Standup comics everywhere may rely on angry cynicism as a staple of their material, but if an award were bequeathed to the man most responsible for honing irate sarcasm, refining it, and turning it into an art form, that honor would almost certainly be handed to Lewis Black. Self-dubbed "America's Foremost Commentator on Everything," Black's infuriated, ultra-left wing comedic rants (which eviscerate political figures, pop cultural trends, and societal currents) ultimately garnered such popularity and such a loyal cult following that they landed him a recurrent Tuesday night spot on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, called the "Back in Black" segment. Younger generations will, doubtless, instantly associate Black with these appearances. They may be surprised to discover that, like fellow comedian, pundit, and television personality Ben Stein (who shares a birthplace and hometown with Black but sits on the opposite side of the political fence), Black's emergence as a public figure stretches back several decades. He nonetheless proves the old adage that sometimes the most thrilling acts arrive later in life.
Born in the U.S. capital and raised in Silver Spring, MD, Black attended UNC Chapel Hill as an undergrad and earned an MFA from Yale School of Drama in 1977. He recognized his own inherent gift for storytelling as an adolescent, and thus began to pursue work across the country as a playwright and actor after graduate school. A long string of theatrical gigs followed, (many certifiably eccentric, such as a directorial assignment in the Coloradoan wilderness). Black's growing desire for mainstream theatrical involvement eventually carried him to Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, where he took a full-timer as Associate Artistic Director and Resident Playwright at Steve Olsen's West Bank Café Downstairs Theatre Bar from 1981 through 1989. During this eight-year stint (and shortly thereafter), Black and the late Rusty McGee teamed to author hundreds of one-act musicals, including -- most famously -- the high-profile Czar of Rock and Roll, which premiered in Houston in 1990. Black also became a comedic fixture on the university circuit throughout the '80s.
In the mid- to late '80s, Black segued into bit parts in movies and television. He made his cinematic debut when fellow New Yorker Woody Allen cast him as Paul in the 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters. When Black left the West Bank in 1989, he focused more heavily on film roles, but for a decade or so, the parts he landed were somewhat scattered; he adorned the cast of a feature or cropped up on a small-screen episode every two or three years, and thus derived the majority of his income from a recurring summer stint, when he taught acting to students at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Key roles during this period included: Jacob Singer's unnamed physician in Jacob's Ladder, Franklin Frome in the 1991 "Aria" episode of Law & Order, Marty Holder in Warren Leight's The Night We Never Met (1993), and Lazlo "Punchy" de Leon in the "Deception" episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (1997), directed by the legendary Peter Medak (The Changeling, The Krays). In 1998, Black's friend and fellow character actor Don Scardino (He Knows You're Alone) directed a 20-minute film adaptation of Black's play The Deal. Black authored the script.
After a couple of well-received concert films in 2003 and 2004 (Lewis Black: Unleashed and Lewis Black: Black on Broadway, respectively), the comedian found more consistent work -- and concomitant success -- in front of the camera, with offers pouring in. He contributed a sketch to the infamous 2005 Provenza/Jillette documentary The Aristocrats, voiced fellow Aristocrat Bob Saget's 2006 spoof Farce of the Penguins, and headlined a third standup film for HBO, Lewis Black: Red White & Screwed. 2006 was indeed Black's year: that summer, his new book, the Al Franken-like politically tinged Nothing's Sacred hit stores, and he contributed to two mainstream features: Barry Levinson's "unofficial" Good Morning, Vietnam follow-up Man of the Year (as Eddie Langston), and director Steve Pink's Accepted. The latter concerns a bunch of teenage burnouts -- with no college prospects -- who wish to placate their parents by creating a fake university and announcing their acceptance to it. Black plays Uncle Ben, the guileless adult schemer who assists them by feigning a position as dean of the "College."
In addition to Black's performance roles and standup, he is a fervent social activist and spends much of his time working for charity; recent contributions include teaching impoverished Hell's Kitchen children to author and act in plays, as well as donating to -- and spreading awareness of -- the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
In 2006, Black continued his Daily Show appearances but launched a spin-off, produced by Comedy Central and Castle Rock Entertainment and entitled The Red State Diaries. The program features Black traveling around the country and investigating, first-hand, the subjects he rants about on the Jon Stewart program.