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It Takes a Comic
The Appeal of Lewis Black

by Derrick O'Keefe
January 26, 2005
First Published in Seven Oaks Magazine

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Lewis Black brought his unique brand of anger, wit and political commentary to Vancouver this week, performing to a sold-out crowd at The Vogue theatre. The skyrocketing popularity of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, where Black does a 2-minute rant every Thursday, has taken the 56-year-old comic from cult following to near star status.

The brief “Back in Black” spots with Jon Stewart, though, just scratch the surface of Lewis’ critical rage. Seen live, one truly gets an idea of the Black appeal. For more than an hour, he blistered the Democrats, the Republicans, MTV, John Kerry, the Christian Right, and the rest of the cultural and political morass that defines the social landscape of the United States. George W. Bush was featured, of course, but curiously Black never mentioned him by name – always “him”, “the president,” “that guy” -- suggesting perhaps that the cantankerous comic’s anger might slip from hilarious to frightening or dangerous if the emperor’s name crossed his lips.

The significance of Lewis Black, though, is that his act isn’t limited to being a furious contrarian, or, like so many Hollywood types, a shill for the lesser-evil Democratic Party. Early on in his act, Black explained how it annoys him when people ask if he’s “Blue” or “Red” (the color has taken on new political meaning), a Democrat or a Republican, describing the choice as between eating from either of “two bowls of shit.” His default potty humor laugh-generating device is “shit,” I’d be remiss not to note -- with a reference not less than every two minutes. To Black, his political choices are shit, Justin Timberlake is shit, the Super Bowl half-time show makes his TV smell like shit, the God of the Old Testament is, well, “a prick” -- but you get the point.

The potty and crotch humor, though, is only par for the course of the unfortunately male-dominated comedy world. John Bowman, Black’s opening act who has appeared on Seinfeld and The Tonight Show, punctuated his (also angry, though much less political) act with talk of his desire to open an “ass tappery” in Winnipeg.

Both comics, then, Bowman and Black, play the angry white guy to a tee, though thankfully the latter heaps his scorn on the best of targets. Apparently as a fledgling comic, Black didn’t yell, and it’s easy to see how this could have rendered him much less effective. The conclusion of his bit about arguing evolution vs. creation is dependent on the screaming and gesticulation: “Fossils, fossils, fossils…FOSSILS! I WIN!”

When Black is asked about his politics, he says he replies, “I’m a socialist.” That declaration drew only scattered applause from the Vancouver crowd, and this seemed to genuinely surprise him. (At forty dollars a ticket, perhaps he shouldn’t have been too surprised). “That’s the same reaction I get when I tell them down in the States,” he said, before segueing to his next bit with a dig at millionaire hockey players.

Amidst that populist appeal and other conventional gags on Vancouver’s rainy weather, Black proceeded to deliver an uproarious polemic against the Right, the war in Iraq, religious obscurantism and its concomitant hate mongering. What emerged, in particular, was a brilliant and effective defense of the rights of gays and lesbians to equal marriage and equal rights.

For those who don’t stay up late, or have just yet to catch The Daily Show fever, the program has emerged -- despite host Stewart’s utterly sycophantic interviews -- as an important vehicle for dissent in the United States. And though Black is an accomplished playwright and a veteran comic, the reality is that it’s his “Back in Black” on late-night TV that sold-out The Vogue. If you’re up late on a Thursday night, it’s well worth checking out Lewis Black in action; two minutes doesn’t do him justice, but it should be enough to begin to understand why this aging, angry leftist is packing theatres across North America.

Derrick O'Keefe writes for Seven Oaks, “a magazine of politics, culture and resistance,” based in Vancouver, BC, where this article first appeared.

Other Articles by Derrick O’Keefe

* MLK Day and Bush’s Inauguration
* An Interview with Allan Nairn on Aceh, the Tsunamis, and Indonesian Military Abuses
* Generals, and War Criminals, Die in Bed
* Colombia and Venezuela: Labor in Canada Builds Solidarity
* An Interview with Anthony Fenton on Haiti