“Black comedy” is defined as “a type of comedy in which tragic or distressing subject matter is dealt with in a humorous way.” (For those unfamiliar with that century-old term, it has nothing whatsoever to do with race). Contemporary examples include animated TV series South Park and The Simpsons.
There’s another kind of Black comedy. It is the distinctive comic stylings of social satirist Lewis Black. If you’ve never seen him on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show or elsewhere, Black’s jittery persona is the angry, anxious man who points fingers, quite literally, at the foibles of our culture, with his shaky hands darting in every which direction as he fulminates fitfully about the state of the world, from the big stuff to the little stuff.
For example, with Hollywood’s Academy Awards telecast airing on March 27, on a recent Daily Show segment, Black called it “That night when America’s finest actors seethe with rage when British people pretending to be American steal their awards. And if you’re not excited about the Academy Awards, welcome to the club. They suck! For years, the Oscars broadcast has drawn fewer people than the strip aerobics class I teach.”
OFF THE RAILS
Not surprisingly, Black didn’t tune in to the Oscars this Sunday. He was on stage at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester (thecapitoltheatre.com), on tour with his show “Off the Rails.” Black thinks “This may be the first time I worked there, which is kind of exciting, so I’m looking forward to it.” The tour material will comprise a forthcoming TV special.
In a recent interview with him, I asked Black, who lives in Manhattan and in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, if he was familiar enough with Westchester to crack wise about it.
“I’m lucky if I can tell you 10 blocks,” he replied. “I travel 100 days a year.” Black hung out in Hastings-on-Hudson during the pandemic with friends who live there. “They were a pod and I was lucky to spend time there, so I can have my breakdown in front of them.”
Having a “breakdown” is part of the comedian’s shtick, but in this case he’s referring to not being able to perform in front of live audiences for 600 days during the shutdown.
Now that Black is back, one of the topics he’s riffing on is the pandemic, of course. He’s not always joking around about such things, either. “The [stuff] has not hit the fan yet. It’s coming,” he says. “The pandemic is the one commonality among us, except for those who didn’t think it existed. I wish I was one of them.”
PANDEMIC MEMORY LOSS
Black says he was told by his therapist that the pandemic has caused us to lose 20% of our memory, which won’t come back until we’re fully socializing again.
Black says he comes into every town with about an hour of material. He’ll also riff on what’s going on in that town, which he gleans by poring over local papers. “If something catches my eye, I will talk about it.” In a midwestern gig, he read something about a local censorship effort, “and I went ballistic for five minutes about it.”
At the end of his show is an interactive segment that Black calls “The Rant Is Due.” A page on LewisBlack.com invites people “to tell me and the world what’s been making you nuts.” He reads some of the rants at the end of his scripted show in a livestream on the website.
In a recent Philadelphia performance, one of the complaints was “My neighbor put up road reflectors on his lawn and a drunk lady hit our mailbox.” Adds Lewis, “She was following the reflectors.” He tries to read submissions that are made by people either coming to the show or who live in the town where he’s performing.
DEALING WITH WHINERS
Hecklers in the audience are not unknown to most comedians, Black included. Although, he says, “There was no real major heckling until the former leader became president. Once you elect somebody president you gave me the target. I didn’t. I wouldn’t call it heckling. I’d call it whining. Your job as the audience is if I say something you don’t like, here’s what you do: shush up. People are overpaying to see me, for goodness sake. So be nice. If you showed up here tonight, and you didn’t know what to expect to see, that’s on you, not on me.”
Black adds that when he shuts down a heckler, the rest of the audience joins in to support his effort, plus theater security is on hand for good measure.
When in Westchester, Black sometimes will hit the links. “I played Trump [in Briarcliff] years ago, with somebody who bid [at a charity auction] to play with me, and on the last hole there, I had one of the great shots of my life.”
While Black enjoys golf, many a weekend hacker will nod in self-recognition at his punch line: “… even though golf hates me.”
Bruce Apar is a writer and actor, who is currently appearing in the M&M Performing Arts production of Arthur Miller’s The Price at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, through March 27. For tickets > Lyndhurst.org/events/winter-theater. Bruce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 914.275.6887.