America's Crankiest Comic Reflects On His Final Tour - L.A. Times (Jan 16, 2024)

Is this the end of the road for Lewis Black? America’s crankiest comic reflects on his final tour.

By Marc Ballon (L.A. Times)
Photo:  Paul Brissman
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Lewis Black is in his element. Onstage before an adoring audience, he merely says the name of disgraced former Rep. George Santos before the crowd erupts into laughter. The longest-running contributor to Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” Black, with his signature raspy voice rising in anger as he stabs his finger in the air, later unleashes a torrent of F-bombs and razor-sharp commentary, ranging from the sad state of the world to the idiocy of politicians.

These are good times for the 75-year-old comic. Black’s most recent special, “Tragically, I Need You,” has racked up more than 1.3 million views on YouTube. Later this year, he will reprise the voice of “Anger” in the Pixar sequel, “Inside Out 2.” At an age when most of his comedic contemporaries have faded away, Black continues to sell out theaters and revel in live performance.

“The stage is where I feel free, very happy,” said a soft-spoken and reflective Black during a Zoom interview from his New York City apartment. “It’s where I feel the most comfortable. “My primary relationship is with my audience and has been for a long time,” added the unmarried Black, who never had children. “They’re the ones that I’m seeing on a regular basis.”

So, it comes as a shock when Black announces during his act that his days of major touring are over. Turns out the road doesn’t go on forever, not even for the indefatigable Black, whose final tour, “Goodbye Yeller Brick Road” stops at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on Friday and the City National Grove of Anaheim on Saturday.

The reason is simple: “I’ve got other things I want to do,” he said.

Black, a polymath who graduated with highest honors from the University of North Carolina in playwriting and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, wants to write more books and plays and expand his RantCast podcast. He plans to produce more “Back in Black” segments for the “Daily Show,” which feature him riffing on the news of the day and railing against injustice and stupidity wherever he sees it.

One thing Black won’t be doing is following in Gerry Turner’s footsteps and going on “The Golden Bachelor.” “The whole thing is reprehensible and disturbing and beyond comprehension,” Black said. “Grow up! You’re not supposed be out there. It’s time to be an adult, you know, do something adult.”

Over the course of his 35-year career, Black estimates he has done more than 2,000 shows, performing in every state. Some years he has averaged 250 or more concerts.

He has played for audiences in Europe, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. Black has sold out renowned theaters such as Carnegie Hall and Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre , along with grungy clubs in college towns. He regularly stops in smaller places like Bismarck, N.D., and Rapid City, S.D., to “pick up another week of playing,” he said. “They are thrilled when you come to play for them.”

In his distinguished career, Black has written 40 plays and three bestselling books, released 12 comedy albums, won two Grammy Awards, starred in two HBO specials, and appeared in several movies and TV shows, including as Professor Crawley on “The Big Bang Theory.”

Black credits narcissistic, corrupt and delusional politicians and business leaders for providing him with a steady stream of material for his caustic wit.

“Stupidity is an easy target. And a lot of what I deal with is stupidity,” Black said. “As much as they love Reagan, he’s a f— idiot. As much as they love each one of these guys, they’re idiots.”

It’s not the tedium or the loneliness of the road that has led Black to quit touring. He has enjoyed seeing the country from the window of his bus, along with the bus itself. “It’s bigger than my first apartment in New York,” he said. Time on the road allows him to watch CNN, MSNBC and even some Fox News, along with reading The Week and the New York Times, searching for tidbits of hypocrisy and cravenness he can work into his act.

Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Seattle rank high on his list of favorite cities, as do Denver (“a great city with a phenomenal f— place to eat called Sam’s No. 3”) and Fort Worth, Texas. (“It has a nice center to wander around, and the Bass Performance Hall has spectacular sound. If the sound is good, it makes a huge difference.”)

Southern California, however, holds little allure for him, as much as he appreciates the audiences. His complaint will resonate with most residents. “I’ve been sitting on the road for hours to get somewhere that’s supposed to be 20 minutes. Hours. It’s insane,” he said. “I don’t understand how people live like that.”

A colicky baby
Black grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Silver Spring, Md. His mother was a substitute teacher, and his father worked as a mechanical engineer. Fittingly, Black was a fussy, colicky baby, a harbinger of things to come.

Raised in a Jewish household, he inherited his parents’ appreciation of education and his mother’s fondness for shouting. “My mother had this thing that if you yell at somebody, it means you love them,” said Black, a world-class yeller. “Not really healthy. But that was what I learned.”

The young Black wanted to become a playwright. For years, stand-up was a “side gig,” although he regularly snapped up new albums by comedic heroes like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bob Newhart.

Black honed his comic chops in the 1980s while serving as playwright-in-residence of West Bank Café’s Downstairs Theater Bar in New York. Besides overseeing more than 1,000 works onstage, including a few of his plays, Black emceed every show, trying out new jokes and routines along the way.

Audiences responded. By the end of the decade, he decided to make comedy his main focus.

Black struggled for years on about $500 a week but slowly found his comedic voice. In the mid-1990s, he began making semi-regular appearances on NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” That led to “The Daily Show” in 1996. The national exposure turbocharged Black’s career, giving him a level of success he never could have imagined.

As much as he likes writing plays and acting, comedy has brought Black the greatest satisfaction.

“I enjoy it all, but I’ve always liked stand-up the most because it allows me to write, direct and act,” he said. “And I’ve always loved that the ultimate arbiter of any performance has been the audience and not some schmuck producer or executive producer.”

Hard to believe, then, that he’s giving it all up.

Signing off with a smile
With the road nearly in his rearview mirror, Black said he’s signing off with a smile — sort of.

Over the years, the frustrations have mounted.

Black said he would have liked to have had his own Netflix special and a regular role on a TV sitcom, perhaps portraying the irascible-but-lovable character he’s perfected over the decades. Hollywood “never really got me,” he said.

Getting older also annoys the hell out of him.

“Anyone who’s over the age of 65 says that these are the best years of your life, you take the back of your hand and you slap them as hard as you can,” Black said. “Aging sucks. There’s nothing fun about it. Your close friends call and tell you they went to the doctor today. And then you just wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s just so awful.”

Finally, Donald Trump’s political ascendancy has spawned a new specimen of heckler. Loud, proud and aggressive, MAGA die-hards have occasionally interrupted Black’s show, much to his chagrin.

“In the entire time that I’ve worked as a comic, I’ve talked about every president,” said Black, an equal opportunity offender. “You liked me until I didn’t like your guy? Really? You jackass.”

When he’s truly locked in and things are flowing, Black said he loses himself, with the audience pushing and pulling him to higher and higher comedic heights. These transcendent moments make it all worthwhile.

So, is this retirement thing for real? Does Black really plan to permanently park the tour bus? Or like the Who, Mötley Crüe and even Frank Sinatra before him, will he return to a city near you after the boredom sets in and the adulation wanes? Is this really, truly the end of Black’s days as a road warrior?

Black seems to have left himself a little wiggle room. He has told crowds that he might come back as an unannounced opening act. When pressed further, Black admits that he might enjoy playing arenas again, as he did in 2023 as part of Bert Kreischer’s Fully Loaded Comedy Festival.

“I just hope that I’ve given people some relief from what they’re going through,” he said, “which has only gotten crazier as I’ve grown older.”