Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tragic comedy with Lewis Black

Lewis Black, the "Let Them Eat Cake" Tour

Chicago Theater, Sept. 6, 2008
Opening act John Bowman warmed up a sold-out crowd by noting the irony of a show put on by a rich guy, for rich people in a rich city, that would mock, belittle, and insult the way the U.S. government treats its poor people. That set the tone for this generally enjoyable but often painful evening of Lewis Black's trademark comedy that bites his fans in the brain.

Just one day after the Republicans had ended their lavish version of The Jerry Springer Show in St. Paul, Bowman managed to get in a few crass digs at Sarah Palin as a "moose-eating twat," but Lewis Black devoted surprisingly few minutes to Palin, McCain, or the presidential contest in general. When politics did come up, the punch lines to jokes were mostly just long strings of screamed profanities, with both Republicans and Democrats caught in the crosshairs of Black's unique style of Tourette's ranting. The jokes were in his apoplectic invocations of both classic Sam Kinison and Howard "mad as hell" Beale from Paddy Chayefsky's classic, Network. (Black's delivery, in high-rant mode, also bring Gilbert Gottfried strongly to mind.) Half the time, the crowd couldn't understand what the angry comedian was yelling into the microphone, but the wailing and flailing were funny enough on their own to carry the moment.

As soon as the applause died down when Black took the stage, he announced that his entrance was the high point of the evening, and he would only disappoint the audience if he said or did anything else now. After all, anticipating something is better than attaining it, and this was the central truth that launched the first act of the show as Black spun a simple tale of losing his virginity into larger social and political commentary — pausing along the way to explain to "the young people in the audience" what record players were, what drive-in theaters had been like, and what the 1964 version of Google had been when researching sex ("I asked a friend who asked his brother who asked his neighbor who asked someone who smoked. Six months later, we had our answer").

Cognitive dissonance set in during the second act when Black mentioned that he had turned 60 recently, and audience members cheered heartily. In response, Black responded with indignant confusion: “There’s nothing to applaud! I haven’t celebrated my birthday since I was 21! Why would I celebrate being one year closer to the grave? I don’t want to fuckin’ die — I want to live forever! People say to me, 'But all your friends will be dead.' Tough shit, I’ll get new friends!" Here was an "old" man raging candidly against the dying of the light — and the crowd ate it up as comedy.

Rants about alternative fuels ("if Apple can invent the iPhone, we can have alternative energy right now"), Social Security ("sorry, kids, but you're screwed"), and an American economy in the toilet made up the third and fourth acts, which seemed rambling and unfocused, and again weirdly disconnected as the audience laughed happily at Black's vivid descriptions of a totally miserable and hopeless future. Deftly sidestepping any political affiliation ("I'm voting for Santa") while trashing both parties equally, Black made clear that the cake being forced down American throats was made of bitter pills. And for two hours, the audience didn't seem to mind at all.

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