The famously bitter and ballistic Lewis Black hit the stage gunning at the Tuesday night premiere of his new Broadway show, "Running on Empty."
He aimed his first shot at himself as a capacity crowd in the Richard Rodgers Theatre roared at his entrance.
“It’s not gonna be that exciting,” he deadpanned about the raucous greeting. “Now that’s a show I’d like to see.”
Known for comedy specials and caustic rants about current events and politics, the 64-year-old actor-writer-comedian was true to form.
In his crosshairs: health care, Social Security and Mark Zuckerberg’s comparison of the launch of Facebook to the invention of the printing press.
“The printing press,” he said calmly, “made books possible and elevated people’s intelligence across the world.” By the time he said that Facebook informs us that “Martha had a touch of diarrhea today,” Black’s voice had risen to its signature bellow.
The presidential race and politics left, right and center riled Black, who took on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and noted that Paul Ryan “has the eyes of a wolf that hasn’t eaten in three days.”
Watching Black’s 105-minute set, one might get hungry for more cohesion and vision. He doesn’t build themes, but simply tosses grenades. And some targets, such as Kim Kardashian, are old news.
Still, there are lots of laughs. But the irascible Black even takes issue with that.
“I’m a comedian, not a pharmacist. Laughter isn’t the best medicine. If it were, Pfizer would have put out a yuk drug — with a healthy co-pay.”
The years haven’t exactly mellowed Lewis Black. But why would they? If they had, he wouldn’t have an act. He gets angry so we don’t have to.
In “Running on Empty,” which kicked off its short Broadway run on Tuesday, the 64-year-old comedian waxes apoplectic about social media, the Kardashians and, naturally, the pitiful state of current politics. Not that he offers himself as any kind of panacea.
“Let’s get something straight,” he announced at the start, once the rabid applause died down. “It’s not going to be that exciting.”
He’s right in the sense that his trademark seething has become common in an age when so-called pundits rage hour after hour on cable news networks. It says something about our society that the endlessly fulminating Black now seems like a calm voice of reason.
But that doesn’t diminish his ability to wrest laughs out of the frustration of living in a world going terribly wrong. His natural response is a paroxysm of anger resembling a grand mal seizure — followed by uncontrolled laughter from his listeners.
“No matter what happens here tonight, nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to change,” he declares. True enough, but that doesn’t diminish the cathartic effect of hearing his hilarious, frequently profane rants about the moribund state of NASA (“They’ve taken away my only hope of getting off this f - - king planet”), the word “Obamacare” (“It’s not about the care and feeding of Obama!”) and Facebook, which he describes as “a glorified yearbook.”
When that last line failed to elicit a sufficient response, he turned his comic rage toward the audience.
“There’s a joke there, and f - - k you for missing it!” he bellowed.
By now, Black’s well-honed persona is so familiar that he can get laughs even without jokes. All he has to do is recite the names of the recent Republican presidential candidates, pause, and exclaim, “What the f - - k!”
But there’s no shortage of terrific zingers, such as this one about Newt Gingrich’s sex life: “I have to think about my parents having sex to cleanse my palate.” Or, referring to the 82-year-old Clint Eastwood’s rambling convention speech: “I don’t enjoy being reminded of my own mortality.”
The title of his show may be “Running on Empty,” but it’s clear that Lewis Black still has plenty of comedic fuel in his furnace.
That dark cloud hanging over the Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street for the next week or so is not some freak of the weather. It’s the permanent psychic accessory trailed by the comedian Lewis Black, who has brought his evening of angry-man stand-up to Broadway for eight performances through Oct. 20. “Running on Empty,” as the show is called, finds Mr. Black in fine, sputtering form, exuding an air of exhausted disgust at the state of the country and the state of the world that will surely resonate with audiences feeling similarly grim as the grinding last stages of the presidential election loom.
Most of his fans probably know Mr. Black from his many appearances on “The Daily Show.” (He’s the longest-running cast member, his bio informs.) That’s where my acquaintance comes from, and I confess that I feared a whole evening of Mr. Black’s splenetic seething might be a little toxic. His tirades are often so bilious that you can practically feel the spittle flying off the flat-screen television.
Fortunately for both his audiences and his cardiovascular health, Mr. Black modulates the rage in his 90 or so minutes of stand-up, transforming from sober glowering to jabbering-like-a-lunatic only to punctuate a key point. Dressed in a gray pinstriped suit and a purple tie, eyeglasses framing a face of no special distinction, Mr. Black looks less like a guy who tells jokes for a living than a midcareer accountant nursing a peptic ulcer. The average-guy drag fits nicely with his comic persona, which is of an average guy driven to peaks of towering rage by current affairs in all their sordidness.
Arriving onstage to a long burst of affectionate applause, Mr. Black instantly rains on the parade: “This is not going to be that entertaining,” he says dolefully. Assessing his general feeling about the recent past and the predictable future, Mr. Black comes up with a bleak motto that he might just as easily have chosen for the show’s title: “Nothing is going to change.”
A corollary to that statement might well be: Everything is pretty screwed up. And while we are all complicit in the fix we find ourselves in, Mr. Black evinces particular scorn for his generation, the baby boomers. Noting that the decades of political ferment and activism have failed to bring much positive change to the nation, he concludes that the only real talent boomers have developed is a gift for “hanging out.” Social Security is in crisis, the earth is getting hotter than a frying pan, the political culture is broken down, but hey, now that there are lots of channels on television, the impetus to effect real change is not likely to come any time soon.
Not that Mr. Black views the recent great advances in technology as a boon to mankind. Although he bookends the show with segments attacking the state of politics in general and the current election in particular, much of “Running on Empty” is given over to general observations (negative) about the likes of Facebook and Twitter, which he blames for the younger generation’s shrinking attention span — a phenomenon going viral more quickly than any cute-kitty video on YouTube. As you might expect, Mr. Black is not the kind of guy who leaps from bed in the morning to find out how many new friends he has acquired in cyberspace. He views these grand innovations in social media as if they were minor but constant irritants, little gobs of gum now stuck to everyone’s shoe.
Some of Mr. Black’s political material feels a bit past its sell-by date. His merry mockery of the various Republicans who failed to win the presidential nomination probably should have been shelved by now: Who really wants to live through the follies of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann again? And Mr. Black is so wryly funny and incisive about matters of major import that he doesn’t need to pile on poor, pointless Kim Kardashian.
Although he is surely most beloved by the liberal-leaning members of the audience, Mr. Black spreads the opprobrium pretty evenly between the parties, darkly insisting that anyone who belongs to either is, well, more or less an idiot. (His show includes surprisingly few references to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.) But he admits that complaints that he doesn’t do enough jokes about Democrats are well founded, for the obvious reason that Democrats just aren’t that funny.
For surefire proof he includes a hilarious bit about a Republican lawmaker in Indiana who was the lone member of the state House to oppose a resolution celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts. After doing a “small amount of Web-based research,” this fellow apparently decided that those Thin Mint-selling tykes are part of a homosexuality-promoting “radicalized institution.” No Democrat is likely to top that for lunacy any time soon.
Despite his fuming aversion to party politics, Mr. Black says he looks forward to Election Day because that is when he feels “most ineffectual,” thus making every other day seem rich in achievement. Not really bumper-sticker material, that. But Mr. Black also comes up with a slightly more positive rationale that qualifies as the pithiest — not to mention funniest — get-out-the-vote motto I’ve heard this political season: “If you don’t vote, you don’t get to bitch.”