He shuffles down Franklin Street toward lunch with a friend, unnoticed by passers-by because he is not pontificating, gesticulating or shaking his head in the funny fashion that defines Lewis Black.
One of America’s best known stand-up comedians lives in Chapel Hill, but spends barely half the year here because of his live tour and accompanying media calls, hosting gigs, voice over work for animated film and his forthcoming cable TV show.
He is in town this weekend for the annual Carolina Comedy Festival, to which he donates his time and wisdom helping burgeoning UNC student comics launch careers that, hopefully, take off faster than Black’s.
His resume is long, but it really doesn’t get cooking until 2000, the year he was arrested for co-hosting a sort of pornographic bus tour in New York City on the same day President Clinton’s motorcade was taking a similar route.
Stints on the Daily Show and Comedy Central blasted Black’s career into true stardom when he was already past 50. The 1969 UNC graduate still looks younger than his 63 years. Obviously, he gets a kick out of making people laugh.
“I’m very busy and I love everything I do,” Black said, “but I wish it all happened when I had more energy.”
Anyone who has seen Black on stage, either in person or on an HBO special, will dispute that he lacks energy. His raving rants about the “absurdities of life” are brilliant, blue and far from boring. He makes fun of people and things, which are hilarious unless you are a completely humorless way-right winger.
Black is also a rabid Carolina fan and well-aware of the Tar Heels’ place in the Sweet Sixteen. But it would not have been that way if he wasn’t rejected by several Ivy League drama schools and then visited Chapel Hill because his girlfriend’s mother went here.
“One walk on campus and that was it,” said Black, a suburban Maryland native. “I went straight to the admissions office and asked what I had to do. I didn’t even know, or care, whether they had a drama department.”
He had friends at Duke and visited there quite often, and now like most Tar Heel fans he despises the Blue Devils basketball team. “The Duke-Lehigh game was like arriving at the gates of heaven,” he said. “I get as much pleasure from them losing as I do from Carolina winning.”
Black has written three books since 2005, all while nested away in his condo on Franklin Street. This is where he comes for refuge and to help teach kids a few things he learned the hard way. He started out as a playwright, had bit parts in movies and TV shows and finally found his niche standing on stage by himself seeing people bust a gut over his manic, machine-gun delivery.
He’s already played the Durham Performing Arts Center and is scheduled there again in mid-April. Meanwhile, whatever writing he’s here to do has been sidetracked by college basketball.
“I’ve watched more this year than ever,” said Black, relating that he caught the first Carolina-Duke game on satellite TV from his tour bus. He missed the second because he had a show that night in Sarasota, Florida.
Marquette is his second favorite team, stemming ironically from the Warriors’ 1977 win over Carolina in the NCAA Championship game and some fond memories of times spent in Milwaukee ever since. He said he knew the Tar Heels would lose that game when they went to Four Corners midway through the second half.
“Why do coaches do that? They still do it. Syracuse almost lost the other night because they started to hold the ball,” he said. “I don’t understand it, never will understand it. But I still watch as much as I can.”
And rants at the TV, for sure.