Even someone who shouts as much as Lewis Black has trouble being heard. His latest standup comedy special, “Old Yeller: Live at the Borgata,” debuted in August on pay per view. He liked the idea of presenting a standup special live without having to go a network and its executives, but he’s afraid many of his fans didn’t know about it.
“The toughest thing is getting people to know it’s out there,” he says. “No one has figured it out yet, the marketing.”
Black is no stranger to television. He’s filmed multiple specials for Comedy Central and HBO, winning a Grammy and an American Comedy award and being nominated for an Emmy. He’s appeared on just about every talk show out there and his “Back in Black” segments, a mix of comedy and political commentary, have been a part of “The Daily Show” longer than Jon Stewart has.
However, a recurring “Daily Show” spot isn’t the same as a television show that airs every day or every week when it comes to creating audience awareness. Black was happy with the special – well, “happy” might not be the right word. “Happy” is a word seldom associated with Black’s on-stage persona – but he doesn’t think it reached the audience it should have (it’s still available on demand and eventually will end up on DVD and on Comedy Central or another cable network).
“People don’t f— know it’s out there. It’s amazing.”
There’s a hint of that anger Black’s fans know and love.
Black is a master at expressing the rage and frustration his audience feels at problems big (the ineffectiveness of government) and small (cellphones). The difference is he has a stage, a microphone and a sharper, more insightful mind to express those frustrations. He externalizes what others keep bottled inside for comedic effect.
During a phone interview from his tour bus while driving through West Virginia, Black doesn’t just recycle lines from his act to answer questions, as many comedians do, but there are times when he starts to get animated about the topic and a lower-wattage version of the on-stage persona emerges.
When Black made the shift from theater – he worked as playwright-in-residence and emcee at West Bank Cafe’s Downstairs Theatre Bar in New York – to standup, he was discouraged from that style.
“Angry and frustrated, that’s not going to fly. People aren’t going to think that’s funny, not in the Midwest. Well, they were angrier than I was. It reached a tipping point, I don’t know when it was – Iraq, Afghanistan, the lack of leadership on all sides.”
Politicians who spend their careers working to get re-elected instead of working for their constituents, gerrymandered congressional districts that keep ineffectual politicians entrenched and those who refuse to acknowledge accepted science and social change are some of the topics that can get Black revved up on the phone and on stage. But turning anger into comedy is a process.
Like the best comedians, Black’s act constantly is evolving, changing. And now that “Old Yeller” is out there, Black is trying out new material and retiring those bits – “Even though most of them HAVEN’T SEEN IT.”
What Black is looking for in the new material is laughs, not applause.
“When you’re not getting laughs, you’re telling them what the joke is going to be about, which they agree with, but you’re not telling them the joke.”
One thing Black has been doing in his performances recently is having his opening act, John Bowman, ask the audience to tweet Black questions during the intermission. Black then uses the questions to inspire different ideas and tangents that he incorporates into his act. It’s a way for the comedian to benefit from Twitter, a social media tool that isn’t compatible with Black’s style of comedy.
“140 characters doesn’t work for me. It never worked for me as a writer and it doesn’t work for me as a comic. By the time I get to 140 characters, I basically haven’t even gotten started. My comedy is based on building s– to get to a point, ‘Oh, there’s the joke!”
The government shutdown happened about 10 days after the interview, but the ineffectiveness of Congress was a recurring topic in the conversation. And it likely will be when he performs Oct. 10 at Stambaugh Auditorium.
“It takes a lot of gall, a lot of balls for Congress, that gets the greatest health insurance in the world, to not understand how that’s going to be a priority for the rest of the country. If you want to get a really good healthcare bill passed, first thing you do is take away healthcare from all those guys. It would have happened really quick.”
Despite his exasperation with the system, Black still describes himself as a frustrated optimist.
“What gives me optimism is, when a catastrophe occurs … people get in cars and they drive to help, no questions asked, no ‘Who’s there?’ ‘What are we going to pay?’ These f— in Congress, they’re galling. But the people are willing to do it and that gives me hope.”