Though Lewis Black ’70 is best known as a comedian embodying cathartic anger on stage and in popular segments on The Daily Show, he began his career as a drama major at Carolina. He wanted to be a playwright and spent the two decades after graduation pursuing that goal: buying and running a theater with friends, serving as playwright-in-residence for theater companies and festivals, and writing 40 plays.
“I wrote all this stuff, I kept it all,” Black said. “I don’t know why. I was a writer, so I kept everything, to go back to it.”
Black, who has won Grammy Awards for his comedy albums and has written three best-selling books, recently donated his plays, television pilot scripts, and materials from his comedy career to the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They will be part of the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.
Winifred Fordham Metz, media librarian and head of the Media & Design Center at the R.B. House Undergraduate Library, helped connect Black with the Southern Historical Collection. She said the Lewis Black Collection will have immediate impact on teaching and research.
“The items that Lewis has shared with us run the trajectory of his creative writing, his public service, and much of his media career,” Metz said. “Students always benefit by hearing from people who are actively working in their fields of study. The fact that he began his career while he was a student at Carolina and wants to share those beginnings is especially generous. It can inspire students and give them more confidence in their own creative projects.”
Jason Tomberlin, head of special collections research and instruction, said that Wilson Library already holds Black’s published works, DVDs, and even photographs from his student productions at Chapel Hill. The archival materials add a new dimension, said Tomberlin. “Students can see first-hand the process that an artist goes through in developing and refining their work. That’s something you would never know without these primary source documents.”
In addition to finished plays, and versions in draft for each, the collection contains memorabilia, including a poster from “Feast,” which Black wrote while he was a Carolina student. After “Feast” sold out its run at the Great Hall of the Carolina Union, it toured other colleges in North Carolina with help from a grant from the N.C. Arts Council.
Black has a vivid memory of “Feast” getting a standing ovation in Greensboro, and what a highlight it was. “I turned to this friend of mine and said, it’s never gonna get any better than this.” he recalled. “I should have walked away at that point, but it was so much reinforcement that it was like oh, like wow, yeah, I can do this again.”
While at Carolina, Black was awarded a Shubert Fellowship for playwriting. After Carolina, he studied at the Yale School of Drama. He had some success as a playwright. “The Deal,” a dark comedy about business, was made into a short film in 1998. In 2011, his play “One Slight Hitch” was produced at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then again in 2012 at both the ACT Theatre in Seattle and The George Street Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Black’s writing process for plays is different than for his standup comedy, he said. Although he reveres comics who write everything down, Black said he only makes notes. His process of refinement and revision comes onstage.
For his standup act, Black said, “I write notes down. And then I remember it. I write on stage. That’s what I do. I write in front of people. It what I’ve done from the very beginning.”
The very beginning of Black’s comedy career came during his last summer in Chapel Hill, at the Cat’s Cradle. While touring “Feast,” he had done question-and-answer sessions with audiences and had become more comfortable with public speaking. When a friend and “Feast” collaborator invited him to do standup between a band’s sets, Black said yes.
“I was awful,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Nothing’s Sacred.” “I mean really dreadful, like scary bad. I found it much harder than the nerve-shattering experience of watching one of my plays being performed. I don’t know if there is anything like standing up in front of a group of people and trying to make them laugh.”
Still, he kept at it while pursuing his theater career. It was a way to make money while trying to write plays and get them produced.
“I had no desire to become a comic. None, zip, none at all,” Black said recently. “It was a way that I could get my writing read and heard, which was a lot easier than sending off a play. I really wanted to be in theater. I wanted to be a playwright.”
When Black was in his 40s, he was in frustrating negotiations with a theater in Houston about staging one of his plays, “The Czar of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He went across town to a “comedy and magic club called Spellbinders,” he said. After seeing him do 15 minutes of standup, Spellbinders offered him a headlining gig for one week that paid as much as he was getting for the entire run of the play across town. “And I went, that’s that,” he said about giving up the theater to focus on comedy.
Black said he was honored to have his papers kept at the Library. “To have the Library ask for my work is huge for me,” he said. “I feel honored that they are interested in what I wrote.”
Metz said the collection also shows how Black has successfully moved from medium to medium in his career, bringing similar skills to each. Now in his 70s, Black has begun a successful podcast (or “Rantcast,” as he calls it) in which he invites listeners to submit their own written rants on anything that is bothering them and he reads them.
“He’s continually iterated himself through the years, all the while keeping up his writing and performance work,” she said. “That variety, persistence, and acumen would speak to any kind of entrepreneur, any kind of innovator. He clearly has a lot to offer UNC students and faculty.”
While he is headed back out on the road for shows this winter, Black said he is eager to visit campus and work with students who are using his papers or who have questions about writing for the stage or screen. He still remembers the first time he saw Chapel Hill. “I got off the Trailways bus and walked up the street, got to the old campus and felt like I was home,” he said.
Story by Claire Cusick