How Lewis Black’s Righteous Anger Has Gotten Us Through Two Decades of Craziness

Photo: C Flanigan/FilmMagic

It may be hard to believe, but Lewis Black has been blessing us with his gloriously angry rants for over 20 years now. Before Jon Stewart took over the reins of The Daily Show, Lewis Black was already giving us his trademark “Back in Black” segments, going back to the show’s inception in 1996 when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn. Those who tuned in were treated to Black presenting himself as The Last Angry Man, the only person willing to point out just how crazy the things that the rest of us had become accustomed to really were. Not surprisingly, the segment became quite popular and has remained one of The Daily Show’s few constants over its 22-year run. If one thing is certain, it’s that Black will never have to worry about finding things to get angry about.

What has changed, however, is the nature of his vitriolic ranting. Since “Back in Black” entered the public consciousness in the late ‘90s, the national mood has changed over and over again, and Black’s approach has evolved with it. He’s always pissed off, yes, but different aggravations are worth different levels of anger, and Black is keenly aware of that. When Black first got rolling, Bill Clinton was in the White House, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal dominated the news. On his debut album, The White Album, Black went off on Clinton in a rant titled “Bill Clinton and Oral Sex.” Black’s frustration with how far people went to defend Clinton holds up well, especially considering that many now believe Clinton should have resigned after the affair was revealed. What really works about this bit, though, is that it features Black’s “Are you people serious with this shit??!!” combination of anger and genuine confusion at its best.

Not all of Black’s early material was political, however. One of his best bits focused simply on him overhearing the phrase “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college” and not knowing what to make of it. He adroitly pinpoints how a simple thing like overhearing a seemingly nonsensical phrase and not knowing what to make of it can drive you nuts. Black is perpetually the man on the edge, equally likely to be driven mad by corrupt and inept politicians or by the guy holding up the line at Starbucks (which happens to be across the street from yet another Starbucks). 

Black’s act became more specifically political in the early 2000s thanks to the brutal combination of George W. Bush’s election, 9/11, and the Iraq War. Some of Black’s best political material came in his 2006 HBO special Red, White & Screwed. At this point, The Daily Show had become a phenomenon, and “Back in Black” was one of its flagship segments. Here, Black solidifies himself as one of the biggest names in comedy as well as one of its best satirists. At this point in time, Bush had already won a second term, and Black seemed equally upset at John Kerry and the Democrats for failing to beat him than at all of Bush’s colossal errors in judgment while in office. That being said, Dubya definitely gets the worst of his wrath. Black goes after him for everything, from his creationist beliefs to the time he inexplicably told a group of wounded soldiers about how he cut his hand on a tree. With Clinton, Black was louder, but with the second President Bush, his gravitas came more from the dramatic pauses he would make when considering that yes, the president really is this much of a disaster. In a post-Katrina world where Bush’s approval ratings were dropping rapidly, he was not alone in this sentiment.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the common fear was that it would make comedy worse, because we didn’t have our ridiculous president anymore. For Black, however, that wasn’t the case. Rather than try to mock Obama the way he mocked Bush, he commented that Obama simply wasn’t funny, and that was what scared him. In his mind, the Republicans were too funny, but Obama was too far inside his own head to be an interesting satirical target. Considering how much Saturday Night Live struggled with making fun of him, it’s not a bad point. While Black’s comedy became less political in this period, it never stopped being interesting. In one of his best bits, he talks about feeling massively out of place when meeting Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and how he actually envies their wholesome lives. It was a fine example of his self-deprecating side, and a reminder that he’d be funny no matter who the president was.

And then, there was Trump. Our 45th president makes comedy difficult for a lot of people, but for Black in particular, his rise brought up a serious problem. What made Black’s comedy work so well was that he was trying to get the crowd to be as pissed off at modern society as he was. With Trump, we’re clearly already there. This led him to an interesting move: reading rants that other people had sent him for his show The Rant Is Due. It works quite well; if you’ve been a fan of Black for years, it would to be awesome to have him read one of your rants on stage. You could critique Black for outsourcing his material, but at this point, he’s become The People’s Angry Comic, and this was a fine crystallization. In his original material, Black has taken a more somber tone recently. In a clip he shared earlier this month, he talks about the Parkland shooting, and he speaks genuinely about both his admiration for the students who have spoken out about gun violence and his regret for the condition his generation left the country in. It won’t crack you up like his funniest bits, but it might be the most honest moment of his career.

Black used to exaggerate his rage for comedic effect, but now, things have spiraled so far out of control that any sane citizen is just as angry as him. Black has recognized that in his decision to read the rants of his fans, as well as acknowledging the work of young activists. For over two decades, Black was the man telling us how angry we should be at the world we’ve created. Now, with Trump in the White House and society constantly ravaged by mass shootings, we’re beginning to realize he was right all along.

How Lewis Black’s Righteous Anger Has Gotten Us […]