My regular column, Upfront, has been appearing in the Erie Reader for almost 2 years now; after writing so many of them, I’ve found that there are some good ones, and some bad ones.
According to Reader reader response, the most popular are those in which I stick to a certain format, and a certain voice. That format – pointing out the obvious, making fun of it, and twisting it to the bleeding edge of bizarre – is something that comes natural to many people. That voice, however, comes from a different place.
We all talk a certain way, and sing a certain way, and laugh a certain way, and shout a certain way; we are all but products of our experience, oftentimes, without even realizing it. We are all influenced subconsciously by bits and pieces of the infinite daily minutiae that constantly stream past our head-holes – remembered without recognition, retained without realization, and recalled without resolution.
That voice is the sum total of every single occurrence we’ve been exposed to, amalgamated into a unique, original product, just as bricks become a building. The bricks in my building have names like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Mitch Hedberg, Andy Kaufman, and Steven Wright; but there was always that one brick whose origins were not quite discernible to me. That one brick, it stood out; it was odd, yet it made perfect sense. It was strange, yet it was familiar. It was loud, and solid; I recently learned that it was Black.
On Friday, Jan. 11, comedian Lewis Black will return to Erie’s Warner Theater in conjunction with his “The Rant is Due” tour. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Black, who was gracious, affable, and but a shadow of the ranting madman you might think he is. But seeing as how this was no ordinary interview for me, I tried to find out more about the Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs behind the curtain, rather than recite what you all know about the booming boisterous Oz-like head spouting smoke and flame from the stage.
Cory Vaillancourt: It may be naïve of me to think this, but growing up in the Washington, D.C. area during the 1950s must have been idyllic, optimistic, and exhilarating compared to the D.C. of today. Agree?
Lewis Black: It was great. If you’re going to be born and raised somewhere, that was a great place. You had all these people rolling in with the same purpose, and they were building out from Washington, so we moved into suburban Maryland and all of these houses were being built for people who were producing 2.2 children and it was really quite nice.
Instead of pandering to every child’s individual needs, we had places to go to play baseball and do all sorts of stuff. Even during the summer they had… from 8 to 5 they had a recreational program a walkable half-mile from my house, and you go down there at 8 o’clock and you come home at 6… It was phenomenal. I can’t imagine – I mean, we don’t even try to do that anymore. Every kid has, you know, “They need to do this,” or “They need to do that.” Nobody was developing me to become a soccer legend. But I was playing softball and all sorts of stuff down there. It was pretty remarkable. I wish they could do it now.
CV: After graduating near the top of your high school class and attending the University of Maryland for a year, you switched to the University of North Carolina. What drew you to that school?
LB: They had what I thought at the time was a good theater program, but most of all, I wanted playwriting courses, and there I could actually graduate with a theater degree, which I was leaning toward, which nobody had anywhere, except maybe Northwestern. I chose to go to North Carolina because it was cheaper.
CV: And what was your experience like down there?
LB: I worked with a group of people there. We did a play that I wrote that became hugely successful, and then we found a theater in Colorado that was for sale, in Colorado Springs, and we actually went out there, and it was cheap – for a lot of reasons we didn’t realize at the time [laughs] – so we literally bought this theater and a year later moved to Colorado Springs. I worked there for a year. I worked in the high schools, teaching theater; we had a theater group and we got to work at a high school and we did shows at the military base and at the college that was there, and we basically just kinda survived.