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October 25, 2014

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From Las Vegas clubs to Iowa farms, Lewis Black’s standup takes root

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Mitchell Zachs

Lewis Black.

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Lewis Black took the stage at the Mirage on June 22.

Lewis Black remembers the moment he understood that he held universal appeal.

“The first time I thought, ‘I must be doing something right,’ I was playing Bally’s at the time, and this was like 15 to 20 years ago,” Black says during a phone interview from Pelican Hill Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif., where he is hosting a golf event to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“A guy who told me he was a farmer from Iowa came up to me after the show and said, ‘You’ve got a great philosophy. I get what you’re saying.’ This is a farmer from Iowa, for Christ’s sake! He’s not exactly my target demographic.”

The lesson he learned?

“Don’t dismiss that guy, and never read an audience based on what they look like, that they are all really old or this or that,” says Black, headlining at the Mirage’s Terry Fator Theater on Friday and Saturday in the resort’s Aces of Comedy series.

“You still have to make them laugh. You still need to reach them and not try to cater to the type of people you think they are. Even if you’re doing a corporate gig and you’re in front of a bunch of people who have been let out of a bunker for three minutes, you can still reach them and have to develop the confidence to do that.”

Black has attained national recognition for his Comedy Central specials and appearances contributing hard-charging commentary on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” but he has been a busy Vegas standup for more than 25 years. During that span, he’s played Catch a Rising Star at Bally’s, the Comedy Stop at the Trop, House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, Hollywood Theater at MGM Grand and most recently the Mirage.

He refers to Vegas audiences as the “Johnny Carson” sample platter.

“In Vegas, you have an audience you can’t find anywhere else. It’s from all over the country,” he says. “You play Seattle, everyone’s from Seattle. But in Vegas, you have six from Seattle, a bunch from L.A., some local Las Vegans and maybe a farmer from Iowa. In Vegas, you learn the ins and outs of holding a room because of that great spectrum of folks.”

Not that every experience has proven fruitful. Years ago, Black was booked to perform for liquor distributors during their annual convention.

“I thought, ‘Great, liquor distributors. At least I won’t be in front of a group of miserable pricks,” Black says. “It was one of the worst gigs ever because they had just lost their Absolut account. So now I was asked to make Stoli jokes because they were with Stoli. What? There is nothing in my comedy about Stoli. I had a tough time winning them over.”

Black is typically left-of-center politically (he has been named the “Celebrity Ambassador” for the American Civil Liberties Union) and invokes political commentary in his act. But he fires freely at both sides of the political debate.

“I am angry that the Democrats don’t have the ability to explain to Republicans that we should be able to feed people in this country, and that is not Socialism,” Black says. “That should be understood, and to bring Socialism into the argument is way off the point. Democrats should be focused on which way we can help the most people in this country, and Republicans should be focused on how to do that in the most fiscally responsible manner possible. But that is no longer the case.”

Black has been writing his autobiography, which he might turn into a play, and also is planning a charity concert for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on May 5 in New York, with Will Ferrell set as one of the headliners. He says that he has no plans to become a club operator, in the way that some of his contemporaries (including Brad Garrett at MGM Grand) have invested in running a comedy room.

“I’d rather drop a toilet seat on my dick, to be honest,” he says. “I ran a room in New York (the West Bank Cafe in New York) for eight years, which was mainly one-act plays and music and one major comedy show at midnight on Saturdays. It was a place to go in and get yourself seen, and it kind of worked on its own, and I was lucky that I didn’t have to run the finances on the place.”

Black is more comfortable just standing in front of an audience with a couple of bottles of water (sometimes angrily reading the list of ingredients from one of those bottles) and telling jokes.

“What I’ve found in my career is that 70 to 75 percent of comics are nice and have some sense of social skills,” he says, “but there are those who end up in comedy because they don’t know how to socialize. I don’t want to deal with that group.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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