The eruption of exasperation and disgust that Lew Black brings to his stand-up comedy has made him the face of anger in entertainment. Now, he’s also the voice.
From the start, the creative team behind the new Pixar film “Inside Out” pitched the idea of bringing to life the emotions in an 11-year-old girl’s head by saying Anger would be voiced “by someone like Lewis Black.”
Black’s satirical response when he got the call was, “real stretch with the casting.” But that didn’t stop him from joining Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith as the voice talents of the girl’s emotions in the animated offering. His character is a fiery red with a body like Danny DeVito’s. Get him really mad and flames fly out of the top of his head.
Black’s main occupation is stand-up comedy, but he has dabbled in acting from a role in “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” to grumpy professor in “The Big Bang Theory.”
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Anger is the constant theme when it comes to the roles Black plays, even when he’s doing comedy. The man who can go from calm to insane in a single thought is actually a very jovial man. At one point, he laughs so hard at a joke comparing his acting abilities to those of Lassie, Black almost falls out of his chair.
This irate persona is one he’s cultivated over the years as a way of getting across the smart points he makes. Each finger-wiggling act of disgust he uses to talk about people, politics or problems is like an exclamation point to his joke.
“Even as a kid I would go off on stuff,” Black says. “As a kid I would set myself up in situations where I could get in front of a crowd so I could be funny. I didn’t realize that until later that I was funny when I got angry. The anger came out of sarcasm and I was always the most sarcastic person in the room. My family argued all the time, That’s what we did, That was the way we expressed love and it’s always been so — that kind of anger is always kind of being a part of me— and my mother couldn’t cook.”
When Black started doing standup, it took him years to find his right comic voice. He shows off that anger a bit when talking about what happened after he was hired to work for Pixar.
The animation company sent him a box of DVDs of their previous films and a note saying these would help if he didn’t know about the Pixar company. Of course he knew about Pixar. Turning up the anger gauge, Black growls and says, “Which meant that they were crazy or they thought I was just some sort of a recluse.”
Although he’s held government jobs, been a playwright and worked in a post office (yes, a post office), Black thinks he was born to be the voice of Anger. All he needed was a bit of coaching by directors Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen.
“I needed the coaching to help me understand spatially where the character is in time and space,” Black says. “You are kind of working half blind in a scene. You have a sense of it, but you are taking a lot of clues from the directors.”
Black compares voice work to being on radio in that he just has to accept what he’s doing is right since there is no live audience.
Movies and TV are fun for Black and his first love was theater. But his true passion is stand-up comedy. Unlike a lot of comedians, the stand-up work is far more demanding for Black because his jokes are so contemporary. He describes his style as “writing in public” because of how quickly he adds jokes to his performance.
Keeping up with current events is enough to make him angry.
“I read the newspaper and say this would be great if it was fiction,” Black says. “This is really beyond belief. I think in terms of leadership, it is the most appalling time I’ve ever lived.”
Despite his frustrations, Black’s commitment to being current means that if you see his stage show this year, you won’t see the same show next year. Some of the topics might be the same but Black will offer a different spin.
What won’t change is the disgust and anger he brings to the performance. Black has carved out his place in the Anger Hall of Fame, an honor that has its ups and downs.
“It’s that old thing that the good news is you are Anger and the bad thing is you are Anger. You’re limited. They stopped looking at me for anything else,” Black says.
But, he’s not angry. He’s just Anger.