At times, it appears his head will come clean off -- detach from his bulgingthrobbingbursting neck and shoot straight into the air, where it will explode in a shimmering display of rainbow confetti and gray matter. But that's not before his eyes pop out of his skull, spurting toward the unsuspecting audience with bullet-like velocity. When Lewis Black is on about something, he's quite off; the man angers faster than a pit bull with a bottle rocket up its ass. For a couple of minutes each week, Black pops off on Comedy Central's The Daily Show like a street-corner preacher someone cleaned up for trial. He looks, ah, professional enough -- suit, loosened tie, glasses, all that rumpled Cronkite crap. Then he opens his mouth.
"The Chinese are celebrating their new year, the Year of the Rabbit -- which, judging by their population, is pretty much like every other year in China." Pause, while we look at the monitor, flashing images of giddy Chinese girls dressed like bumblebees. "Now we know what happens to those little girls they don't leave on a Chinese hillside to die," Black says, spouts, shouts. "They humiliate them to death! Oh, my rittre rotus brossoms!" Mr. Bruce, meet Mr. Sahl, meet Mr. Beale -- you're all going to hell.
And to think, the Yale School of Drama graduate's biggest aspiration in life is to star in his own sitcom. Yup, like that will happen. Not that it shouldn't: Black's an estimable playwright, a fine actor, and the most prescient Prophet of Rage to stalk the stand-up stage since Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks went to join Lucifer for a three-way. But Black's too smart for television, which is why he's on Comedy Central; he fits right in alongside Cartman, Jerri Blank, Trotter and Adair, and Ben Stein. He's the smart guy as smart-ass, a raving lunatic in a world gone even madder. And it's more than just his shtick -- it's comedy as catharsis, exhilarating and exhausting for performer and audience.
"I have hopefully created a peak-and-valley situation where I take it down and bring it back up and take it down and bring it back up, which allows me that respite," Black says of his performance style. "But sometimes, just because of the nature of a comedy club and the time and their energy being low, I will just go out and try to give it to 'em -- you know, keep it as high-energy as I can so the valleys are actually lower and the peaks are higher in order to keep them going. It's like being a runner. I was never consciously or unconsciously copying Kinison, because I was doing the anger when he was doing the anger. But what I do seems to be easier than what he was doing. I don't know how he did it. But I mean, when you work 300 nights a year, it's like a runner, you just get really used to it. I'll be doing three shows at Addison on Saturday, which is insane for me. The nights like that, I have to say I wish I was a comic in a cot."
Black is such a comfortable fit on The Daily Show for perhaps one simple reason: He and host Jon Stewart might be the only guys on TV who read something other than TelePrompTers, and they're both exceptional writers. In October 1998, Stewart published his first collection of short stories, Naked Pictures of Famous People, which read like Woody Allen's early short fiction, but with a keener sense of pop. Black's a better fit on Stewart's show than he was when Craig Kilborn ran the playground. Kilby always seemed too shallow and selfish to do "smart" comedy (indeed, he spoke the English language as though he didn't actually understand it); Stewart is selfless enough to give his contributors full run of the place, and good for them if they make you laugh harder than the host. Whenever Stewart meets and greets Black after one of his segments, Jon looks genuinely delighted, quite pleased.
"I kinda like the position the show gives me," Black says of his stint on The Daily. "Just being a playwright and working as a comic, I've always been kind of solo. I mean, theater puts you in that position of being with people, but the show has allowed me to actually move back and forth between a number of worlds, which has really been great, and it has allowed me not to have to deal with the hierarchy of the show. It's a wonderful hierarchy, but I hate hierarchies. The major change since Jon took over the show is that Jon brings his own point of view, which Craig did not have. And Jon's making it his show, which is fine by me since he and I have always had a great respect for each other. There's no sense of rivalry. He's got the common sense to know, 'Oh, good, two minutes are covered.'"