When comedian Lewis Black performs at the Chicago Theater on April 30 and in Champaign, Illinois on May 1, audiences will see a version of the upcoming comedy special he plans to shoot. “It’s all about the pandemic and how I reacted to it,” he said. “It’s the fastest I’ve ever done on a stage. It usually takes a few years, sometimes three. And I really started when I hit the road and started touring last December.
Black is known for his rants (you can watch many of his collected rantcasts on his YouTube channel) but at the end of each show, Black also reads the rants sent in by fans. “I’ve been doing this after the show for a while.” Because he toured so much, did he find the rants regional or fairly universal? “Some cities seem to be more pissed off than others, where you go a little wow. Chicago is irritated, but puts it in a nicer way.
Before getting into stand-up comedy, Black was a playwright. He later became a household name thanks to his appearances on “The Daily Show”. He’s also an actor, landing his first role in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” followed by guest roles in “Law & Order: SVU,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and as the voice of Anger in the movie. animation “Upside Down.”
It was his pursuit of an early acting job that came to mind when asked what was the worst moment of his career. “That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned,” he said.
My worst moment…
“I auditioned to be myself. Was that a long time ago, probably mid-90s maybe? Joy Behar of ‘The View’ had a school sitcom pilot written for her. At this point, I was quitting acting and going into stand-up; it was my new career and people were reacting to it, and then I was auditioning for stuff as an actor.
“So (the writers of the show) saw me play – I think because Joy had recommended some of us to potentially be on the show – and they wrote a role for me, and it was based on my act. They basically took my personality and made it a history teacher character. And I thought, wow, that’s awesome!
“They took me to Los Angeles, I went to the hotel and that’s when I should have turned back because I think God was sending me a message. I’m coming out of the car and the valet said, “Oh, are you the new valet? And then I should have turned around or taken the job (Laughs).
“So the next day, I go to the audition. And there were like 12 people in the room. I don’t really feel like working in an office, now I’m in an office in front of a group of people like it’s a board meeting, only I’m standing and I have to perform. But I felt very comfortable. A little nervous. But I knew this character because I had given him half the lines! It was really written for me. And it’s easy to write for me – it’s like writing for a big barking dog (Laughs).
“So I did that audition and I thought it went pretty well. I had a few laughs. But they only made me do it once. I said, ‘ You know, I can do that again and if there’s any notes you want to give me, I can do that.’ They said no, it was great, they didn’t need to see anything else. And there’s an actor line, ‘There are other colors I can bring to this scene’ – I I spent thousands of dollars on drama school and that’s what they give you, ‘colors’ – but they said, ‘No, no, you nailed that.’
“So I walked out of the room, closed the door, then opened it and said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to see me tap dancing?’ And they all laughed and said no. And I said, ‘So why did I take the classes?’ You want to leave them something to remember you by. Just a little icing on the fact that they wrote it for me!
“And then a day later I got the call that I didn’t get the part. (Laughs). They found a better me! It was amazing – how can you audition to be yourself and not get the part?
“They gave it to Paul Sand, who I believe was an actor from Chicago (he was an early Second City performer). He was definitely more of an actor than me. By the way, the series was never picked up.
Hollywood can really test your self-esteem, not to mention your ego.
“I was in shock. Joy and I laughed it off; she thought it was crazy and we sympathize.
“The only upside was that I didn’t plan to act like my career; I still had some stand-up to fall back on. But I was broke. I mean, really broke. I had nothing. And if I had gotten this job, I would have earned more in a week than in a year. So there was this deep disappointment.
“But there was also something else. I had friends in this business, really good actors – I went to Yale drama school and I knew people who were really amazing actors – and they were getting (fucked) too, so everything suddenly I understood what show business is about, and it has nothing to do with what you do. Even though they wrote the part for me — and I thought I was pretty good — it wasn’t enough!
“But how is there a better me? No one is better at being me than me!
“At the time, what I remembered was: it’s going to be great when I come back to New York and talk about it on stage as a comedian. (Laughs). I may have lost a job, but at least I got 10 new minutes of material! So I could go back to the crime scene — the club where those TV writers saw me — and play and tell the story.
“So it was a horrible time, but it was also a great time. I had seen my friends go through some stuff, and it validated my feelings about Hollywood. Don’t let it define who you are.
Nina Metz is a critic at the Tribune
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