Something to Shout About: Comedian Lewis Black Is Back On Broadway
By Jonathan Mandell
Yale-bred playwright Lewis Black, more widely known as an angry "Daily Show" comedian and commentator railing against modern times, brings his act to Broadway in October.
When Lewis Black made his Broadway debut eight years ago, it was not the experience he had dreamed of having decades earlier. Back then he was a playwright, and pictured one of his plays making it to the Great White Way.
Instead, he was at the Brooks Atkinson for a single night to tape an HBO special, delivering his familiar angry, comic commentary about the state of America.
He had not aimed on doing stand-up for a living. He certainly did not plan on being a political commentator — and while that is how his viewers on "The Daily Show" surely see him, he still doesn't consider himself one.
"Politics doesn't interest me as much as how politicians undermine the quality of our lives," he says in a deep rasp punctuated by chewing gum. Besides, "I don't just go after Romney and Obama. My anger is equally towards Facebook and the weather."
Now Black is headed back on Broadway, presenting his stand-up show Running On Empty at the Richard Rodgers from Oct. 9-14, not coincidentally a few weeks before the U.S. presidential election. He's also set to board Playbill's Broadway on the High Seas cruise in December.
His play One Slight Hitch, starring Mark-Linn Baker, will also be running in October, at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, a one-hour train trip away. "It's a farcical romantic comedy: An ex-boyfriend shows up the day of a former girlfriend's wedding," Black says. "I first started writing it 30 years ago."
Talk to him in his longtime hangout, the West Bank Café on 42nd Street, and it becomes clear which of the shows has him more excited.
"For a comic, Broadway's another room," he says. "The fact that it's two blocks from my house is what excites me."
There was a time when Broadway held him in awe. His father began taking him to Broadway shows nearly every month from the age of 11.
Black wrote his first play as a junior in college. After college, he bought a theatre in Colorado with some friends, an experience that lasted far longer than you would think, given that the local authorities refused to permit them to perform in it. He then spent three years studying playwriting at the Yale School of Drama — and worked for the next 20 years as a professional playwright. He estimates he has written 40 plays in all, although they have earned him less money, he says, than he would have earned "if I'd been a migrant worker.
"In the back of your mind, you think if you work regionally and survive — like a baseball player in the minor leagues — you work your way up to Broadway."
That is not what happened. "I tempered my dreams. I was happy if I could get something put on in Pennsylvania, or Delaware. Then it was, 'Well, I'll be happy if people do it downstairs.'"
By downstairs, he means the performance space below the West Bank, now called the Laurie Beechman Theatre, where he was the co-manager and playwright-in-residence for years.
His patter while introducing other people's shows there attracted the attention of the now-defunct comedy club Catch A Rising Star, which invited him to do stand-up, first at their club and then on the road, where he's been ever since. He had been doing stand-up for a while before that, but as a hobby. "I started to see how I could fit into the world of professional stand-up comics. And I was getting income, which was fascinating."
Two decades into his second career, he says, "I have an ambivalent attitude toward theatre. I feel the same way towards it as toward an abusive orphanage." It might not be a happy experience, but it's still home. He never stopped going to shows, although, he says, "my real joy is going out and watching my friends' work. It's not seeing 'a very important play.' When I see 'a very important play,' I want to kill myself."
Lately he has gone back to writing plays. It's no easier than it was when he started decades ago. "Playwriting is like doing a jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces of the sky," he says.
His comedy is far less of a struggle. "When I'm angry, I'm funny. I don't actually know why."
He's been angry a lot lately.
"You've got two guys running for the presidency telling you what they're going to do. 'We're going to create more jobs.' How? They tell us to go to their website! Don't tell me it's entrepreneurs; don't tell me it's government. It's a combination of both. Figure it out. Talk to each other."
Black, who turned 64 in August, adds, "We've been trying to figure out Social Security since I was a child. Alternative energy, since I was a child. Healthcare. And we've done nothing to move forward on any of these." He cracks his gum.
Does he ever worry that, as with Lenny Bruce, his audience will start finding his comic rants just rants and not comic?
"I do worry about that sometimes."
So what does he do?
"I yell at myself on the stage."
He looks forward to doing his yelling on the stage of the Richard Rodgers.
"To be a guy standing up there is amazing to me. If somebody had said when I was at Yale that I would be doing stand-up on Broadway 40 years later," Lewis Black says, "I would have left school right then and started working right away as a comic."
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