Lewis Black is not angry. The veteran comic, famous for his fist-pounding, teeth-gnashing rants, is smiling.
It is late morning and the light is soft. Black is sitting at a table in the Oak Room bar of the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza. He is dressed in unfashionable jeans, a dark, untucked T-shirt and gray flannel work shirt that’s almost hidden beneath a bulky, blue canvas coat. Next to him is a roller suitcase.
Virtually always on the road, Black has stopped in Kansas City for the night, breaking up the long haul between gigs in Arizona and the next in Iowa. After the Cedar Rapids show, he’ll play Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Omaha before returning for a show Friday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
It’s no wonder Black made an extra stop in Kansas City. Unlike fellow comic Louis CK, who famously rails about KC, Lewis Black loves this town. We’ll get back to that soon.
A waiter asks if he would like coffee. Black, turning his head to make eye contact, politely says he is fine with water. That voice is unmistakable, gravelly with a generic East Coast, Bos-Wash accent. A Maryland native, graduate of the University of North Carolina and Yale School of Drama, Black has lived in New York City for most of his life.
“Where in Manhattan?” I ask, guessing. “The Upper West Side?”
“Hell’s Kitchen” he says, mildly dismissive of all that the Upper West Side connotes. This makes sense. The Midtown neighborhood is grittier, more in keeping with the dour Black persona.
When you are famous, people on the street say the same things to you over and over. For comedians, that often means having their signature bits recited back to them. Jim Gaffigan, for instance, will have fans on the street yell “Hot Pockets!” People who meet Lewis Black, though, want obscenity. They ask if he will flip them the bird in a selfie. Or, if it’s an autograph, they want him to write “F--- you” above the signature.
“I don’t understand it,” Black says. “But that’s what they want.”
It certainly is. Black, one of the top 10 or 25 comedians in the country, depending on which listicle you believe, is the pre-eminent voice of American fury. No comedian since Sam Kinison has built such a successful career on anger, and no comic has ever been better at articulating the dehumanizing idiocy of postmodern life. Beyond his touring career, the innumerable talk show appearances and those “Back in Black” segments on “The Daily Show,” he quite literally is the personification of anger, starring as that emotion in Pixar’s hit film “Inside Out.”
His act is certainly cathartic — a pressure valve for the chronically peeved. This is not, however, the random spew of a Twitter troll or road rager. Anger alone isn’t funny. The Black persona works because audiences sense a deep-seated humanity beneath that trademark fury. That’s evident in the targets he picks. Black rails about indignity. He gets mad about being lied to. He seethes at the vast edifice of human folly, and only someone who cares deeply about human beings could be so outraged by our failings.
Asked what he finds funny, though, Black’s answer is quick and simple. “Stupid,” he says. “Stupid is funny. I like really good stupid.”
“There’s always something to make fun of,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the president. If it wasn’t Trump, it would be Bannon. If it wasn’t Bannon it would be someone else. Like Nunes. Stupidity always lands somewhere in this country.”
Though liberal by nature, he is mostly nonpartisan in his fury, as likely to rant about bottled water and iPhones as the Great Wall of Mexico. Still, the election of Trump, as it did for most comedians, has presented Black with a new set of challenges.
“The opening of my act has changed every night since his election. One night I try it this way, the next I’ll try it that way. Some nights I come out and I’m really depressed. Some nights I come out and I’m angry.”
The audience mostly gets it. Walkouts are rare. Most folks who buy tickets to a Lewis Black show know what they’re in for. But Black still claims to have heard more grumbles than usual since the election.
“For me, there’s been more blowback in the audience about that first 15 minutes of talking politics than at any time since the Iraq War.”
That war, by the way, he opposed. “All I was saying in the run-up was why can’t somebody manipulate me better?”
In addition to nearly endless club and theater dates, Black is excited about a SiriusXM radio show he’s developing with friend and fellow comic Kathleen Madigan. He is most excited, though, about a new part of his act where fans submit questions through his website and he answers live onstage.
“After every show, we basically go live and do anywhere from 15 minutes to a half-hour of questions from the audience.”
I used to tell people that, if you are really looking for another place to live, Kansas City is it.
The unwritten rules of journalism demand that all celebrities visiting a city be asked how they like the place. In KC, the answer usually involves a rote ode to barbecue. Black does adore our signature cuisine, saying barbecue is “At the top of my list.”
When I first ask about the city, though, he affixes me with a stare and speaks slowly, with the quiet sincerity one reserves for a secret lover.
“I love this city” he says. “I truly do.”
He would know. Black has been performing here since the late ’90s, when Stanford & Sons Comedy Club in Westport was one of the country’s hottest venues, and his description of our town sounds like he works for the chamber of commerce.
“It’s affordable. It’s fun. It’s got a sense of itself. It knows what it is. The arts are very good here. The music scene is very good. And of course it’s got barbecue, which is a big hook for me. Kansas City could just be one big smoker, and I would still call it the greatest place on Earth.”
Many New Yorkers, even lifers, harbor a fantasy about one day moving elsewhere. “I used to tell people that, if you are really looking for another place to live, Kansas City is it.”
He speaks highly of audiences here, too. “Kansas City was one of the places where I knew things had changed for me. A place where I thought that I must be doing something right because I started to sell out Stanford & Sons.”
The conversation rambles. We talk about Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert. We talk about college basketball and his beloved Tarheels.
“That’s the only thing that really matters,” he confides.
When the interview is done, Black gladly poses for a selfie. He scowls for the picture — in character — then smiles again.
“It was fun,” he says, seeming truly pleased. He calls me by name, not all that common for celebrity interviews. He smiles again as he shakes my hand and walks off. As it turns out, Lewis Black, the king of comedic rage, the frothing personification of American anger, seems like a pretty nice guy.