After Dark: Lewis Black shares the secrets of his success

05:00 AM, Jan 23, 2013

Lewis Black's work as a playwright led to his career in stand-up comedy. (Rick Diamond)/


If you go

What: Lewis Black.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (Jan. 25).
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 885 E. Main St.
Tickets: $35, $45 and $55.50), at ticketmaster.com, rbtl.org, the box office or (800) 745-3000.

Lewis Black’s blood pressure is a perfect 120 over 80. “Everything else is rotting away,” he says. “But my blood pressure’s phenomenal.”

This is unexpected news, if you’re familiar with Black’s comedic delivery. He starts at a basic rant level and quickly spirals into the flustered, stroke-inducing stratosphere attained only by banana republic dictators. He has done this with success for years on Comedy Central specials, CDs, DVDs and his “Back in Black” segments on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And at theater shows, like Friday’s at the Auditorium Theatre. He has done it in books, movies and TV shows and as a voice for animated characters. Any role where “they want somebody to yell about something,” Black explains. He has even done it on The Weather Channel, where “everything’s gonna be a catastrophe.” Black finds any lack of perspective to be exasperating. “Like this flu thing,” he says. “You just jack it up so it appears to be watchable.”

Surprisingly, Black never raises his voice during this entire conversation. Talking from his Manhattan apartment, waiting for his automatic coffeemaker to deliver the goods, Black sounds like a measured, sensible, thoughtful fellow. However, he does speak in italics.

He is not a mad clown, he is not a sad clown. Comics, Black concedes, are generally neurotic. “But more happy than sad. They’re generally fun. Unless they’re on at all times, then they’re exhausting.”

So Black’s not on, which is a relief, if you’ve ever interviewed Yakov Smirnoff. You’d think at his income level, Black could afford a muffler for that automatic coffeemaker — over the phone, it clatters like a freight elevator door — but he has more important things on his mind. The long national nightmare of a presidential campaign has ended, shutting off a valuable source of inspiration for a man who, when he’s on, rants for a living. It was the election season’s lack of perspective that agitated Black. “People running around in a complete panic over the last election, screaming that the world’s going to end,” he says. “Nothing could be more ludicrous. Because nothing ever changes.”

But that is done, and he must move on to other issues to fuel his profane sarcasm. Such as gun control, “second only in comic fodder to abortion,” Black says. “That’s one of the most paranoid thoughts that people have had in the last 10 years, outside of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and vaccines cause autism: They’re gonna come and get your gun. I don’t know where that thought comes from.”

He says his exasperation with the world hit him early, as a kid growing up in Maryland. “Elementary school,” he says. “I did quite well, I did the schoolwork. I just didn’t understand what it was all about. It wasn’t like I was Descartes or something. I just didn’t get it.”

This sense of not getting it continued through college, first at the University of Maryland, and then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a young playwright, and a promising one. In fact that’s how he got started in stand-up comedy, doing routines as a warm-up for plays he had written.

But as smart as he was, and as smart as people thought he was, Black struggled with self-confidence. “I was writing a play with some other people, real pros, and felt I was in way over my head,” he says. “I had graduated from college and I was reading this book by Alan Watts on Buddhism and Zen. ‘Buddhism for Idiots,’ ‘Buddhism For Morons,’ something of that nature. And you end up taking just four or five sentences out of one of those books and apply them to yourself. And what I took out of it, as we were writing this play, was to just believe, from the very beginning, that this is going to work. I had complete faith that it was going to work out. And it did. Everything fell into place, it was hugely successful.

And I couldn’t deal with the success. All of a sudden, people were asking me for advice. It looked like I had something figured out, and I hadn’t. I’m thinking, ‘I’m in my 20s, you’re supposed to be the adults.’

One day I was at this professor’s house, and they’re very well-to-do. There was a Picasso or something hanging on the wall. This guy was teaching black studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and he’s asking me what should he do with his life, he’s so confused. What I should have said was, ‘Of course you’re confused, you’re teaching black studies and you’re white and rich.’ “

Instead, Black said nothing. Silence was as good as a lie.

As soon as I started to lie, that’s when the whole thing started falling apart,” he says.

Over time, Black came in back through the window, when adult professors stopped asking him for advice and he went back to speaking the truth: first in writing plays, then the stand-up comedy that became his career. Create those four or five sentences that people can take and apply to themselves.

The message? “How to get through,” Black says. “Do what it is that you want to do. Wake up every day and be involved in something that interests you. Most people are misled and underestimate themselves. Focus on what you want to do, whether you’re equipped to do it or not.

If you can find faith — and it doesn’t have to be in God — but if you have faith, that’s all that matters.”