NY Mirror

If Rodney Dangerfield is perennially peeved, then Lewis Black is CONSTANTLY PISSED OFF!!! The comic-a-regular on Comedy Central's The Daily Show-has made a shtick out of being a one-man ball of fury who makes Dangerfield look like a monk on Paxil.

Over coffee at the West Bank Cafe, where he used to perform, Black simmered down long enough to tell me his humor stems from an acute case of frustration. "Everything seems to frustrate me," he said, "especially gross, negligent stupidity and lack of manners." With that, I strained to be super well behaved to avoid getting a face full of latte, and it worked; we hit it off like two bitchy houses on fire.

Black's kvetching has caught on to the point where he has a new CD, The White Album, and has become identifiable as stand-up's angry middle-aged man. "Kids say, 'You're just like my father, only you're funny,' " Black told me, though he's actually more like the kids themselves—his stage persona is basically himself at 14. "It's a character," he said. "As soon as I walk offstage, I'm back to normal." And what, pray tell, might that be? Well, Black is an everyday striver who grew up outside D.C., studied at Yale Drama School, and found that as an actor-playwright he tended to get into frequent confrontations with the power guys. The madder he got, the more he realized that he needed to vent his rage through comedy. "If you pick a career in the arts and you have any sense of self-worth, it can make you insane," he said, corneas bulging.

"As soon as I walk offstage, I’m back to normal": Lewis Black, not smiling.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
"As soon as I walk offstage, I’m back to normal": Lewis Black, not smiling.

Success, it turns out, hasn't had any calming influence on Black at all. In fact, he's more irritated than ever, and isn't the least bit soothed by stuff like the country's economic state. "Yeah, it's the greatest economy ever," he fumed, "because in the Midwest, the mother and the father are both working. Now everyone can work to barely get enough money to get by." He was fully morphing into the character we crave, looking like a giant middle finger with wire-rims, an enormous "Fuck you" sign in a leather jacket.

Our presidential choices, said Black, "redefined the word sucks. We've never had two candidates that we hated equally. I see a quality of meanness in Bush. And Gore was supposed to be this great debater, but he didn't even have the common sense to let Bush hang himself. Bush can barely walk in space. Let everyone just watch him try to find his seat!

"And how did Rick Lazio even get into Congress?" he went on, smoke billowing out of his schnozz. "Was he running against an otter? Did people say, 'Well, we can't vote for the otter because we'd have to catch it all the time'? He's got the political weight of a gnat. He reminds me of that kid who wanted to be in student government, so you said, 'OK, we'll let you be in charge of the budget, just stop talking.' "

Thankfully, Black never does. An equal opportunity offender, he climaxed our session by taking on Hillary Clinton, saying, "So she's not a New Yorker? Who cares? She's just obnoxious!" Charmed to meet you, Lewis—no, really.

To relieve some tension of my own, I participated in a pilot taping of A.J. After Dark, a talk show starring A.J. Benza, the ex-New Yorker who isn't acutely frustrated by anything except unavailable poontang. This wasn't his first pilot; the gossip-turned-E!-star told the audience that an attempt to set the show at a nightclub failed when everyone at Spa gave the camera the finger. (Lewis Black must have been there.) This time, he was shooting in a loft made to look like a V.I.P. room, which he said generally consists of "three Haitian drug dealers and two models." It was in Noho, which A.J. sensitively told the crowd he had thought stood for No Homos. Fortunately, he was wrong, but the show still exists in that nostalgic place where ordinary Joes try to lay supermodels, despite the ladies' distinct preference for being surrounded by either tycoons or hairdressers.

In his banter with guest Christopher Meloni from the gay-tinged Oz, A.J. admitted that he recently went queer himself. "I had to make love to Steve Guttenberg in an independent movie," he griped, "which is not an easy job." (I'm sure that's not because it was gay, but because it was Steve Guttenberg.) By the time he discussed Liza Minnelli with a supermodel guest—whom he kept trying to lay—A.J. was soaring to the occasion. "Yeah, she was bitten by a mosquito," he snarled. "She was bitten by a gin bottle!" Fame, ain't it a bitch.

That bitter theme is being carried out a lot in plays that are starting to resemble legit versions of True Hollywood Story. Dahling is this week's bio-drama about boozy actress Tallulah Bankhead, who's suddenly being revived as much as Dr. Seuss. (I didn't realize they were two different things.) The show has an extremely endearing quality, especially in Tallu's early years, but the thrust becomes overly linear, with too many lines like "So you're Marlene Dietrich?" Otherwise, it's dahling.

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