This should be a time of prosperity for Lewis Black. When outrage is in the air, it means peak material for a comedian whose trademark apoplexy earned him one of Hollywood’s all-time typecasting jobs: as the emotion Anger in Pixar’s “Inside Out.”
These days, however — at least when he’s not onstage — Black seems just a tad out of sorts. Unlike Anger, whose head bursts into flames the moment the gas is lit, Black is less conflagration than candlelight. Could our favorite rage-aholic be feeling . . . subdued?
Speaking on the phone about an hour after the recent presidential inauguration ceremony, Black is keeping one eye on the television coverage of a group of demonstrators. (“Oh boy, they’re tear-gassing,” he murmurs.) The political shouting matches of recent times, he admits, can make his act seem futile.
“It’s always the same joke,” he says. “How do you say ‘This person is a jerk’ ” — not a direct quote; his word choice is more anatomical — “in a different way? You just want to say it. You don’t want to clutter it by making a joke out of it.”
But futility is his bread and butter. Black, who brings his act to the Shubert Theatre Feb. 10-11, is a comic late bloomer. By the time he became a household name as the occasional host of “The Daily Show” segment called “Back in Black,” he was already well into middle age.
He has eagerly exploited his reputation as the irate comic, titling his recordings “Rules of Enragement” and “Old Yeller,” to name two. He’s still showing up in his loosened tie on “The Daily Show,” waggling his fingers like a man who just ran his hands through a giant cobweb. (He believes Samantha Bee deserved a shot at replacing Jon Stewart as the show’s host, but he also thinks Trevor Noah has acquitted himself well after being assigned an unenviable task as a relative unknown: “You’re following Lou Gehrig. Go get ‘em!”)
In an October appearance, Black ranted about millennial voters who said they couldn’t be bothered to go to the polls. I don’t want to hang out in a high school gymnasium either, he fumed: “Well, truth be told, I’m not even allowed within 200 feet of one. But I fight off the cops and I do my civic duty!”
Black has been on a near-constant standup tour for 25 years or so, since belatedly finding his voice as a stage performer. Born in 1948 and raised in Silver Springs, Md., he spent years as a playwright before plunging into the standup comedy floodwaters of the late 1980s.
At first, he says, he wasn’t comfortable onstage. Then a friend suggested he play up the exasperation that underscored his act.
“That’s the big revelation, that I’d been sitting on my anger,” he explains. “I realized I’m funny when I’m angry. Then I was yelling full-bore, and not even noticing.”
He was inspired, he says, by two comedians in particular: Boston’s Steven Wright, whose wry conundrums seemed so smart, and the former preacher Sam Kinison, whose wrath took the form of a nightly self-immolation.
Black has been modulating his own anger since his close friend and fellow comic Kathleen Madigan pointed out that his stunned audiences were forgetting to laugh. You scare the crap out of them, she said.
He’s not the first to note that the public dialogue has become caustic in the age of social media, when people in disagreement can flout common decency from the cover of anonymous comments or Twitter eggs.
In his college years, authority figures were anxious about the menace of “LSD and all sorts of drugs,” he says. No one could have predicted our dependence on technology — “this extension of our nervous system” — as a drug. “And it is a drug, no different than any other. It’s created, I think, part of the madness we’re living through.”
‘[Technology] is a drug, no different than any other. It’s created, I think, part of the madness we’re living through.’
But social media has also been a boon for comedians. Black has a fan club called Frustrated Union of Cynical Kindreds Universal (never mind the acronym), and for some time now he has ended his gigs by live-streaming a Q&A segment.
This month he’ll appear as a voice actor in another animated feature film, “Rock Dog,” alongside Luke Wilson and Eddie Izzard. In March the Woods Hole Theater Company will mount a production of the most durable work from Black’s playwright years, a wedding-day farce called “One Slight Hitch.” Woods Hole is one of more than a half-dozen playhouses scheduled to produce the show this year.
Though that success has been “hugely gratifying,” he can’t get any bigger theater companies to bite, he says. “How is it a big theater wouldn’t realize this is a show that would make money?” he grouses, working himself up. “It’s why I wrote the darn thing.” (Fake news: “Darn” was not the word he used.)
Having just watched the inauguration, Black jokes that President Trump’s speech made him feel optimistic. “It’s gonna be great. Couldn’t be happier,” he says, unconvincingly.
He watched with envy as a few of his friends posted instantaneous jokes on Twitter.
“I’m slow,” he says. He writes his act “like the guy who wanders around picking up trash on the lawn after a party.” To Black, the jokes don’t start until the party’s over.
Lewis Black: “Rant, White and Blue”
At the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Feb. 10-11. Tickets: Starting at $59.75, 844-379-0370, www.bochcenter.orgJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.