November 8, 2006

A Call to Arms

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I’m going to tell you something that I didn’t tell Lewis Black after his show on Sunday night: I didn’t vote on Tuesday. That’s right, you heard me: I did not vote. “Who cares?” you say as you flip the page. Well, Lewis Black cares. In fact, he cares a lot. He cares so much that he told everyone at the sold-out State Street Theater on Sunday night, “You have to fucking vote!” And why do we have to fucking vote? “[Because] it’s [our] fucking obligation!” Well, oops. And as anyone who was at Sunday night’s show will tell you, if people don’t live up to their “fucking obligations,” Lewis Black gets fucking angry.
But Black was more than just angry. His comedy routine at the State Theatre of Ithaca Sunday night was part call-to-arms, part group therapy session. He joked about the animatronic Jesus in Salt Lake City, “Was he really 12 feet tall? Because if so, that would answer a lot of questions for me: If you have a twelve foot tall person walking around with five foot tall people, of course they’re going to fucking follow him.” He mocked Cheney’s quail hunting, “That’s sissy hunting — real quail hunting would be to throw jelly beans at it.” He made fun of the search for illegal immigrants, “Where’s Waldito?” and slammed Mark Foley, “Mark Foley — that’s it, that’s the joke. You don’t have to say anything else.” Finally, he shared a speech that Bush gave to amputees about a battle he had with a cedar tree, “[It] gave me a little scratch … I was able to avoid any major surgical operations here …” Black’s persona is inseparable from his infamous voice — a combination of Estelle, Joey Tribbiani’s chain-smoking agent on Friends, and Gilbert Gottfried — if either were a slightly-overweight Jewish comedian who appears on The Daily Show frequently with his own segment, “Back in Black.”
With all of these elements, I should have been falling out of my chair laughing like the rest of the sold-out theatre. To me though, it wasn’t funny — it was scary. Standing there in a cheap-looking black suit open to reveal a navy top, like he had thrown the first thing on that morning without putting any thought into his appearance, he could have been Howard Beale screaming, “We’re not gonna take it anymore!” He, too, seemed scared. Not just scared, but horrified at the current state of affairs our country the world is in. He almost seemed to feel guilty, telling the audience, “You know, I don’t like to spend so much material on political stuff. It used to only be about 30 percent of my show, now it’s 65. I don’t want you to walk away sad and depressed.” When he told his story about airport security searching a ninety-pound, immobile, sixty-year-old woman at LAX for explosives, he understood how incredulous it should have been … but wasn’t. “You think I make this shit up? I wish I made this shit up!” It was the truth in his statements that made a show that should have been hilarious to me so disturbingly serious. Black, unlike many comedians, forces his audience to think.
But regardless of how amused or scared I was throughout the show, I couldn’t help but find it hysterical when Black gave us permission to use the word ‘retarded.’ In one of the few times he wasn’t screaming, yelling or turning red, he calmly said to us, “I know that it’s not politically correct to use the word “retarded.” Yeah, if you’re referring to someone who is mentally challenged. But if you are referring to something a leader is saying, and you see how stupid he’s being, you have the right to say: ‘Stop. That is retarded.’”
The audience ate the whole thing up. After the show, the line for autographs and pictures stretched out of the lobby and through the entire theatre, while Black sat there patiently, talking to and taking pictures with every single person. When it was my turn, I asked Black what he wanted his audience to take away from the show. What he wanted was for everyone to realize that, “[They] aren’t crazy.” Black’s point seemed to be that he and his audience were the sane ones, responding to this whole crazy mess our country is in, together. His show was a catharsis for his rage, but it was also literally a call to action when he told the audience to “fucking vote.” Thinking of this, I felt even more guilty — guilty to be letting this enraged, hysterical man down. Because if he knew I didn’t vote on Tuesday? He would have yelled, “Stop! That is retarded.”