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Lewis Black returns to Broadway with knives sharp

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NEW YORK — This may be a presidential election year, but don't expect Lewis Black to be enjoying himself.

"Everybody goes, 'Oh, this must be an exciting time for you.' No. It's always the same," says the satirist and comedian. Then he corrects himself: "It's always the same — but worse."

Black, 64, might be right, but one thing that's definitely stayed the same over the years is his refusal to turn a frowny face into a smile.

The author, stand-up comedian and regular contributor to "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," has turned being frustrated, cynical and volcanic into highbrow humor, winning two Grammy Awards in the process.

Politicians of every stripe may want to avoid Times Square next month when his current show, "Running on Empty," rolls into Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre for eight shows beginning Oct. 9.

No one avoids his lashings, not Mitt Romney, whom Black calls the whitest candidate ever: "We know this because George Bush, in comparison to Romney, looks Jamaican." Barack Obama is no better, Black says: "He's offering up hope and, at my age, that's a worthless commodity."

To Black, the Democrats are weird — "Harry Reid is not funny; he's creepy. Nancy Pelosi is creepy. Charles Schumer is sneaky and creepy," he says. And the GOP's love affair with Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" is bizarre: "If you're going to pick a book and you want to base a system of government around it, why not 'Harry Potter'?" he asks.

Black has found humor where comics have feared to tread, such as in Reaganomics and the Simpson-Bowles commission, or lawmakers in Congress who have seen their public approval plummet.

"How do you even have the courage to run for office in the first place?" he asks during an interview, his hands fluttering in annoyance. "If you were on Facebook and had a 10 percent approval rating, you'd have the common courtesy to kill yourself."

Black, an avowed socialist, long ago stopped getting caught up in the personalities and talking points of mainstream politicians — he calls them "those idiots" — and instead carefully watched their actions.

"To me, it's always a question of what do they say they're going to do? If they say they're going to do it, what does it really mean? And where do we end up?" he says. "To me, it's always the effect, not the people."

Theater producer James L. Nederlander has been a friend of Black's for 25 years, and he lured the comedian to one of his family's theaters at a perfect time: a few weeks before the election.

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel," says Nederlander, who is co-producing the show. "I just think he's a genius, and we just thought it was a great idea to let him loose."

Black, a Yale School of Drama graduate, intended to be a playwright, and he began his career at the West Bank Cafe, a small Hell's Kitchen space where he was co-artistic director, playwright-in-residence and host. There, he produced two new American one-act plays a week — some by Aaron Sorkin and Alan Ball — for eight years "to no one's interest." He began warming up the crowd and warmed to it.

"What stand-up allowed, I realized, was I could write stuff and get it heard faster than waiting around for somebody to read the play," he says. "Stand-up is the only thing in which you actually write it, act it and direct it simultaneously, so it's actually a great theater exercise."

He hadn't quite nailed his trademark high blood pressure style until comedian Dan Ballard came up to him one night. "He said, 'You know, you're really angry and you're not yelling. I'm not angry and I'm yelling. So when you go onstage, I want you to yell.' So I started to do that."

Black's comedy heroes include Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Paul Krassner and, of course, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. "Carlin basically taught me you can say anything as long as it's funny. Lenny Bruce taught me to take something to its logical extreme."

To hone his material, Black watches cable news and reads both highbrow and lowbrow newspapers, focusing on editorials, both right and left. Lately, he's been spending time on the financial sections. "You know what's wrong with this country? It's that 80 percent don't have a vested interest in the business page."

Black chuckles that even though he never intended to become a comedian, his career has gone where he hoped — to Broadway. His new act marks his second time on a Broadway stage since he filmed the 2004 HBO special "Lewis Black: Black on Broadway."

He's also enjoying another success from his past: Next month, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., is producing one of Black's old plays "One Slight Hitch," which he began writing in the 1980s.

"It's really weird." he says. "In the world I should have been in, the play should be on Broadway. I should be playing The State Theatre in New Brunswick."


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