Black Humor 

Lewis Black rants from the Zellerbach stage this week.

By using anger and frustration as the basis for his comedy, Lewis Black rendered himself one of the most likable personalities in stand-up. Even Black's way of enunciating — in the carefully measured tone of someone who's so pissed off that he's right on the brink of losing it — brings out the absurdity in all of his observations about the world. "There is a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks," Black said in a famous bit from his Daily Show segment "Back in Black." Accompanied by video images of the familiar forest-green logo that's become a symbol of consumer-driven culture, he predicted our imminent demise. "And, ladies and gentlemen, that is. The end. Of the universe."

Black elicited rousing applause with this conclusion, even though it wasn't particularly revelatory (granted, most of us already know about the ubiquity of Starbucks). The humor, in this case, lay less in the punch line than in its delivery. Black described Starbucks in heightened, apocalyptic language, characterizing it not only as a chain retailer, but as an emblem of cultural degeneration — worse, for its pervasiveness, than more easily identifiable evils like ExxonMobil or McDonalds. "What I wonder about is the gentleman who stood in the empty building and looked across the street at the Starbucks," said Black, as the joke rose to its climax. "And then turned to his wife and kids and said, 'You know? I have a vision.'"

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Black was able to take comedy into the realm of social commentary and performance art, given his background: The son of a teacher and a mechanical engineer, he started out as a playwright with an MFA from Yale Drama School and used to emcee every show at the West Bank Cafe's Downstairs Theatre Bar, where he was an Artist-in-Residence. His monologues evolved into well-crafted stand-up routines, delivered with the forceful stage presence of someone who'd been trained in theater. At present, Black is one of the smartest and most incisive comedians on television. He has George Carlin's talent for dissecting and analyzing the stuff we take for granted, and showing how it's a metaphor for some larger social ill. Black's rants have gotten more entertaining over time, as he's lashed out against family values pundits, the war in Iraq, creationism, contemporary dictatorships, and avarice. To date, he's published two books, starred in two HBO specials, and appeared in films playing a variety of curmudgeonly characters. And don't think he'll be out of a job when Bush leaves office and your neighborhood Starbucks is shut down. Black's humor is topical, but his persona is timeless. Lewis Black appears at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall this Sat., Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. $42.50-$65.50


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