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Jewish Journal

Lewis Black Hits It Big by Seeing Red

by Marc Ballon

June 17, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Lewis Black is pissed off.

In his HBO special, "Black on Broadway," the black-clad Jewish comic from New York with the tobacco-tinged rasp unleashes a torrent of four-letter words and razor-edged observations about the world around him -- a world that could be so much better, so much kinder, so much gentler. But isn't.

Stalking the stage like a panther at times, Black, 55, trains his sights on Democrats, "a party of no ideas;" Republicans, "a party of bad ideas;" bottled water, which is manufactured "by a couple in Pittsburgh sitting in a bathtub"; and New Zealand, which is so far from civilization that "if they want to be a part of our world, I think they should hop off their islands and push them closer to the rest of us."

His fury building, the spittle-spewing Black reserves his most cutting remarks for the politicians who led us into Iraq.

"If they couldn't find the weapons [of mass destruction], which is the reason we went to war, then why couldn't they make something up?" he asks to roars of laughter. "Why did they stop lying? My government has always lied to me, and I'm comfortable with that. They could have done it so simply. Just send two kids to Kinko's and say you wanted a picture of a camel with a nuclear weapon on his back."

Several times during his hourlong HBO broadcast, Black checks himself to stifle a grin. Apparently, it's uncool for a comedian to smile on stage, even if he now routinely sells out 2,000-seat theaters after years of toiling in obscurity, and has won legions of fans for his take-no-prisoners political commentary on Comedy Central's Emmy-winning "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

The curmudgeonly Black has much to be happy about. His HBO special, which debuted last month, won solid ratings. It also put him in pretty elite company. Superstars Chris Rock and George Carlin are the only other funnymen who have their own HBO showcases this year.

Black, who will appear at the Grove of Anaheim on Saturday, June 19, can earn more from a single show than he used to make in an entire year.

"It feels great getting recognition," Black said in a telephone interview. "I'm happy that it didn't happen after my death."

The graying Black has achieved a level of popularity at an age when many of his contemporaries have burned out, faded away or quit the profession and landed grown-up jobs to avoid starving to death. Black's willingness to confront ugly truths about two-faced politicians, greedy CEOs and deficit-busting tax cuts for the rich have struck a chord, just as Richard Pryor's attacks on racism and Lenny Bruce's assault on the establishment's hypocrisy did a generation or so ago.

Even Judaism makes a ripe target. As a child, Black said he developed an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust and a fear of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. He so worried that God would write his name in the Book of Death that he stewed over every misstep.

Black said his concerned parents ended up sending him to a shrink to deal with his neurosis. It's hard to know whether he's kidding.

As a graduate student, Black and a friend attended services during the High Holidays. The rabbi used the occasion to raise money for Israel. "I was thinking, 'No, not today. You idiots,'" he said in his trademark growl.

On the other hand, Black said he dreamed of becoming a religious leader until his early teens, when his temple hired a rabbi who turned him off. Black has fond memories of his bar mitzvah, which netted him "the big bucks." He said his Jewish background gave him a strong moral foundation and empathy for the less fortunate.

Still, Judaism, like other Western religions, holds little appeal for Black.

"The Jews created guilt. The Catholics codified it. And the Protestants transformed it into tension," Black said with a chuckle.

Combining Rodney Dangerfield's self-deprecating wit with hero Carlin's astute social critiques, Black hopes to leverage his stand-up popularity into a television sitcom. So far, TV has treated him less kindly than the comedy world. Networks have declined to pick up the three pilots he's made, including a recent one in which he played a high school principal. Apparently, Black might be too hot for the cool medium.

Slightly embarrassed by all the adulation, he characterizes himself as an "acquired taste." Others call him flat-out hysterical.

Playwright and composer Hollye Leven first met Black four years ago at a casting call for her well-received play, "Funny Business." After auditioning 20 comics, Black took the stage last.

"I just fell down laughing, and said I had to have him for this show. He was so far and away more intelligent," Leven said of Black, a voracious reader who holds drama degrees from the Yale School of Drama and the University of North Carolina, where he graduated with highest honors.

