LAS VEGAS — Picture the lion before the kill.
Sitting comfortably in a tony suite backstage at the Mirage casino, comedian Lewis Black was in a mellow mood. A reasonably fit, aging man with black and gray hair and glasses, he seemed a bit professorial as he mulled over a question: What was his best tool to disarm a heckler?
Within an hour he would be onstage, face scrunched in disbelief, arms and hands flailing in trademark fury, voice bawling with frustration and anger as he eviscerated politicians, baby boomers and social media while slaying a packed multi-generational house that had turned out to see a 64-year old man complain himself into a rage.
But first, sipping from the square bottle of Fiji water, he was momentarily in repose.
“Sarcasm,” he decided. “I got it from my mother … she was withering. You’ve got to be stupid to heckle me — I am very equipped to win.”
Winning is what Black has been all about of late. Fresh from a sold-out week on Broadway and flying high off the fumes of a year of political acrimony, Black has been barnstorming the country — including three Southern California dates this week — and in the process doing something unprecedented for a contemporary comedian: drawing an audience of different ages.
For instance, a dad and two adult sons of the Morton clan in Phoenix had driven to Las Vegas for the weekend, in part to take in Black’s show. It was the second time older son, James, 26, had seen the comedian live, and he took credit for turning on his family.
“I was 12 or 13, and he was on TV. He’s mad and funny,” said Morton, following one of the weekend’s performances. “I like [that] he always gives it to ‘em.”
The “ ‘em” in Black’s 90-minute show included politicians — “we’re going nowhere as a country … with these idiots” — and baby boomers but, most lengthily, the online world. Black’s screed about the downsides of blogs, Facebook and Twitter was particularly caustic, positioning him as the Bard of the (Anti) Social Media. But earlier he was almost apologetic for his failures in the modern electronic world.
“I just haven’t got the time to do all that stuff,” he said. The interviewer countered that tweeting, by the very definition of the form’s limited number of characters, couldn’t take that long.
“I’m not really built for Twitter. If [Donald] Trump’s on TV I can rouse myself to get something out there, maybe,” he paused, the fingers of his left hand slightly curling toward a clench, perhaps at the mention of Trump. (For the record, Black is fiercely independent, giving equal time in his rants to Democrats and Republicans.)
“Here’s the thing, by the time I get to 144 characters,” he said, overstating the Twitter limit by four, “I am barely coming up on the joke’s set-up. I am a long-winded SOB, in part, because the character I present on stage is me stumbling along to get to the point.”
As seen on TV
Black owes much of his popularity to an earlier medium, television. In particular, the cable network Comedy Central. Black’s career as a stand-up — after 20 largely discouraging years as a playwright — began about the same time the network did in the late ‘80s.
“They were eager for programming,” said Black. “I had so much fresh material early on because nobody had seen it nationally that I did about six comedy specials. Plus, I was doing ‘The Daily Show,’ back to [1996 to 1998] when Craig Kilborn was the host.”
The eight to 10 annual appearances Black makes on “The Daily Show” are his national showcase. Each bit invariably starts with a tight focus shot on Black’s upper torso, his tie loosely knotted, his bellicose face thrust slightly forward, his inner caldron simmering into a boil. Black comes off as the angry uncle who might be a nightmare over the dinner table after a drink or two, but on TV he is a satisfying source of social discontent.
“Kids seem to get me when I play colleges — they like it because I go after them,” said Black. “They’ll come up after and say I am like their dads, only funny.” Black is unmarried with no kids.
Comedian W. Kamau Bell’s weekly FX show “Totally Biased” also lashes the social weave — it is where Black made his first TV appearance following the election. At 39, Bell straddles the midpoint between Black on one side and his youngest audience on the other.
“He’s a man on the edge, but hilariously on the edge,” said Bell, who will be doing a gig Dec. 7 at the Largo. “Lewis is relevant in all his complaints, he’s always talking about ‘right now,’ not just doing punch lines about his age group’s issues. Another thing is he’s a great craftsman of comedy … if you sit down and read his material, it works.”
In his language of channeled rage, many hear echoes of the late comedy legend George Carlin. It’s a comparison Black is proud of.
“Now I don’t think I come close to [Carlin’s] level,” said Black, “but expositional humor is something I feel I share with him. I also think, like him, I am attuned to hypocrisy out there, calling it when you see it.”
A phone message Black received from Carlin in the early ‘90s is a significant touchstone. “I was trying to make a start and he was encouraging, and that really buoyed me up,” recalled Black. “I took that little tape cartridge thing out of the machine, and I still have it in my house.”
Black hits traditional retirement age next August, but powered by genes from his parents — both alive at 95 — and a calendar that averages 130 live performances a year, he has no plans to get off the road.
And even though much of his material turns over, including regular dates in Vegas, Black’s approach appears likely to remain constant.
After all, the planned title of his 2013 tour? “The Rant Is Due.”
Where: Long Beach Terrace Theater. 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Information: (562) 436-3661 or ticketmaster.com
(Black also appears at the the Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella Friday night.)