Lewis Black jabs his index finger in the air, as if each violent motion could puncture his audience’s illusions about life. As he steps toward the lip of the Warner Theatre stage, his voice escalates. We live in troubled times, he bellows to the packed house. You want proof? America’s reigning Angry Comic then delivers the koan of a kicker: Because I, Lewis Black, am now mainstream!
The crowd laughs in double acknowledgment. The Grammy- and Emmy-winning comedian does indeed have millions of devoted fans. But there’s also the Groucho Marxian twist: If Black’s diatribes against this modern world strike such a wide and cathartic chord, what does that say about the state of things today?
On this “In God We Rust” tour two Septembers ago, the dyspeptic comedian rolled out rants against health-care costs, against greed, against poverty. Against leaders who insult our intelligence. From marijuana legalization to Americans’ wired lives, seeds from that tour will bloom in Black’s newest tour, “Running on Empty,” which comes to the Warner (Sept. 27-29) before heading next month to Broadway.
“I’m trying to get the through line,” Black tells me a few weeks ago. “It’s that the century is a disappointment. The baby-boom generation couldn’t fix anything. And we broke most of the toys we were handed.”
Black, born in 1948 and a teenager of the Beatles years, celebrated his own “When I’m Sixty-Four” milestone Aug. 30. It wasn’t until midlife that Black began to find mainstream stand-up success — largely by tapping into that sense of disappointment and disillusionment.
Personally, he says he’s mostly content. But onstage, he spews F-bombs of satiric exasperation. He inhabits a splenetic character who vents with fingers twitching, arms flailing, torso oscillating like a sprinkler head.
“I’m a happy person, but an angry citizen ... ,” Black tells me. “To get angry at the world around us is the most sane reaction you can have.”
But how did Black become a one-man ranting civics lesson? How did he become the comic voice of our national vitriol?
It is a broiling, nearly triple-digit day in Washington. As I slog my way to Hotel Rouge in Northwest, I rethink this whole coat-and-tie thing. I’ve met Black before, after night shows, but our first interview demands sartorial decorum.
I tug hard at my neckwear in the high-noon heat until, arriving, I appear as disheveled as the comedian’s volcanic “Back in Black” character on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” It’s a look Black has perfected for his hot-under-the-collar persona: tie pulled askew, lapels gone wild. Lewis Black the character, losing it on the Titanic of life, is the model of the modern id unleashed.
As I enter the lobby, up strolls Black in jeans and a lightweight blue-striped shirt, looking cool. Calm. Refreshed. We shake, we sit. Then: “What’s with the coat and tie? It’s a hundred degrees out, you f---!”
It’s a welcome sign: Black is cursing with me, not at me. Off come the tie, the coat and the formality. A man drenched in sweat wheels in his bicycle; Black needles him, too. The man introduces himself as John Bowman, Black’s longtime opening act. They trade easy jabs like comics can after sharing tour buses and friendship for decades.
Seeking a quieter place to talk, Black and I are directed to a pillowed nook painted so come-hither rouge, it looks like a waiting room for a harem. Settling in, Black shares memories of growing up in Silver Spring in the 1950s and ’60s; of finding a creative home at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he would experiment with playwriting, comedy and drugs; and of attending the Yale School of Drama in the ’70s, where he would grow his profound distrust of authority.
Black’s phone goes off. Then he does. Eye-rolling agitation. He thinks the world is going to hell in a hand-held. “I’ve got this insane Droid!” he tells me later. “I’ve got too much to do. I do 100 e-mails just to keep up, but I’ve got 3,500 e-mails in my inbox!” His voice builds. “And then there are the apps! Every time I use an app, part of my brain dies! We’ll get to the point where we go to bed and wonder: Did I have a thought today? You’ll have to go to your ‘Thought’ app!”
Black reholsters the Droid. Not just smartphones drive him batty. “There’s this Facebook thing and this Twitter thing — you’ve got new things!” says Black, who has hired a social-media pro to help handle these. “It’s a bombardment of information that’s at levels I never imagined.” His voice revs up for effect. “My generation takes LSD, and everyone gets into a hoo-ha about it. But the computer has the effect of a drug! It’s like we dropped a drug that has about 50 times the power of acid!”