It's not an act. When comedian Lewis Black is screaming into a microphone on a stage or thrusting his pointer fingers at the camera to punctuate his rage during one of his editorials on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, it's not something he picked up from his years in theater or his seasoned stand-up career.
He's genuinely pissed.
"I do feel like that's always been a part of the gig," Black says from his tour bus that's headed toward the Majestic Theatre for a show Thursday for his The Jokes on U.S. Tour. "It's not just about things like [Senator] Ted Cruz, and I've talked about Ted Cruz tons. A lot of people come because it's just everything. You live apparently in the richest country on Earth and we can't do anything right? How is that possible?"
Black's comedy isn't just entertainment. It's a glorious, spittle-flying release of the frustrations everyone has with politics, culture, sports and the weather.
"It's supposed to be spring," Black says. "We got fucked on that."
Seeing Black onstage or on television is like attending a Two Minutes Hate session from 1984, except he's steering the hate at Big Brother instead of for him.
"It's like there's this level of irritation, and I express that irritation," Black says. "It's like when you do that phone call to try to work out something with your computer or your phone or some bill you got, and it takes you 10 minutes to get a human being and by then, you're psychotic."
Black was born in Washington, D.C.; grew up in Silver Springs, Maryland; and attended the University of North Carolina and Yale Drama School, where he studied playwriting. He worked in several theater companies before becoming a playwright-in-residence at a New York theater bar in the 1980s. He developed more than 1,000 scripts, including some by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and American Beauty producer and writer and director Alan Ball. Black also performed stand-up and often incorporated his stand-up shows into his theater programming before pursuing stand-up full time.
Black says in between college and the playwriting, he worked briefly in the Washington political machine for the federal anti-poverty agency Appalachian Regional Commission. The level of bureaucratic frustration and inane inefficiency laid the groundwork for his comedic and political ethos.
"It was an anti-poverty agency that didn't know how to handle poverty," Black says. "Change seems to happen by luck, and a lot of people who are bitching about the federal government are people not doing their jobs, but there are also people who go beyond what their job requires them, like teachers who pay for their students' materials. You can bitch about unions all you want, but they are really dedicated to the job."
Then in the 1990s, comedian Lizz Winstead created a news program for Comedy Central called The Daily Show that skewered the news of the day with extended Weekend Update report-style segments while poking fun at the conventions and formats of local news programs. The program needed a wise overseer to provide editorials, and she tapped Black to do segments on whatever bothered him, from the latest Republican policies to the ridiculousness of calling candy corn a valid confection.
Black's editorials turned into a recurring feature called "Back in Black" that's stayed with the show for more than two decades and three show hosts. It earned him a pedestal in pop culture that's led to stand-up tours, Grammy-winning comedy albums and even roles in movies, like the voice of the core human emotion of (What else?) Anger in Pixar's animated film Inside Out.
Black's Daily Show segments and stand-up aren't about political partisanship. Black is a bipartisan basher of political bullshit. He once joked in his stand-up that the difference between a Democrat and a Republican is that "a Democrat blows and a Republican sucks" and that America's two-party system is "a bowl of shit looking in the mirror at itself."
"When it comes down to it, I don't care what your side thinks," Black says. "Most Americans want to help each other. The Democrats say, 'Oh boy, this is gonna be great,' and the Republicans say, 'How can we do it in the most cost-effective way?' They've just got to sit down and figure it out. That's how you do it, OK? You don't get to say your way is the best way or it's your way or the highway because the highway needs a bill in order to fix it, you fucking morons."
The hardest part of Black's job isn't finding ways to express the growing resentment toward the blatant ignorance and stupidity of authority. The problem is keeping up with it, he says.
"Part of what I talk about is it's the first time in my career that I have felt like I really need a research team," Black says. "I can't even keep up with it without a research team. Something happens in the morning, and I'll go 'Whooo,' and by night, something crazier will happen."
Black's not just referring to Republicans, and he definitely won't get an invitation to speak at the Democratic National Convention anytime soon. He's cursed out and pointed his angst at politicians and policies of both parties. Black says the most harrowing part is how the cycle of political ignorance repeats even when Democrats face an adversary as singleminded and self-centered as President Donald Trump.
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"Even today, the Democrats took the bait," Black says referring to the lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party on Friday against Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., Trump's chief policy adviser Jared Kushner and other entities alleged to have disrupted the 2016 presidential election. "The reason you lost [the 2016 election] isn't Wikileaks and blaming it on Wikileaks, Russia, the Trump staff and all that. The reason you lost the election is
"A lot of people wanted Bernie Sanders, so you take Bernie Sanders and shut the fuck up. Instead of putting your money into lawyers' hands, why don't you figure out why people don't vote?"
The secret to Black's angry comedy is that he doesn't carry a torch for one team. It's about how unity is better for every issue we face.
"My problem is with authority and the way it goes about doing what it does and the lack of sensitivity to what it does," Black says. "I live in a bubble, but I try to break through the bubble, and they don't even make the attempt."