From the NY Jewish Week
Black Is Black
Comedy Central star left behind fleeting thoughts of the rabbinate to become a spirited performer.
By Curt Schleier
Lewis Black as a child wanted to become a rabbi.
Yes, that Lewis Black. The acerbic, fed-up-with-all-forms-of-stupidity, fingers-flailing-in-the-air comedian wanted to be a spiritual leader
He soon realized, however, that his temperament — red face and all — would fail him. So he started telling jokes. Angry, political jokes.
Here’s a recent example: Chiding Mel Gibson’s public statements in support of Terri Schiavo’s parents, for example, Black suggested that Gibson make a sequel to his 2000 film “What Women Want,” this one titled “What Women in a Persistent Vegetative State and Who I’ve Never Met Want.”
His controversial humor has made him a star. Black, 56, appears weekly on Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He had his own HBO special. He has a new book and CD out. He plays more than 250 shows a year, all for packed houses.
Not bad for a kid who originally thought he’d spend his days in the pulpit.
“I was good in Hebrew, and what else are you going to do if you’re good in Hebrew?” Black asks. “I wasn’t moving to Israel. I had a really great rabbi when I was a kid … he was terrific. But by the time I was a bar mitzvah I was lucid.”
Although Black didn’t opt for the clergy, after all, he says his Jewish upbringing informs his work.
“The thing you gain by being Jewish is the sense of being an outsider,” he says. “So you have an empathy, a natural empathy.”
It’s funny to hear the acerbic Black talk about empathy. Still, trace his comic anger back to the source and you find empathy is abundant.
His humor, it seems, derives mainly from his parents, smart Jewish liberals who instilled in their son a healthy disdain for authority and an ample dose of compassion for those trampled by the powerful.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Black’s mother, a substitute teacher, became active in the Woman’s Strike for Peace. His father, who worked for the Defense Department designing sea mines, was slower to come around.
Black claims his dad actually read the Geneva Convention, decided the war was wrong, but didn’t do anything about it until America began to mine Haiphong Harbor. He had rationalized his work by telling himself that sea mines were defensive weapons. But when the United States began to use them offensively, he decided to quit. He retired at 55, 10 years earlier than planned, with one child in college and another about to enter.
As Black wrote in his new book, “Nothing’s Sacred” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment), “It was truly an extraordinary event for a man with a family to give up his income in order to be able to live with his conscience.”
Such idealism, it seems, is there in every joke Black tells. Take, for example, a recent assault on capitalism.
“We believe that whoever has the most stuff when he dies wins,” goes one of Black’s stand-up routines. “Well, you’re dead, f—nut. So you didn’t win.”
The decadence of our consumerist society, it seems, is one of Black’s favorite subjects. Another is religion. When the two meet, Black is on top of his game.
One of his most popular routines, for example, assaults the shopping extravaganza surrounding Christmas. Even though he’s Jewish, Black feels mighty comfortable to rant about what he sees as a holiday run amok.
“Christmas is completely out of control,” goes the bit. “Every year it’s longer and longer. It used to be the 25 days of Christmas. Now it starts before Labor Day. How long does it take you guys to shop? At what point do you not learn that items are most expensive before Christmas. So why don’t you just put empty boxes underneath the tree this Christmas, with little notes attached, ‘I’m going to get you this coffeemaker … if the price is right.’”
Black says he has another routine about how the Christian right uses Old Testament quotations as an argument to prove that gay marriages are immoral.
Christmas too benign a topic? Try the Old Testament.
“The Old Testament was written by my people, the Jewish people,” he quips in his routine. “But that book wasn’t good enough for you Christians. You guys said, ‘We got a better book and a great new character. You’re going to love it.’ And yet you are constantly interpreting our book. It’s not your book! A lot of the problems we have in the country is that you Christians interpret the Old Testament. You don’t see rabbis going on TV interpreting the New Testament.”
Routines like these keep him playing to full houses all year. Black travels the country on a tour bus accompanied by his opening act, his tour manager and a guy who sells Lewis Black merchandise, from T-shirts to books and CDs.
Despite the harrowing nature of constant touring, Black has no intention of cutting back.
“When you finally find your audience,” he says, “it’s kind of silly not to go out to see them. I was working that much before and I had no audience.”
Despite his stratospheric rise to fame, however, Black intimates that the biggest benefactor of his success may not be himself but the Jewish people at large. After all, they were spared one very angry rabbi.
“They should consider themselves lucky,” he says. “You can’t really have a rabbi wandering around yelling at his congregation, ‘What’s the matter with you people?’ ”