When comedians talk about “finding their voice,” it’s usually a metaphor to describe the distinct persona that distinguishes them from everyone else.
For Lewis Black, it was more literal.
In the mid-1980s, when Black was just discovering he had the right stuff to be a stand-up, he took some advice from a more experienced comedian, Dan Ballard.
“He told me one night, ‘I’m onstage yelling and I’ve got really nothing in my act that I’m angry about. And you’re really angry and you’re not yelling. Go back onstage and I want you to start yelling.’ ”
“It really was a revelation,” says Black, who has been yelling ever since. His sputtering, about-to-burst-an-artery delivery fuels HBO specials and segments on “The Daily Show.” And now he is the most unlikely of Las Vegas headliners.
Black’s stint through Wednesday in the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theatre is his fourth since last summer. Not bad for a firebrand political comedian in a town where conventional wisdom has it that visitors leave their brain at home.
“It seems to be a regular stop now, which is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Black says. Not only are audiences down with the topical humor, but they hold tight through the “rolling and skidding” of testing new material onstage, working toward his next HBO special.
“I get a fair amount of work done there in terms of working out new material. I like the room in terms of that,” he says. “The audience seems to be comfortable with watching me flop around and it really helps. … Last time I came up with five to seven new minutes, which in a week is great.”
One reason Black can pull this off is that he understands Las Vegas better than you might think. He spent a lot of time here as a journeyman comedian in the early 1990s, working the former Catch A Rising Star at Bally’s, The Comedy Stop at the Tropicana and even a second-floor comedy room at Big Dog’s on Sahara Avenue.
“Both Jon (Stewart) and I have said that if we had stayed in Vegas, both of our acts would become about Vegas,” he says. Black left the clubs behind when his star began to rise with Comedy Central in 1999. But that meant he had to limit his Las Vegas performances to a few stops with packaged tours until he was famous enough to headline on his own.
The comedian turns 59 next month, and understands that late bloomers are rare in show business. “I do feel lucky. There are a lot of guys I know who should have the recognition that I’ve been given.” He cites Bobby Slayton across the street at Hooter’s Hotel, and occasional Las Vegas club headliners Kathleen Madigan and Dom Irrera. All of them are part of “this group that continues to evolve as comics and they’re really masters at this point.”
Black got a late start in comedy. The Maryland native has a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama and labored for years in New York’s theater scene, penning more than 40 plays. “I wasn’t doing (comedy) regularly. I thought I’d be teaching theater. I wanted to teach theater in a Southern girls school where they’ve never met a Jewish man before.”
“The theater helped me in the sense,” he says. “In stand-up, for all intents and purposes, you’re acting.” But he learned more by watching reigning New York comedians such as Denis Leary and “figuring out how to make what I was doing work in a comedy club.”
Black hit a crescendo last year with his HBO special “Red, White and Screwed,” where his rants sounded less the angry prophet and more like the sanest voice in Washington, D.C. Or, as he said onstage, he watched President Bush on TV and “as I listened to him, I realized that one of us was nuts. And for the first time ever, I went, ‘Wow. It’s not me.’ “
“These are the most inept group of people on Earth,” he says of the administration. “They could have pulled a lot of this stuff off if they weren’t inept and somewhat greedy.” That’s compounded by “the paternalistic mumbo jumbo I haven’t seen since I was a kid. I’m being treated exactly the way I was treated in high school. I don’t need this. None of us do.”
Black says his stand-up act gets so dark, “going from Iraq to terrorism to airport security to disabled vets not getting their checks,” he had to come up with a silly new ending to lighten it. “I just feel like at the end, the audience needs a breather.”
And that was more of a challenge than the topical stuff. “I find myself out there yelling and screaming, and I finish and I get applause and I go, ‘You know, I’ve really got to come up with a punch line.’ “who: Lewis Black
when: 9 p.m. today-Wednesday
where: MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South
tickets: $70 (891-7777)