursue it as a career?
LEWIS BLACK: If playwrighting had worked out, I would be doing that for sure. Actually, I did playwrighting up until I was 40-years old, at which point I went out on the road as a comic. But the answer to your question is in the word ‘successful’, because if you had known I’d written over 40 plays. we’d be talking about what a prolific playwright I was instead of my life and experiences as a successful comedian.
REVIEW: Everybody in every profession has inspirational role models and I’m curious as to whether there are any comics, or writers, or playwrights that inspired and informed your own particular style of humor?
BLACK: Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett inspired my sense of humor because comedy emerges from pulling threads from serious subjects; and Chekov was huge for developing my writing skills. But as for comedy, two big influences were Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22. What’s funny about this is that I’m throwing these names out, yet the only one people might know is Sam Shepard.
As for stand-up comics themselves, it was anybody who appeared on Ed Sullivan. I was fascinated by comics and saw all of them because I was fascinated by the whole idea of stand-up comedy. The ones who really hit me were Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce.
REVIEW: Plus you worked with Robin Williams in ‘Man of the Year’.
BLACK: Yeah, that was a great experience and a lot of fun. Robin has a private persona that was different than his public persona, but working with him was a great privilege.
REVIEW: How would you classify or categorize your particular brand of comedy, or is it possible to accurately do so? I asked Brian Regan this question once and he said it was too hard to take one art form that uses words to define another art form that uses words, and when I asked Steven Wright this question he said writing about comedy is like dancing about architecture.
BLACK: When people say to me, ‘You’re more than a comic’, that usually means I’m more philosophical, but really I think comedy tries to make sure people know that stupid is stupid - especially the way they’re being bombarded by stupid nowadays. There’s so much stupid out there that the big stupid gets lost in the little stupid.
REVIEW: I’ve always felt comedy is a lot like life in the sense timing is everything, but does your talent for comedy come intuitively, or do you have to practice at it?
BLACK: For me it’s intuitive. I would practice while at high school in classrooms by putting myself in positions of doing public speaking so I could learn to relax, because although nobody expected it from whatever role I was speaking in, I realized I could be funny.
A weird thing that happened after the pandemic is that the first time I went out on the road again, it was way too fast and I got sick. It was like I was running a marathon and knocked myself out. When I started going out again it was tricky getting my instinct to come back again. Even now sometimes I’m still trying to find myself getting comfortable with my instinct again. I know it’s there, but on some nights I’ll ask, ‘Where did it go?’ Believe it or not, I don’t write a lot of my stand-up material - I think about it and write it on the stage by instinct and work best on my feet.
REVIEW: Given the divisive political & social climate that’s been created over the past several years since the pandemic through de-platforming and censorship and the creation of social media bubbles & echo chambers, is there any topical material that is off limits for you?
BLACK: I don’t think anything is off limits, but if I don’t think something is funny, I don’t make a joke. Abortion has always been a tough one, for example. It’s not one you want to necessarily bring up at the dinner table. But really, it’s a question of what is receptive or less receptive. If I say that I’m retiring from the road, some folks will go ‘Good riddance - I used to think you were funny. What’s the matter with you?’ So comedy is subjective. It’s whatever you think is funny, is funny. If somebody else is laughing at something, it’s funny. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t think is funny that’s made a lot more money than I’ve ever seen!”
REVIEW: What’s the biggest challenge for you in terms of advancing your career. Is it not getting locked into a corner of predictability?
BLACK: Part of the reason I’m letting this go and after this tour will probably mostly be doing pop-up appearances is as long as I was learning something, I would continue to do it, which is what I’ve done for many years now.
It’s not a question of how many times can you do the same show a different way, because I’ve done 30 different interpretations about Democrats & Republicans and what’s the difference when they both look like a bowl of crap looking in the mirror at itself. I’m done telling those jokes because both sides, in their own fashion, are in on the joke and I’m sick of explaining to people why they are the joke because it’s exhausting.
A lot of what’s occurring is already funny because the times we’re living in are satirical. Since 2016 it’s hard to satirize what’s already satirical. When you hear a Governor talking about the benefits to slavery, you can’t top that. If you read that in a novel about some fictional state you would be laughing. Frankly, it’s getting to a point where I can’t top a lot of this stuff because it’s become a joke onto itself.
REVIEW: What’s the one thing about contemporary culture that bothers you the most?
BLACK: My immediate reaction is how ephemeral its become. What bothers me is that it hasn’t changed in the course of my lifetime, but it has reduced our attention spans. They just get shorter and demand more but can’t afford the time to pursue any depth or context, so the culture has just regressed. It’s like being in high school. The culture of America is a culture of high school - walking down a hall and pointing at one another. ‘Oh, look - he’s sleeping with her!’
Tickets for Lewis Black: Off The Rails start at $45.00 and are available by clicking this link. The show happens Thursday, November 9th, at The Temple Theatre, 201 N. Washington Ave. in Downtown Saginaw. The show starts at 8:00 PM.
9th February, 2024