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Lewis Black's act is more than curmudgeonly comedy

This Grouch is No Slouch

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Lewis Black has had it with Republicans, Democrats, and most of all, the American voter. For Black, these are dark, dark times.

While most of Black's stand-up material touches on his own daily observations about pop culture, much of his ire targets the seediest corners of world politics. The tumultuous Bush years and the recent partisan bickering provide plenty of fodder — and the voting public is as much of a target as the players in the political game.

"I don't know how they don't get it," Black says of the current vibe. "A lot of it has to do with this belief in the individual and private enterprise, which is lunatic at points. I mean, after you get fisted by the system as hard as you could possibly get fisted in my lifetime, then still hold to the fact that, 'Well, nothing beats private industry' — then you're nuts.

He adds, "The only difficulty is in pointing out specific characters within the drama, but that's never really been my goal anyway," he adds. "You've still got the Democrats and Republicans, and when it comes to stupidity, they're a fail-safe operation."

The dynamics within the politics of the time fuel Black's curious balance of optimism and skepticism.

"It's extraordinary. It's beyond belief, what's going on now. It's epochally insane. When I was a kid, we were dumb. Then we got stupid. Now we're just an ignorant group of people who claim that we're doing things, but we're not. Both sides make things up, and we won't deal with reality."

Black gets a kick out of getting worked up in front of an audience. It allows him to blow off steam while expressing his opinion with a hilariously combative style. It provides an outlet for his craft as an observational comedian and for his genuine sense of frustration. It's an art he's fine-tuned for more than 25 years.

"I think I use my voice a lot better than I used to," he says. "I've found that there are a lot of other ways to hit a joke. When I started out, I was just bellowing most of the time. I found modulations and other ways to tell a story."

One of Black's trademarks is his knack for becoming verbally flustered — so instantly pissed off that he loses control for a moment.

"That's spontaneous. I don't plan that," he says. "In about 20 percent of the act, something would have gotten to me that day, and I hadn't really let it go, and the next thing you know, I'm standing in front of a group of people going off like a lunatic."

Whether he's performing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or on stage for 90 minutes in a sizeable concert hall, Black consistently takes aim at the most insultingly ridiculous behavior demonstrated by celebrities, world figures, and people in general.

"I basically try to approach it as someone who's looking at it like any poor schmuck," Black says. "I try to go to both sides and see what's going on. But I hear no clear expressions from [politicians and the media] about what they're thinking. It's just this kind of spilling out ... everybody's yakking in bullet points. I'd rather spend that half hour not listening to people, but having them fire guns at me while I crawl around on the ground, like in an Army exercise. My mind would be better off, and I would be more alert after that."

Born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, Black pursued a career in drama in his teen years before attending the University of North Carolina and Yale Drama School. He did a brief stint in Colorado as a theater owner during his college days, too. While aiming for a career in theater, he gradually ventured into stand-up comedy.

In the 1980s, he settled in New York City and became the playwright-in-residence at the West Bank Café's Downstairs Theatre Bar. He left the West Bank later that decade to pursue stand-up full time.

In 1996, Black created a weekly segment for Comedy Central's The Daily Show. It came in as a three-minute rant about whatever was bothering Black at the moment. Since then, "Back in Black" has been one of the most popular and longest-running segments on the show.

Black has also taped four specials for the Comedy Central Presents series. His appearances helped to win him Best Male Stand-Up at the American Comedy Awards in 2001. Not much has changed in his approach over the years.

"I'm much more comfortable on stage, so I haven't been affected at all," he says of his gradual rise to commercial and artistic success. "It's the same thing; you just fill a bigger space is all. For me, it's easier to perform in big rooms because of how big I try to be on stage. Maybe it looks saner."

Black's observational comedy and dynamic, ranting style might not be for those hoping for a polite, joke-telling stand-up gig. He acknowledges that some in the crowd each evening just won't get it.

"I actually talk about that in the beginning, because I know there are people in the audience who have no idea what to expect and might leave as soon as I start," he says. "I say, 'Sadly, for some of you, I know I'm not going to make you laugh. I'm just going to scare you.' "

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