Quiet ... Riot in Progress SO it was opening night for Lewis Black's rock 'n' roll musical at the Alley Cat the- ater in Houston. The year was 1986. His $100,000 budget had been cut to $20,000. His cast had been cut from 10 to three plus two apprentices. He barely had a place to stay. And then, in the middle of the performance, directly behind the critics reviewing the pro- duction, came a horrific sound that haunts him to this day. It was the sound of a friend throwing up. Five, maybe six times. She gave it a good show. Black, turning to his fellow play- wright, said, "You're hearing the sound of our career going down the toilet." If you wish to thank somebody for the anger and the humor and the con- vulsions that are Lewis Black ' 70, thank the theater community. He might never have won last year's American Comedy Award for Stand-up if not for it. You'll find no pretense with Black, who for the past six years ("Longer than any relationship I've ever been in ...") has lent his raging act to Comedy Central's news satire, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in the form of AC-DC-charged editorials called "Back in Black." For Black, who says stupid- ity is second only to authority for comedy sources, it was the perfect lifeboat for his material. You may not realize this - it's enough to grasp that Black, the caus- tic comedian with the razor's edge, even went to the same school that produced milk 'n' honey comic Andy Griffith ' 49 - but he didn't intend to be Lewis Black ' 70 on the day of his performance at Memorial Hall. Black got his comedy start at Cat's Cradle. a stand-up funny man. He intended to be a thespian and a play- wright. After he left UNC with a drama degree, he went on to get another at Yale, and spent he next several years writing and getting turned down and generally fuming at what he found to be vast ineptness and power- mongering among the agents who call the shots in the theatrical world. But after that opening night in Houston, needing money, Black went down the street to perform stand- up comedy at a small club, something he'd first done at Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. He was on stage 10 minutes. He left with keys to a better hotel room, his own car and in that first week of performing "made more money than I got for this play that I had put hree years of my life into. And that was it. Here's a club that's run by a guy who's probably a raging alcoholic, and this guy is willing to take more of a chance on me than the theater community, which I'd been working with for 15 years."
"It's changed my career totally: said
Black, who sold out his first performance at
UNC in February - and in typical fashion
was none too pleased that it was his first
campus performance. "I just ate at Bread-man's, and the three kids serving me knew
me. The Daily Show has given me access to
a much larger audience. The kid came up
to me and said, 'I hate to bother you, but
my father is a big fan, and I got him to
watch you' - which makes me the oddest
family comic in America."
Black says he understands his wide
appeal: The current college generation has
grown up using humor as a form of communication, while his contemporaries "had a
sense of being angry, about themselves
and the way things turned out. Our generation's first president was Bill Clinton - it's
disgusting. And our second one is Bush.
And that's representative of what?" he
nearly screams. Chief among Black's exaggerated stage gestures is his breakdancing
index finger, which
seems twice as long as
the rest of his digits and
composed of the same
core material as Gumby. He unfolds it from
his knuckle with a rubbery trigger motion
whenever there is a particular act of stupidity to be recognized.
Take Black's riff on Clinton-Bush, add
some extra-strength bitter pills and shake,
and you get the general attitude of his
routine - an attitude he began to
pick up during his student activist
years in Chapel Hill. From the cafete-
ria workers strike to civil rights riots,
it's a time he still relishes as the best
of his life.
"I came out of school with a cer-
tain world view that never changed:
he said. "It probably delayed my
career. The problem was that nobody
was going to do [my plays] the way I
was interested in seeing it done, so I
was going to have to do it on my own.
And that directly came out of my
experiences as a student in Chapel
Hill. A lot of people started looking at
alternative ways to do something - and
then did it."
While the rest of American media hit
the delete key after Sept. 11 whenever a
sentence questioning authority flicked across
their screens, Black said he thinks his own
network tiptoed excessively around the subject. It comes as no surprise, really, because
Black is a walking snub at authority. Off the
stage, his hair not particularly styled, a cigarette puffing from his mouth and his general look that of '60s-disobedience-meets-
2002-disillusionment, Black's every
movement is still a riot laying in wait. It's
just that now the riots explode on stage.
"Comedy is my way of dealing with
trauma. It's the only thing that saves me:
Black told his Memorial Hall audience in a
rare moment of solemnity. "Without a sense
of humor, we'll all end up like the Taliban.
Think about it: There was no one in that cave
to say, 'You're going to do what? C'mon.'"
- Beth McNichol ' 95
May /Jun e 2002