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The angriest man in America

'Nothing's Sacred' to comedian Lewis Black -- not even himself

By Todd Leopold

Lewis Black gets ready to go "Back in Black" on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
• Sidebar:  Black on theater

• Comedy Central:  'The Daily Show'external link
Jon Stewart
Lewis Black
Lizz Winstead

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It's a Thursday afternoon and Lewis Black, looking almost relaxed in jeans, comfortable shirt and leather jacket, is in a good mood. Really.

He's selling out comedy clubs. His regular appearances on "The Daily Show" are highlights of the week. His new book, "Nothing's Sacred" (Simon Spotlight), is selling well.

The fulminating, ranting, wild man of Comedy Central and an HBO special is just a character.

Until his cell phone rings. Then suddenly he gets darker, frustrated. He can't change his schedule. He can't re-book a flight. His mother -- who calls from his apartment in New York -- can't seem to understand a piece of electronic equipment.

Thank God for that fulminating, ranting, wild man character. He's a terrific outlet -- a guy who can scream at the world for its stupidities and eccentricities, like cell-phone behavior, ubiquitous Starbucks outlets and bidets.

"I've always needed that kind of [venting] thing anyway -- now more than ever," he says.

"In order to sustain what's happening with me, you have to do this," he shrugs, referring to a book and concert tour that will find him in four cities over six days (a combo he calls "hemorrhaging") by the end of this week. "But in the end, there's a certain level that it's fun."

After all, it didn't have to be that way. Not too long ago, Black, 56, was practically broke, virtually unknown, a struggling playwright and comedian hoping for a break. He knows fame could be a short ride.

"I've been very lucky," he says. "There are guys I know who are really terrific in this business of stand-up who have not gotten the recognition they deserve. And it's nice if you've put in the time, to achieve that recognition. ...

"What makes it difficult for people trying to follow a dream is that the whole time you feel like you're slamming your head against the wall. So it's nice to make a breakthrough, and not kind of lying there with your head bleeding."

Warm words for family

"Nothing's Sacred" describes Black's journey from the beginning -- his childhood in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside of Washington. He's candidly self-deprecating and only occasionally breaks the narrative for rants on vaccines, computers, corporate greed and the U.S. government.

In fact, "Nothing's Sacred" is surprising in its personal openness. Black includes pictures of himself as a child, teenager and college student -- "There's a picture in there I think I look like a Mongoloid. I'm surprised they didn't take me away," he says -- and he has warm words for his parents, both of whom are living.

He pays tribute to his father, Sam, for taking him to plays and standing by his convictions -- with his sons in school, Sam Black quit his Defense Department job over the Vietnam War and became a painter -- and to his mother, Jeannette, a teacher with a whip-smart sense of humor.

His brother, Ron, died of cancer in 1997: "If it weren't for my brother," Black writes, "you'd never have read a word of this book. ... He was my best friend, and the fact that he isn't here to read this pains me more than anyone will ever know."

Asked how rare it is for a comedian to admire his family, he agrees that "it is unusual."

"But any good family still causes a certain amount of tension. ... I started to see a shrink, and my mother was like, 'She's going to blame me! She's going to blame me!' And I said, 'Well, that's part of the deal. It's not your fault.' "

Besides showing that a memoir need not wallow in self-pity, Black says he wanted to demonstrate that someone can grow up in a suburban middle-class household, take a number of left turns and dead ends in life and still come out at the other end intact.

"[There's] this constant litany of there's some sort of way you're supposed to live your life, and I thought the one small thing I could leave behind is, there are a billion ways to lead your life, and this is just one way," he says. "And that I ended up OK."

Indeed, friends say Black is anything but the angry guy viewers see on "The Daily Show."

"He is so different from his persona, not angry at all," "The View" comedian Joy Behar told The New York Times Magazine. "He's a pussycat. He'll help you out, show up for benefits, laugh at women's jokes. He's a good guy."

Laughter is his only message

Not that he won't admit to mistakes and confusion.

He makes light of his prom dates -- both broke up with him within weeks -- and his short marriage. He also jokes about his struggles to find a niche, including undergraduate time at two universities, a failed magazine launch and a civil service job. Also, on a trip to Europe he couldn't figure out the bidet, which still sticks in his mind.

Eventually, he got into the Yale School of Drama and earned a graduate degree in fine arts, followed by years on the fringe in New York, occasional drama workshops in other cities, a handful of acting roles and some stand-up gigs along the way.

He'd developed a bit of a name for himself when Lizz Winstead, who co-created "The Daily Show," hired him for the program in 1997. Over the years -- especially after Jon Stewart took the hosting reins from Craig Kilborn in 1999 -- Black's character, on the "Back in Black" segments, grew in popularity. He eventually won an American Comedy Award for "Viewer's Choice Stand-Up Comic."

He's still a little amazed.

"I thought it was going to break more in terms of doing a bit more acting, more stand-up, the same kind of a patchwork [I was doing]," he says. "I always thought I'd be kind of on the fringe."

His voice is so familiar that his rants are now written by "Daily Show" writers, with Black contributing ideas and lines. "It's a fun voice to write in," he says. "And they're better at it sometimes than I would be."

But don't confuse his rants with message comedy. His audiences are a good mix of young and old -- "I'm the Red Skelton of my generation," he says acerbically -- and he wants people to enjoy themselves.

"Everybody's always putting on 'The Daily Show' and me ... 'What is your message?' My message is, there had better be a laugh. That's my (expletive) message."

With his success, he's just pushed harder. He's on the road 250 nights a year and dedicates time to charitable causes. When he wants to relax, he plays golf: "It's not really relaxing, but what I've done is replace all the variables that make me insane with a whole other set of variables," he says.

"The thing is, where I am in my life, it's like the athlete who's been given five years or seven years. This is my window," he adds. "I had no income. I was completely broke. I'm playing in the big leagues now, and I've got a certain amount of time."

Eventually, he says, he may even figure out a bidet. Though not yet.

"Just yesterday I was ... at the Omni in Houston, and [my hotel room] had a bidet. And it's the funniest thing -- I went, 'Wow.' I turned the water on to see, and it shot right in my eye. So I've learned nothing."

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