Comedian Lewis Black speaks about theater, politics


Comedian Lewis Black, of many Comedy Central stand-up specials and Daily Show fame, was on hand at the Modern Theater earlier this week to discuss his life as a playwright and comic. Alongside moderator and old Yale pal Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theatre and distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk, Black spoke about the trials of writing as well as his always irreverent thoughts on today’s political climate. 

While many may know Black as the screaming and swearing comedian, he is also a prolific playwright who studied at Yale School of Drama and served as the playwright-in-residence at the West Bank Café Downstairs early in his career.

“I never wanted to do anything but theater,” Black said. But it was no easy path for the star, as he discussed how hard the playwright work is for him. “You’re creating a reality that has to sustain itself for a half hour or hour,” he explained, “It’s a puzzle in your head you have to solve … what kind of idiot makes a puzzle in their head they can’t solve?”

Black claims he was “terrible” at stand-up and writing in the early days. Recalling a bizarre tale from his first stand-up show, Black details the chaos of an uninterested crowd at a heavy metal rock club and a female flasher that stole his limelight.

“That’s when I knew I was going to be a stand-up,” he beamed, “What keeps you going as a comic initially is that you don’t know any better.”

As for his early attempts at writing plays, Black told many stories of his overlooked “dark, surreal, twisted, but funny” one-act plays. Since he “couldn’t make a dime” or get anyone to put on the productions, he wrote a “romantic comedy farce” that will actually be running in Seattle this summer.

The play, written 30 years ago, now features former President Nixon’s granddaughter in a role and a Yale friend “who would have been one of the suitors, now he’s the father…that’s when mortality really fucking hits you,” Black joked.

Upon learning about this play, some critics claimed Black was selling out. “C’mon, I’m selling out, yeah, because you won’t do my other shit!” Black cried out to the sold-out audience.

Speaking to the concerns of young theater students, Black said there were many times when he was faced with choosing between art and commerce.

“I always chose art and it might have been a mistake, a financial error,” he quipped, but added, “both can screw you.”

As an example, he spoke about being asked to audition for 30 Rock, although he referred to it as only “30 something.” Calling it a “morally reprehensible” show that creates “a mythology around yuppies; people who have shit whining about it,” he thought it would never get big and therefore refused the offer to join the cast.

Black never writes his jokes down; he merely picks a topic and talks off the top of his head of anger about it. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart and his writers work with Black to come up with a script, but then Black claims they change it all after he leaves.

“Little Hitler that Stewart is,” he joked, although he added that the script they end up with always works well.

During discussion with Brustein and through politically based questions from the audience, Black weighed in on the hot button issues of the day: the health care bill debate, the economy, President Obama, money’s influence in politics, and today’s news media. While he employed his comic styling to express his disgust with most of these problems and the way they’ve been handled, he couldn’t figure out why America is the way it is.

“That’s one of the things I’m trying to figure out,” Black said in response to what he thinks has changed America into a “greedy” society that doesn’t care for its fellow man and is obsessed with stories that entertain rather than inform. He emphasized that he is not a pundit, emphasizing that he is only “comedian Lewis Black, honk honk, quack quack.”