Lewis Black came out on stage stuttering.
It was Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Orpheum Theatre and security was tight — rather frighteningly, someone had threatened the safety of the establishment. Venue staff paced the balcony walkways monitoring the older audience who had paid $80 to have Black rant at them. Alcohol was flowing; the line outside the theatre’s bar was comparable to the line outside the women’s bathroom.
“My ego is broken,” he said stumbling over his words. People laughed and “awwed.” All was going according to his plan.
His hour-long set, however, was not from a man of low self-esteem. It didn’t take long for Black to get into his signature tirades and forehead-vein-pulsating, high-blood-pressure-inducing rants — the kind of controlled rage that asserts intellectual dominance and headstrong willfulness.
Specifically, it took one joke — his first — for Black to stop his set and give the audience a lesson on the construction of standup comedy and the etiquette of timely laughter. He was talking about mental illness and the audience had not reacted the way he had wanted, and clearly they were wrong.
Jokes are told in arches, Black took the time to explain, and even if they are disturbing they can still be funny; wait until the end of the joke and understand its purpose.
“There is a laugh and then there is conscious thought afterwards for the crybabies,” Black said. “Saddle up, because we are going to move on down the line to the next joke.”
But that wasn’t the last time Black was faced with sharp intakes of breath, premature boo’s and nervous laughter. It seemed to be the product of talking politics with an audience that seemed to be avoiding political disagreement.
No topic was off the table for the Manhattan-based comedian, known for his Comedy Central show “Lewis Black’s Root of all Evil” and his segment Back in Black on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Mental health, gun control, Wisconsin’s binge drinking culture, breast implants, relationships, weird news and national pride were all on the hit list. His carefully-constructed anecdotes formed a pendulum between serious discussion and constant ridicule.
Statements like, “we have really not dealt with mental health at all in this country. We fucking refuse to and it’s really sad,” were followed by, “thirty percent of the American people don’t believe mental illness is a real thing. I just made that number up. Much like our leadership, I feel that if they can make shit up, then so can I.”
You could hear people’s revelations throughout the auditorium. “Whoas,” followed “Amens,” as Black’s set served more as a plea for common sense than string of jokes.
He thinks if you ask a woman to get breast implants then you should think twice about the size of your penis and that American politics is like living in the film “Groundhogs Day,” where the mission is: what we can not accomplish today.
His ego was neither broken, nor unstable.
Black is a feminist. He is a self-proclaimed socialist. But ultimately, underneath his “fuck you’s,” faux mental breakdowns and angry horse-like whinnies, Black is a compassionate, informed and confident man … and hilarious.