Black's growing obligations prevented him from starring in "Funny Business," although Leven said he might make a guest appearance in the future. Even though Black was unavailable, he opened his Rolodex and put Leven in touch with a musical director and comedian who ended up working on the play. Black's kindness and humanity set him apart from many other celebrities, Leven said.

Kindness and humanity are not words usually associated with the irascible comic. But behind the scenes, he has done much to make the planet a little better.

Black has served for years as a volunteer mentor for inner-city youth at the 52nd Street project in New York. He has also taught at and raised money for the Williamstown Theatre Festival and contributed to cystic fibrosis research.

Unlike many stars, he hasn't forgotten his roots or his manners, said comedian John Bowman, Black's opening act and a close friend for 20 years. Whenever the pair go out for a meal, they often include their tour bus driver, with whom Black shares glasses of red wine regularly.

Bowman, who has guest-starred on "Seinfeld" and "Ellen" and hosted MTV's short-lived show, "Kamikaze," said he appreciated Black taking him out on the road and exposing him to a huge audience. Conan O'Brien recently asked for a tape of Bowman's new routine.

"You could call any friend of his and all will testify that there couldn't be a better friend than Lewis," said Bowman, who joked that he lets Black beat him at golf to keep his boss happy. "He's sincere, caring and interested. He's been that way since I've known him."

Black's ranting and raving notwithstanding, he said he is less angry than he is frustrated at the gap between what is and what should be. A self-described socialist, Black remains an idealist who continues to hope for change.

"He is, at heart, an educator," said Black's manager, JoAnne Astrow. Through his comedy, "he is hoping that we'll look at things differently and see that we can affect change."

Born in Silver Spring, Md., near Washington, D.C., Black's mother, Jeannette, worked as a substitute teacher, and his father, Sam, was a mechanical engineer who worked on sea mines. His father retired when the mines were used during the Vietnam War, a conflict he opposed.

Growing up, the young Black wanted to become a playwright and, to a lesser degree, an actor. He considered comedy a side gig, although he snapped up new albums by such comics as Bruce, Pryor, Bob Newhart and Mort Sahl as soon they appeared in record stores.

Black lived hard in the psychedelic '60s, a period he remembers fondly for its anti-materialism and counterculture.

"I did the drugs. I did the music. I did the anti-war movement," he said. "It was good for me."

At 21, Black made his professional debut as a stand-up comic. He bombed. Ever the fighter, Black got back on stage the next week and did comedy off and on for nearly the next two decades.

Comedy took center stage in his life in 1988, after a disastrous experience with a musical he staged in Houston. He said the show's backers wouldn't allow him to do a rewrite, reneged on their promise to allow him to hire six actors from New York and forced him to take a pay cut.

Fed up with the theater world, he went across town to a comedy club. Black liked the pay, the crowds and ended up going on a monthlong tour.

Then came the heavy dues-paying. Black struggled for years on about $500 a week and slowly found his comedic voice. Whereas once he shrieked at audiences like the late wild-man comedian Sam Kinison, he learned that toning things down worked better for him, his manager Astrow said.

In the mid-1990s, he began making semiregular appearances on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." That led to "The Daily Show" in 1996. He has never stopped writing, and has penned 40 plays to date.

Along the way, Black got married and unmarried after a year, an experience that has soured him on matrimony. More painfully, his beloved brother, Ronnie, died at 46.

Black said comedy remains one of the greatest jobs around. He gets to see the country, constantly learn new things to keep his act fresh and make enough money to spend lots of time on the links.

"Golf just allows me to hate myself more than I do in my daily life," he said. "It's just an impossible sport. You mess up at it, and you blame yourself. It's a great game for obsessive-compulsives."

Comedian Lewis Black plays the Grove of Anaheim on Saturday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, which cost $32.50 before fees, can be purchased by phone through Ticketmaster at (714) 740-2000 and (213) 480-3232, or at the Grove box office at 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. For more information, call (714) 712-2700.

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