Suffering no fools
I first saw Lewis Black at the Michigan Theater several years ago (he's back there on February 19). He gave what seemed to be a rambling monologue that began with jokes about the Old Testament and the plight of Jews, circled around through Christian prejudice, politics, and other territory, and brilliantly returned to its origins--a masterly comic lecture of sorts. It was a tour de force, deconstructing myths, prejudice, pretense, and religion.
But what I remember most about that performance isn't the mastery of material, the perfect comic timing, or the sheer intelligence (Black has a way of skewering inanity that is both logical and outrageous). It was his remarks to the audience, which indicated a fine grasp of Ann Arbor sentiment. Several times after making a politically incorrect remark, he pointed out how most of the audience had started to laugh but then stifled its amusement. Black was contemptuous. "You know what you just did?" he scoffed.
Finally, after four or five such moments, Black stopped his routine, walked around the stage in what seemed to be genuine rage, and sputtered loudly: "There! You did it again! You started to giggle and then--silence! You have to stop doing that! That kills comedy!"
Black is such a cauldron of indignant anger--it's what fuels his comedy, and it never lets up--that the rage seems more than an act. And in his scolding of the Ann Arbor audience it was both genuine and merited. Political correctness does eviscerate Black's humor. One of his main targets is pretense of all stripes--and he is an equal-opportunity ridiculer.
A year ago, I saw Black again at the Royal Oak Music Theater, and his act seemed less coherent. He growled about the growing expectations of him now that he has become a more mainstream act, sometimes booked to open for, say, country singers.
I sense that Black may also have a problem with the shift in rage on the political spectrum. The angry old white man persona
has been somewhat co-opted by Tea Party types, folks that Black would find insufferable but who have squatted on his territory of anti-Establishment invective.
Still, Black has taken the long comic tradition of indignation and perfected it for an age in which just about anything--from oil companies to politicians to celebrities--can make your blood boil. That Black can boil it for you--and then skewer your own insecurities and pretenses--makes him quite discomfiting. Yet his consternation is still so justifiable, the logic of his rage so incontrovertible, that his anger doesn't seem so much an act as a vehicle for our own vituperation. Just don't kill his jokes with uptightness--or he may come down off the stage and throttle you.
[Originally published in February, 2011.]