Profile in Excellence: Lewis Black

In a political season that has most Americans shaking their heads, it makes sense that Lewis Black would be a busy man. The walking definition of apoplectic, Black had his most recent Comedy Central show, “In God We Rust,” debut last month, followed by a CD and DVD release — all while Black was touring the country with new material.

Early October will find the foul-mouthed fumer in a different frame of mind, sitting in the back of the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey watching a production of his romantic farce, “One Slight Hitch.” (He wrote it in the early 1980s but has been rewriting for recent revivals, saying with a laugh, “I finally think I’m almost done with it.”) But he’ll return to form the following week when he strides onto a Broadway stage with “Running on Empty,” an “expanded and polished version” of the rants he has been delivering on the road.

“Seeing my play staged and performing on Broadway are equally exciting,” says Black, who earned an MFA at Yale Drama School and in the early 1980s was both playwright-in-residence and associate artistic director in New York at the West Bank Cafe’s Downstairs Theater. (He did stand-up while emceeing evenings there.) “But if you had asked me when I was younger, I probably would have thought I’d be performing in New Jersey and my play would be going on Broadway.”

Of course, Black has been a major force in the stand-up world for more than a decade now, with four Comedy Central specials, one HBO performance, a full-length feature film (“Stark Raving Black”), two Grammy-winning albums, and countless TV appearances including his semi-regular “Back in Black” gig on “The Daily Show.”

“When I started I was told, ‘You’re too much New York and have too much anger’ but the audiences were already there,” he says.

The election is the perfect backdrop for Black but he says the Broadway gig at the Richard Rodgers Theater (owned by the Nederlander Organization) was not something he’d consciously been building to. “It happened partly just because I wanted to come home and I’d played all the other venues in New York, and partly because Jimmy Nederlander wanted to produce me,” he says. “What was I supposed to do, say no?”

Nederlander says he started thinking about this a year ago, seeing Black’s take on the presidential campaign as a perfect fit for Broadway. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel for Lewis,” he says, adding that he purposely limited the run. (It was initially six shows; they sold out quickly and two more were added.) “I always want to leave people wanting more. I wanted it to be a tight ticket. There’s nothing worse than going around asking people, ‘Do you want some tickets?’”

Always seemingly one vein-popping outburst shy of a stroke, Black says this presidential campaign has kept his bile level high, providing a steady stream of material. His diatribe may change from week to week but he won’t abandon material on Broadway just because it’s a month old. “People don’t view these things — like Clint Eastwood at the convention — as being as disposable as the media does,” he says. “If it’s still getting laughs, then I’m not going to let go of it.”

He attacks foolishness on both sides, saying, “I kind of like it when there is a balance,” but says the Republicans just generate more material. “These people are beyond anything I imagine. I don’t know how Romney can win unless he shuts up.” (The Democrats are “like a turtle on its back,” unable to take full advantage of GOP gifts, he says.)

He doesn’t write down his stand-up material; he just starts talking and works himself into a frenzy, even if he sometimes goes overboard — “even I get disgusted by what I’m saying” — as he did recently in Austin, Texas, when he grew frustrated with an audience he thought was too politically correct.

Black and Nederlander both view this as merely the first of many Broadway visits for the comedian, with Nederlander also contemplating similar limited runs for other big-name comics when he has an empty theater. “Broadway houses are a great fit for comics,” says Nederlander, “they are intimate settings where you can see the performer up close and personal.”

Meanwhile, after this first run ends, Black heads back on the road, to Scranton, Penn., and beyond. Going from Broadway to Scranton will not be a letdown, he promises. “It’s hard to be disappointed anywhere that people show up just to see you,” he says. “What would you say, ‘Oh shit, they all came?’” n

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