Lewis Black is not feeling well.
The voice at the other end of the line is unusually subdued. It turns out that the voluble contrarian who typically rails against all the world’s ills is ill himself.
I’d started by asking what makes him angry today, frankly expecting a typical funny rant that would make me look like a brilliant interviewer. But what I get is:
“I’m angry I can’t overcome people asking me if I’m under the weather. I’m angry I can’t figure out how to get better. A lot of it is grief. I knew it could affect you mentally. I had no idea it could hit you physically.”
Mr. Black’s mother, Jeanette, the woman who’d taught him sarcasm, died recently. His pain was mitigated somewhat because he’d been preparing; her death wasn’t sudden. “I’d been grieving my mother’s loss for two years,” Mr. Black said. “She’d been starting to fade. Part of what makes it easier is that she was 104. As a friend of mine said, what are you gonna say? Too soon?”
Lewis Black, 75, is probably best known for his periodic appearances on the “Daily Show.” His segments, called Back in Black, are riffs on current events, or, as he’s introduced: “When a news item falls through the cracks, Black catches it.”
His voice apoplectic in comic rage, his hands shaking, frustration with the world coursing through him like a hurricane-soaked river, he takes on everything and everyone, from parents who overshare videos and photos of their kids on social media to how to improve the Oscars.
He’s also had many comedy specials and still makes about 100 in-person performances a year, including this month at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center on November 18 and the Bergen PAC in Englewood on November 19.
For the record, Mr. Black wasn’t always an angry comic. At one point, he even contemplated becoming a (presumably angry) rabbi. He grew up in Silver Springs, Maryland; his family attended Temple Sinai in Washington D.C., “where I had a really great rabbi, the remarkable Balfour Brickner,” Mr. Black said.
“He’d take a passage from the week’s Torah reading and apply it to what was happening in the world today. I found it fascinating, and I thought it would be a great thing to be a rabbi.”
To imagine what his sermons might have sounded like, you need only go to YouTube; you can see Mr. Black discussing Yom Kippur, suggesting that “only the Jews could have come up with a holiday so depressing. The only people who’ve taken this a step further are the Muslims, who take chains and actually beat themselves. I’m surprised the Jews didn’t think of that, but we don’t work well with tours.”
But Rabbi Brickner left Temple Sinai to join what is now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, and, sadly, his replacement “wasn’t as good,” Mr. Black said. “He’s the guy who showed me maybe I ought to rethink my career options.”
Judaism’s loss was comedy’s gain. It took some time for Mr. Black to find his current persona. A lot of his early routines were “based on anger,” he said. But he hadn’t yet sufficiently honed his skills to balance his act at the critical juncture of “oh my God, what’s he gonna do next and then find that line where you’re not pushing the audience away.”
That came later, when a fellow comic told him “You need to go up there and yell everything.”
He’s been yelling for 50-plus years now, and he’s very happy to be back on the road after two years of pandemic isolation. “I completely lost my mind,” he said. “I didn’t do well. A lot of people think it was the greatest, but I really don’t like those people.”
During his forced hiatus, Mr. Black had to face the fact that a basic presumption of his just wasn’t true. “The rug was taken out of me, because I believed that if we were attacked by aliens, we would get together and repel them,” he said. “I learned during the pandemic, when we were attacked by an alien virus, that that wasn’t even close.
“My basic belief went out the window. We didn’t unite. It was every man for himself. We had no leadership, none at all.
“We got the vaccine at warp speed, which was kind of remarkable. I thought everyone would take the vaccine, especially the Republicans. But the ones who took it least were the Republicans.”
That kind of talk can be dangerous in today’s environment. Just recently, comedian Ariel Elias, appearing in a South Jersey comedy club, had a can of beer thrown at her by a Trump supporter incensed that she wasn’t MAGA. (For the record, she drank the beer, creating a viral moment that ultimately landed her on the “Jimmy Kimmel Show.”)
Mr. Black understands that “there’s a feeling it’s a little more dangerous out there. Not just for comedians. It’s everywhere. It’s dangerous for teachers. It’s dangerous for people who work at the polls. It’s pervasive. I’m touring again, and every fourth or fifth show I might feel this could be bad. Security’s been raised at most of the theaters.”
Mr. Black does a special rant at the end of his routine. He’s invited audience members to submit pet peeves, a few of which he discusses. (That discussion is broadcast live on his website, lewisblack.com; even non-ticketholders can watch.)
At one show — Mr. Black isn’t sure whether it was in Washington State or Oregon — an audience member complained about the long lines and the wait to get into the theater because of the heavy security and metal detectors.
A few minutes later, Black read a submission from another audience member who said he saw someone trying to get into the theater carrying a pistol. Apparently, a woman put her husband’s supposedly legal gun in her backpack. When the couple was told that they couldn’t come into the show with a gun, they asked what would happen if there were an active shooter in the audience.
“Security asked them ‘How do I know you’re not the active shooter? You have no choice.’ So they left.”
At another show, Mr. Black tried to make a comic connection between the tongue twister “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood” and Donald Trump’s claim that he knows stuff.
“It was a funny, profoundly stupid line,” Mr. Black recalled. “But someone got up in the audience and said, ‘What about Hillary Clinton’s emails?’ I looked at the person for 30 seconds.
“If you stare at them, the audience starts laughing. They know it’s ridiculous. I told him of all the things he might have yelled out, he picked that? That you didn’t go with Hunter Biden shows how out of touch you are.”
These incidents aren’t pushing Mr. Black into changing his style. “Self-censorship? You can’t. You gotta be committed to what you’re doing. Once you start thinking about censorship, you might as well go home.”
There’s information about buying tickets for Mr. Black’s shows on his website, lewisblack.com.