Lewis Black has been angry for decades, and at 70 years old, the infuriated comedian has no intent on quieting his rage. Both onscreen and onstage, Black has delighted audiences of all ages by probing life’s vexations. In 2015, Black voiced the role of Anger in Pixar’s “Inside Out.” In 2009, he hosted the History Channel’s “Surviving the Holidays With Lewis Black,” a humorous rant on navigating the calendrical pressures between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Black has made numerous comedy specials and released more than a dozen albums and DVDs, but the Maryland-born Jewish entertainer may be best known for his five-minute “Back in Black” tirades on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” He’s skewered conservative political commentator Glenn Beck for his penchant for invoking Nazis, legal actions taken by the estate of Joseph Goebbels against Random House publishing company, and the abundance of 90-year-old Nazis.
Black often invokes his Jewish identity, and during a phone interview, prior to his April 13 show at Heinz Hall, he noted his first bit was a bar mitzvah-related gag.
“I was 13,” he said. “I was bar mitzvahed. That’s a stand-up gig we Jews have. You say a few prayers over a credit card. Bam, you’re a man.”
It’s been nearly 60 years since his September 1961 bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., and while Black cannot remember specifics apart from having read from Isaiah, he has routinely mined the coming-of-age ceremony for laughs.
Black’s 2005 autobiography is titled “Nothing’s Sacred,” but as his attendees at his upcoming Steel City show will discover, certain topics are off the table.
“To bring up guns onstage, the blowback is just intolerable,” he said. “You got a group in that audience who laugh at everything else, but they really believe that somebody’s going to come get their guns.”
Black said he made a joke on Twitter years ago in which he pointed to the abundance of firearms. Playing upon the perception that there is “basically a gun for every American,” Black quipped, “Well, I don’t have a gun so it seems like somebody has my gun.”
The response was “unbelievable,” he said. “All they saw was the flashing red word ‘gun’ and they had their reaction.”
Black removed the material from his act until he found a suitable replacement in the news: In 2017, during a discussion on church safety in Tennessee, an 81-year-old man accidentally shot himself and his 80-year-old wife, who was sitting nearby in her wheelchair, after he forgot the weapon was loaded.
“This guy is explaining, you know, how to use a gun and ends up injuring himself and his wife in front of a group of people. That’s how I deal with it,” said Black. “I just have to read it. It works on its own. I don’t have to do any work.”
That material won’t be featured in Pittsburgh, though.
“Am I going to read that in front of a group of people who have gone through this? I don’t think so.”
Black said he won’t be mentioning the Tree of Life attack during his visit either.
“There’s stuff I could say but that’s for others,” he said. “You know, I can’t wander into Pittsburgh and tell you people what I think. It’s your community. It’s a horrible thing to have happened in your community. I lived in New York during 9/11. We all have gone through horrors over the past 20 years. That one, it was just wrong, as the one in Vegas, as the one in Parkland, as the one, as the one, as the one, and then you go, ‘Well, what can I do about that?’”
Satire only goes so far, he explained.
In 2011, following the firing of football coach Joe Paterno from Penn State University, Black and his longtime opening act, comedian John Bowman, were invited “after that whole incident with Sandusky to kind of cheer up the students.”
“Well, what f–king planet?” he recalled. “You can’t really. That’s not my job. My job is to get people to take a step back from the pain and the anguish we go through, no matter what it is — whether it’s the horror of what happened there or the horror of that you’ve got a loved one who has cancer and is dying.” As a comic, “you’re the insulation, you’re the one who allows them to take a breath, hopefully.”
Black is genuinely interested in what his audience thinks, and remains keen on tapping the communal pulse. Prior to each show — he routinely does more than 100 performances per year — Black asks people to submit topics for “The Rant Is Due,” a post-show bit in which he shares the suggestions and then riffs on all aspects of local life. The forum, he explained, allows people to complain about roadwork, representatives or whatever most matters to them.
“It’s written by the community, about the community, for the community,” he said.
Black appreciates learning about his fans’ concerns, but does not presume to be an expert on their state of mind.
“If someone has something to say about the Tree of Life, I’d rather they said it. They know it, it’s personal to them.”
Black will talk freely, however, about the troubling presence of Primanti Bros. outside of Pittsburgh.
“The good food is where you live. I have tried two of them,” he said. “It’s not working well on the road. They don’t get it.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.