Lewis Black
Durham Performing Arts Center
Dec. 3

Lewis Black’s trademark invective seemed directed more toward defense than offense during the first comedic performance at the gleaming Durham Performing Arts Center last week. Blackthe author, actor, playwright and Daily Show star who began his career in Chapel Hill nightclubscalled into question his own aptitude and future prospects within 30 seconds of taking the stage. After the audience roared upon his entry, he suggested they just go home because he’d never be able to meet such warm expectations.

Black parlayed this into a metaphor, of course, for Barack Obama, “the first president who will actually lactate hope,” he said. Black admitted that, like youth, hope had passed him by, though he congratulated the president-elect for speaking in paragraphs.

Indeed, age was a consistent topic for the comedian, who turned 60 in August and looked worse-for-the-road Wednesday. At least he travels in comfort: In a disquisition that laid waste to the last 40 years of energy policy, Black explained his compulsion to cart his one-man production across the country in a leased tour bus. And, of course, it wouldn’t be comedy in the Aughts if he hadn’t spun it into an airport joke about plastic bags and aqueous solutions. Like most of Black’s set Wednesday, that passage felt obligatory.

But if Black felt backed into a corner, he had every right following the brilliant, energetic performance of the opening underdog John Bowman. Like Black, Bowman’s given to manic fits. When the audience corrected his “Hello, Chapel Hill” salutations twice, he launched a perfect rant, chastising the crowd for being so proud of a small city where they owned a small house that was half as valuable as it used to be.

But, between his fits, Bowman’s humor was more insightful and less solipsistic (and, perhaps, paranoid) than Black’s. He attacked America’s marketing mania while feigning product-placement bits for bottled water and the ukulele he strummed so nervously during his set. But by the end of the night, he had no need to be nervous. He’d done something Black failed to dodeliver the unexpected.