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In Love, Pissed
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, February 26, 2004.
You’re probably more familiar with Lewis Black as a popular standup comedian and star of his own fine two-minute bitchfest, “Back in Black,” on The Daily Show since 1996, than as the author of some 40 plays and co-founder of New York’s West Bank Downstairs Theater Bar. So we’ll concentrate on the stage stuff.
Black’s mother, you see, was a substitute teacher, and his father designed mines, the kind that blow things up in the water; so impressionable young Lewis developed an interest in theater. After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina and his master’s from the Yale School of Drama but before founding the West Bank, and acting and teaching and doing standup (receiving, in 2001, the American Comedy Award for Best Male Standup), the preternaturally industrious Black did not get married. His girlfriend, however, did.
“I’d been living with an actress,” says Black. “And she went over and did a major motion picture in England. We’d been together three years, and now we were in Skid Mode. So she goes over there [England], and I don’t hear from her until she calls me up and tells me she’s met the man she’s going to marry. And I’m like, Are you out of your fucking mind? Because this is a girl without a mainstream romantic bone in her body. Less than a year later, she’s marrying the guy. All my friends went to the wedding. And I didn’t.
“I really loved her family. We got along really well, and I heard that all the family talked about at the wedding was me, and how they couldn’t believe she was marrying this other guy. So all I did was go, Wow — what if I had shown up? And that was really what the play became about.”
Black’s first version of One Slight Hitch (now playing at Burbank’s Falcon Theater) was written and performed in the early ’80s, “in a place called the Kenyon Festival Theater, which is the summer theater at Kenyon College,” says Black, with the flick of an ash.
We’re on a bench outside the Falcon, across from the culturally significant Bob’s Big Boy No. 6 on Riverside Drive, at the majestic junction of Toluca Lake and Burbank. We sit watching traffic, drinking coffees. Black smokes. He really seems to be enjoying this cigarette, this particular cigarette. Coughs, yes, but still I wish I had a cigarette of my own to enjoy that much, even though I don’t, so far, smoke. It’s that kind of a cigarette.
“I really thought, from the reaction of the audiences, that I’d written a play that was accessible,” he says. “Most of the stuff I’d been writing up until that point was surreal, kind of dark, comedies. There’s no audience for one-act plays to begin with, so doing surreal and dark one-acts . . . you might as well become a migrant worker for income.
“At one point we got to do a reading of the play at the Arena Stage, which was run by Zelda Fichandler, one of the big lights of the regional-theater movement at that time. They had a resident company, and I knew a bunch of them, and they read it, and it killed. The reaction was spectacular. Afterwards, a woman stood up while Zelda was standing at the back, and the woman said, ‘I don’t understand why we don’t do more plays like this. This is the kind of theater we should be doing. I just think it’s great.’ And I’ve been watching Zelda at the back of the room. And I turned to the lead actor, and I said, ‘This woman thinks she’s helping me, but she’s writing my death sentence.’ When she finished talking about how she didn’t like anything that the Arena’d been putting on, I looked up and Zelda was gone. Never heard from her, never heard from the theater.
“The only thing I heard was that Tom, her husband, wanted to do it. Tom was the manager, Zelda was the artistic director. It’s a play about marriage, and they were getting a divorce.
“That, in many ways, telescopes exactly how my career went.”
Inspired by the Big Boy statue across the street, we discuss Bush’s recent State of the Union address. This leads to scrutiny of “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities” and, eventually, to analysis of political reification of words and symbols in general: honor, dignity, American, flag.
“I was thinking about that this morning,” says Black. “They’re always saying how, ‘Oh, the flag is such a beautiful symbol.’ But the American flag isn’t a symbol. You know what was a really great symbol? The Betsy Ross flag. That was what the symbol was, you fucking schmucks.”
“Out of hemp,” I interject, for personal reasons. “Same as the paper the Declaration of Independence was written on.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. But then they go, ‘Oh, we better add another star, a different pattern, neaten it up,’ and then all of a sudden you’ve got this fucking antiseptic piece of shit that’s supposed to inspire me. But that doesn’t inspire me. But I’d seen, as a kid, one of the original flags, and I felt like, ‘That’s what it’s about, you fuckin’ morons.’
“They gotta stop with the antiseptic stuff. They gotta stop talking to us like we’re 10 years old. ‘Hey, I’m your fucking age, asshole! Don’t talk to me like that!’ It really aggravates the shit out of me. When I watched that State of the Union address — and not just Bush’s, but Clinton’s and all of them — Shut up! Then, Speak fucking English! You’re not the principal!”
“I’ve been very lucky,” Black admits after the coffee’s gone, rehearsal’s about to start and I demand some kind of summary with which to end the article.
“I did what I wanted to do,” Black reflects. “I’ve always held to the theory that nobody’s going to pay you to do what you want to do, and certainly nobody’s going to pay you to do theater. So I’ve had a lot of satisfaction.
“But it was just as satisfying in the ’80s, when I ran the the West Bank. It was me, Rusty Magee — he’s since passed away; he was a really great composer with whom I wrote a musical called The Czar of Rock ’n’ Roll — and Rand Foerster. The three of us ran this room. And for seven or eight years straight we were putting on two new one-acts a week, every week, for 50 weeks a year. We were crazy. We’d do sketch comedy, we’d do music, we’d do, you know, a really eclectic schedule. We did fuckin’ great people — Aaron Sorkin’s first work, a lot of Alan Ball’s first stuff; it was astonishing. And not only because of the writers and people on the stage, but in the audience — a lot of what was the American theater scene at that time. It was great. I’d have to say it was as satisfying as anything I’ll ever do.”