So how is it that he’s hilarious anyway?
Well, he knows his audience for one thing. The crowd around me at CWC definitely skewed toward folks old enough to identify when Black recalled watching TV in the years before remote-control wands: the hardship of having to get up and actually cross the room to change channels, the plastic dial cracking off from overuse and inevitably being replaced by a pair of pliers. I’m sure a twentysomething listening to that bit would be annoyed by its scolding, kids-now-got-it-easy tone, however tongue in cheek. (Indeed, a friend of one of my sons says he keeps his distance from Black because he feels like the comic is always “yelling at me.”) As a member of the target demographic, however, I found it pretty funny.
But there’s more to Black than his sour style of nostalgia. There’s apoplexy. It’s surprisingly satisfying to watch him act out—waggling his fingers, sputtering, blubbering, and putting odd spins on words. You get the feeling that any given sentence might rupture at any given syllable, sending a little spritz of outrage into the room. Black is never out of control; the joke is in the fact that he struggles so mightily to maintain control when the universe is unquestionably trying to drive him crazy. I’d like to see him as King Lear, saying, “Let me not be mad.” Given the state of things, it’s easy to identify with him: we’re all Lears now, especially the boomers among us—an aging middle-class royalty, dispossessed of their American kingdom.
Black’s ultimate grace, though, lies in a nicely honed—and unexpectedly homey—sense of the ridiculous. For every cable-TV sop, he produces loads of apt little nastyisms. For him, the latest popular website is “snicky-snacky.com.” Rick Perry is Yosemite Sam. Ayn Rand is somebody you read (and should’ve outgrown) when you were 15. Michelle Bachman’s JD degree from Oral Roberts University equates with an MFA from Chuck E. Cheese. And the world worked better when it was run by drunks rather than people who work out all the time. Yes, most of this smacks of nostalgia, too. But it has the virtue of ringing true.
John Bowman and Kathleen Madigan open for Black. Loved her, didn’t really get him at all.