Over the phone, you wouldn’t think the polite, mild-mannered voice gently laughing about old memories of West Palm Beach could ever sound furious.
But then you ask Lewis Black about what’s ticking him off lately.
That’s when that recognizably angry voice is unleashed, the one that meanders from a deep, teeth-clenched growl to a taunting, flabbergasted tone as he emphatically rants about why he believes government officials are incompetent.
From politics to social media, just about everything enrages Black—and that’s what makes him so funny. Known for his humorous tirades and ever-annoyed stage personality, the comedian sheds light on current topics through wisecrack commentary that brings him to the edge of a mental breakdown, every time.
We caught up with the loose-canon comedian to find out what he’s griping about lately and what memories he has of Palm Beach County, where he has been visiting for more than two decades. Be prepared for him to lose his temper December 13 when he returns to West Palm Beach to perform at the Kravis Center. Tickets start at $39. (561-832-7469)
What are some of your early memories of performing in West Palm Beach?
Twenty years ago, if not longer, I was the opening act for Ellen DeGeneres at the [now-closed] Carefree Theater. Then I started performing at the [West Palm Beach] Improv downtown, and West Palm Beach went from being some sort of a sleepy town to a city. It boomed—I take full credit. I pollinate like a bee. I come in, change city infrastructures. [laughs]
What’s been annoying you lately that you talk about in your show?
The fact that we don’t really have a government anymore. We have Groundhog Day: We wake up every day, and it’s the same. Nothing’s happened; nothing’s going to happen. We’re going to hear exactly the same thing. There will not be one new idea. Our government has not moved an inch. You can tell me it’s [President] Obama, or you can tell me it’s Congress, and it’s both. It is beyond my comprehension at this point.
I think it’s unbelievable. But I think what’s really appalling is people take sides. And it’s not a question of sides anymore—it’s just: Enough is enough. …
I’ve watched a bunch of presidents. They run for president, and then they seem to learn on the job. And we hope their learning curve is faster [than the last].
Do you have any hope that Groundhog Day will end?
Yes. I do, because I’ve watched this screw-up before, and I’ve watched us get out of the screw-ups. [The United States is] like a goofy kid who doesn’t do his homework until the last minute. Eventually, our backs will be against the wall, and we’ll say, “I’ve really got to study tonight.” And we’ll do it.
You’re paid to be angry, but is your act more than just a job and form of entertainment for you? In other words, do you use it as a way to vent or to perhaps enlighten audiences?
No, I’m not trying to enlighten an audience with an issue. All I’m trying to do is to think in public in front of an audience and give them a sense that what we’re trying to deal with isn’t easy. It’s a lot more complicated than everybody makes it out to be. And when your leadership isn’t really working, it’s really difficult for us to function at the level we should be functioning [laughs]. The things that I talk about are the things that a) make me angry and b) I can make fun of. And that’s how it falls out.
You had a past career as a playwright. Does the theater still play a big part in your life?
There’s a theater company called the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and I’ve been going up there for the last 14-20 summers. I teach the apprentices up there and give them a sense of what doing stand-up is like. I talk about theater and how I think it can help them in terms of their auditions. I get them up on stage performing, and if I was lucky and they had a little part for me [in a play], I would do that for them. I host their cabarets.
I also spent the last 12-plus years rewriting a play and eventually got it done at Williamstown. It’s being produced all over the country. It’s called One Slight Hitch. It’s a farce and romantic comedy about a young girl on her wedding day.
What inspired you to write a play on that subject?
A girlfriend of mine who said she was never going to get married called up about three months after we had separated and said she’d met someone and she was going to marry him. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Every one of my friends went to the wedding, and all the family could talk about was why she wasn’t marrying me. Then I came up with the idea of: What if I’d showed up at the wedding? So that was the story I wrote.
It’s a very old-fashioned play. I wrote it when [Ronald] Reagan was president, and I kept it in that time frame because a lot of what the play was about relates to what was going on during that time period.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
I’m doing the voice of a character in a new Pixar film coming out in June called Inside Out. It’s really exciting. Pixar has some of the most creative people on Earth. It’s astonishing. Watching them work was like being inside Beethoven’s brain when he was composing a symphony.
This summer, we lost Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Do you have any favorite, personal memories with either of them?
I knew Robin very well. I loved working with him, and I loved being around him. I really enjoyed the time I had with him. I consider myself really lucky.
He was a force of nature. There was nobody like him. He would remember more of my act than I remembered of my act. He had a photographic lightning memory, and he really was tremendously generous—everyone has said that, but it’s really true.
He was instrumental in my getting a very nice role on the movie Man of the Year. [At the time], I didn’t have a lot of major credits to my name.
He brought me on two USO tours. He would get off the plane, go right up to the troops and start performing. The amount he gave to the troops—I can’t imagine. I don’t have an energy source like that.
You have your own kind of energy. Last question: What do you want your tombstone to say?
[chuckles] Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute.
*Photos by Clay McBride