In 1976, Sidney Lumet directed Network, a scathing satire on television news starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. Central to the film’s story was Howard Beale, a legendary, but aging news anchor being forced into retirement. He eventually goes on an unscripted, uncensored tirade, live on the air, proclaiming to his viewing public (and encouraging them to join in) that he’s “mad as hell” and he’s “not going to take this anymore.” He becomes a ratings sensation and must-see viewing. Everything he’s mad about, all the injustice he sees in the world, all of it becomes cash money for the network.
The main difference between Beale and Lewis Black? Black’s not insane. At least, as far as we know.
Black began doing comedy as a means to warm up crowds at his Hell’s Kitchen playhouse. Soon, he was touring and appearing on stand-up comedy-centric TV shows, such as The A-List during the early days of Comedy Central. In 1996, he was approached by Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead to provide a segment “a couple of times a week” for the then-fledgling “fake news” program. “You’re going to put me on TV?” Black asked. What followed was a take on Black’s usual stand-up routine, distilled through the show’s creative controllers.
If The Daily Show itself is a parody of news broadcasts, “Back in Black” is a parody of the “nightly commentary,” in which the anchor — usually a grumpy old white guy — would tell the world his opinion on the issues of the day. Lewis Black does that, but without the soothing voice and the grandfatherly gentleness. He yells, points, and snarls at the camera while going on about everything that is wrong with the world, and it makes us all want to bust out into applause.
And then, he smiles. Lewis Black isn’t Howard Beale. He’s Peter Finch. He’s putting on a performance as an untethered man. He’s not actually untethered. Or, at least, he’s able to turn it off at will.
“Back in Black” became one of the most popular segments during Craig Kilborn’s run as host and, as a result, carried over to Jon Stewart’s version. Considering how angry and cynical he comes across, it’s kind of ironic that the other carryover from the Kilborn era is “Your Moment of Zen.”
Black doesn’t appear on The Daily Show nearly as much as he used to. In a lot of ways, Stewart has been filling the void himself, bringing a sense of barely-restrained anger and aggravation to the topics he covers with greater frequency than before, specifically when the topic turns to Fox News. With Stewart’s looming exit, though, fans can take solace in the knowledge that Black will be sticking around to work with Trevor Noah on his version of The Daily Show. Providing the show with more than just a bit of seemingly unstable stability, but also its ragey beating heart. We just hope there’s more “Back in Black” than ever before, because there sure seems to be more things worth screaming about.