Paint it Black

The most common misconception about Lewis Black, the once-weekly commentator on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is that he's an angry, angry man. Certainly, he gives off all the signals of the furious: His voice, the rumble of the chain-smoker who spends his time yelling at passers-by on street corners, builds rapidly from conversational to confrontational. His eyes, hidden behind glasses, begin to bulge. His finger, pointed at the camera and the audience, suddenly begins to shake as though he's stirring something in midair. Black will do this when speaking, then shouting, about any subject: the president, never-ending wars in faraway places or maybe just our obsession with the Weather Channel. It matters not what he's talking about, because Black is the fuse that provides its own match. Waking up sets him off.

But Black is not angry, only frustrated; his outbursts are fueled not by fury but by the disappointment all idealists feel whenever they realize the world will never be a better place, despite their very best efforts. His is an altruistic rage, if you will, belonging to a man who's not only a stand-up comic but also a respected playwright, a drama teacher, a raiser of money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and a longtime mentor to inner-city kids in Manhattan, with whom he writes plays and helps with homework. Once you know this about him, his work as a comic and commentator falls into a bigger context and makes real sense: What he's really about isn't anger or yelling but trying to make the world a little better, and realizing, hell, that just ain't possible sometimes.

"Well, you hit it on the head. Just don't tell anybody, 'cause it will fuck up my act," he says. "That's really it. That's always been it, and partly it all works together with what it is I want to do, which is perform and write. When I was running a club and doing stand-up, the 52nd Street Project was a place where I could go. I could write a play and work with the kids, and it all kinda falls back onto itself, you know?"

In other words, Lewis Black isn't at all misanthropic, but altruistic?

"Someone recently asked me, 'Where does the anger come from?' and I said, 'I'm an idealist,'" Black says. "And that's about as stupid as it can be. Really, the anger probably comes from my anger with myself."

What do you mean?

"Being an idealist, you know? What am I thinking?"

Having his weekly forum on The Daily Show alleviates some of that frustration; where some people gather steam, Black harbors infernos that would otherwise melt him to the ground without a regular release. But the show has also garnered Black the kind of fame that eluded him when he was playing every Mr. Chuckles and Johnny Nyuk-Nyuk's in the country. Though he's yet to land his own series--after several attempts this season alone, including one pilot for Tim Allen's production company--Black will have a DVD and CD out this month, and he's been featured on VH1's I Love the '70s series as a commentator, though he knows little about most of the junk he's being asked to comment on. He'll also take part in a Comedy Central contest: "Win Lewis Black," which means, literally, someone can win Black and get him to perform for their friends. Sounds, uh, cool?

"If I don't have a show, and it doesn't look like I'm going to have one besides The Daily Show, this keeps me on the air for three months and reminds people that I'm a comedian," he says. "Probably I've achieved the really fun part of celebrity where somebody comes up every once in a while when you're feeling like a piece of shit and talks to ya, so it's about raising the bar and getting more people to at least take a look at you."

Yes, but does Black really love the '70s?

"Hey, any whore in the storm," he says. "I mean, it's insane who they get to do that--like, everybody and their mother. They just bring us in and get us for an hour and a half, and nobody gets paid. It's unbelievable."