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Black on Black

Lewis Black walks the line between fact and funny


Like a buzzard hovering hungrily above the battlefield of America's news media, comedian Lewis Black thrives on the turmoil of a troubled world. Over the past 15 years, both through his stand-up tours and on shows like The Daily Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Black has perfected his formula: pick headlines that are particularly enraging and repeat them in an agitated style that helps to spread the rage among audience members. "We've reached a point where everything you read is a punch line," Black explains. "All I have to do is say, 'Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California,' or 'George Tenet, head of the CIA, announced to the world that it is five years until we can deal with terrorism.' That, to me, is a punch line--all I have to do is go, 'Tada!'"

But it wasn't always that way. Black, 55, graduated from Yale School of Drama and worked as a playwright and actor until age 40 before turning to comedy full-time. "Writing plays barely earned me a cut above what a migrant worker might make," he recalls. "I was very successful, but it was still like living in an orphanage. I just got tired of taking the abuse of the American theater." The answer to this dilemma: if you shriek it, they will come. "Once I started screaming, everything I have just came out of that," Black explains. "I used to walk out on stage and scream for eight minutes, and the audience wouldn't really laugh. They'd just go into a state of shock. Now I lead them into it more, but it's still just quotes. All you have to do is quote."

Admittedly, the low points on Black's televised routines and on his most recent album Rules of Enragement occur when he sticks to his "quote+scream=comedy" formula a little too strictly. He can seem at times like a man overly excited about less than revelatory (and sometimes crude and borderline bigoted) material, and at others like someone who overlooks potentially hilarious jokes in favor of sticking to his insanely agitated character--but Black is all too aware of these tendencies. "Sometimes it's not riotously funny, but I still have to say, 'This is what happened,'" he explains. For instance, he admits, "I don't even know how to make a joke out of the price of oil. The president and vice president used to be oil people, and we're not supposed to see a connection. It's beyond jokes. They're in a place beyond irony."

Black says the words somewhat calmly, almost plaintively, but his tone quickly turns to one of accusation, rage and plenty of second-person rhetorical questions. "We have the smartest, richest country in the world, with the most brilliant scientists, and you're telling me that you can't come up with an energy policy?" he shouts into a cell phone in the early morning. "You can't deal with alternative energy? Are you kidding me? You mean you're still looking in the ground for energy? Is the sun that scary to you?" Replieth the interviewer: "Who, me?" Much of Black's humor is built on such pronoun confusion, cementing him eternally in the tone of a stranger in a strange land. If it's not "them" that screwed everything up, it's definitely "you." Gee, mister. Our bad.

On Black's elaborate Web site and in most articles about him, all the spitting and spite come off as secondary concerns to his commitment to public service. Black wears his charity work on his sleeve more than most comedians--almost as if he needs the public relief from his popular persona. "If I was like what I'm like on stage all the time, I'd be dead," he declares, citing extensive work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and New York City's 52nd St. Theater Project as particularly worthy ways to let off steam. He explains, "I teach stand-up, because it demands writing and acting simultaneously. The idea is that everybody has one funny story to tell, and if you don't, get a new life. Kids complain, but then I berate them until they come up with a funny story. They come out of the summer with something that defines who they are rather than just a monologue from Richard III, which always reminds me of why I'm in comedy instead of theater."

Comedy fans planning to see Black at his June 17 Morrison Center show should expect plenty of swearing, sweating and topics that are even more current than the Iraq-heavy Rules of Enragement. "I have large chunks of material about Condi Rice's testimony, and a lot more about the price of oil," he explains, adding that a recent tour he took of Salt Lake City's LDS temple provided him with the majority of material that will fill his set's arbitrary "local interest" section. Anything, that is, to aid in his ultimate goal of "deflating pomposity." To brew theatrical comedy out of real iniquity may be a stressful art whose biggest reward is nothing more than what Black labels the "perverse thrill" of righteousness, but Black's continued success shows that for American audiences, sometimes the best joke is not a joke at all.

Lewis Black, June 17, 8 p.m., $35.50, Morrison Center, Boise State campus. Tickets at Select-a-Seat.