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Interview: Lewis Black

Will Coviello talks to the comic, who comes to the Mahalia Jackson Theater this week

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Lewis Black prepares for a week on Broadway at his New Orleans concert. - PHOTO BY CLAY MCBRIDE

Watching the current presidential campaign and its orbiting pundits, Lewis Black is concerned about his career.

  "I try to present myself as crazier than what I am seeing, and now they have stretched the limits," he says, almost laughing. "Unless I am hospitalized, I don't know how much further I can go."

  But it doesn't take much to get him started on the subject. And just like in his Comedy Central specials and segments on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, both his trademark sputtering state of agitation and cutting insights spill forth over the phone from his home in New York.

  "Did you watch the Republican National Convention?" he asks but doesn't wait for an answer. "I wish my bathroom were that white. It's like watching a group of people who are freaked out that they're going to lose their power.

  "And then you look at the Democrats and you go, 'Holy f—k, could you guys dress up? Pretend? Present yourselves.' They all look homeless. Both sides present themselves in such a fashion that I get why the other side says 'I am not going to deal with them.'"

  Black isn't a political comedian so much as the subject is unavoidable. And he's not without hope.

  "I work from whatever makes me angry," he says. "A lot of what I see is political now. That's what makes me the maddest. I look and I can't believe these people are this age and still pulling this shit. It's like they never grew up.

  "The kids are way ahead of the arc. The next group has gotten over some of the social stuff some of these f—king monkeys don't comprehend. They get gay marriage. They get diversity. It doesn't freak them the f—k out."

  Black prides himself on having an audience that spans generations, and he says his fans get his act, meaning that it's only in bars that they expect him to spew jokes in Tourette syndrome-like convulsions of outrage.

  While he is best known for his comedy, Black's first love was theater. He's performing in New Orleans this week in preparation for a weeklong standup stint on Broadway, but he's also got a play in production in New Jersey. Called One Slight Hitch, it's in its third production. It's one of 40 plays he's written.

  Black grew up in suburban Maryland, and after his first job as a graveyard-shift package sorter at the post office, he headed for college, first to Maryland and then to the University of North Carolina, where he became interested in theater. In Chapel Hill, he tried stand up comedy and bombed at the rock club Cat's Cradle and figured he'd pursue an academic career teaching drama and writing plays. But a successful play convinced Black to give the theater world a try. A few years later, he entered the Yale University School of Drama.

  "It did good in a lot of ways, but little in the way of playwriting," Black says. "It helped my standup and friendships. But it was astonishing: They never ever talked about plot. Ever. They were like, 'Why don't you do some art?' And it was like, 'OK, we'll do some art.'

  "Plot was like this mystery to me. They didn't even like playwrights. They didn't like (Tennessee) Williams or Arthur Miller or Clifford Odets. But they liked Chekhov. Chekhov was good. Williams and these other guys — you can't at least teach something about plot from them? You didn't have to like them. Just, 'Here's what a plot is like.' But they didn't even teach them."

  Black then moved to New York City and set up shop at the West Bank Cafe's Downstairs Theatre and Bar, where he presented plays and served as host. The theater presented works by a young Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom) and Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under).

  "We did absolutely more new American one-act plays than any theater in the country for eight years," Black says. "And what we learned from that is that no one likes one-act plays."

  But during that time, he got more comfortable onstage from introducing plays every night. And the 100-seat theater hosted standup nights on Saturdays.

  Then a fellow comedian, Dan Ballard, offered him some advice.

  "'I don't get it, you're really angry, and you're not yelling. I'm not angry at all and I am yelling. When you get up there, I just want you to yell your act,'" Black recalls him saying. "And when I got up there, I started yelling and it worked. I was like 'Oh f—k, that's why I am funny. I am funny when I am angry.' It only took me 35 years to figure out."

  He honed the angry persona and began a more lucrative comedy career at clubs like Catch A Rising Star. He's put out a stream of books, CDs (won two Grammys), DVDs and appeared in nearly 20 films, from Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters to doing voices for animated features. Since 1998, he's been a regular on The Daily Show, skewering subjects ranging from politics to Wall Street to social media or whatever else gets his blood boiling and his audience howling. Since the style emanates from his natural reactions, it's easy for him to continually introduce new material into his act.

  "I do like that (angry) character," Black says. "I know that whatever (irritating thing) happens, I get to work it out at night."

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