Panic. Dread. Indigestion.

These are things one feels when they miss a phone call from Lewis Black. Those feelings intensify when Black, who is famous for being cranky, is forced to dial a backup cell number. Four letter words were invented for these types of situations. Black would know - he uses plenty.

But he didn't sling any at a less-than-punctual journalist. His greeting was polite and understanding.

He chatted about the unseasonably warm weather he was enjoying last month during a Midwest tour stop.

"Things are good . . . ," he started saying.

More panic ensues. This doesn't sound like Black. Maybe it's a prank call . . .

". . . Outside of what's happening in the country," he finished. What's happening in the country is depressing, he added.

Yup. Definitely Black.

"I got three guys running to be president of the United States who are 'outsiders,'" he continued. "I'm not stupid. They have to stop treating us like we're phenomenally dumb. They're the people's candidates? Please."

The Republicans had four years to find a great presidential candidate, and that hasn't happened yet, he said. He feels like they floated Herman Cain into the campaign as an experiment.

"We don't have time for this," he said, his voice rising into a signature screech.

Don't get him started about the endless debates.

"It's worthless," he said. "I just think that if we're not going to go anywhere, why do we have to listen to these people? It's just like shut up. A majority of people are sick of you."

He blames the political machine, which he said has turned campaigns into over-analyzed popularity contests.

"It's the Constitution that has checks and balances," he said. "That process is fine. That's all well and good. You don't have to have Democratic and Republican strategists. The party lines are repeated over and over. I can get information. But I can't get facts."

That's the gist behind his new comedy show, "Running on Empty," which he'll perform March 8 at York's Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center.

"My generation has to be blamed and has to accept responsibility," said Black, who is a Baby Boomer. "I don't know what we're going to do . . . but something has to be done."

Since he was raised around Washington, D.C., Black is familiar with the government - and what government should really do.

"You go to all of these things - Congress, The Supreme Court, The White House, the memorials - and there is the complete ideal of government," he said. "By the time I was 13, I was appalled. They're not even trying to live up to the ideal."

Black, who doesn't identify as a Republican or Democrat, said he used to yell about the parties, but now he focuses on decisions both parties go along with.

"Spending all this time working on Iraq - at some point we'll realize that we should never have been there," Black said.

But he's not entirely sure that we will.

"We don't have much of a memory," he said. "There was an insulation from the War in Iraq. Most people will forget that we were there. All (they'll say) is that it's Obama's fault."

Black doesn't blame that on Obama, but there are other things - namely the financial crisis - he does pin on the president.

"Why didn't some policies work?" Black asked. "Why aren't banks giving us money? Where were you?"

Something is wrong, Black said, when people from banks, who swindled many out of millions, aren't in jail. The Occupy Movement, he added, came much too late.

He's spent the last seven years crisscrossing the country on a tour bus and standing in the middle of crowded rooms screaming. People are laughing, but few are paying attention.

"I've become a middle of the road comic," he mused. "Or maybe I've become a milquetoast piece of s-."

A scary thought is that audiences aren't concerned about the state of America. Or - even scarier - they're too busy updating their social media pages from their smartphones, Black said.

"All of a sudden you're sitting with friends and nobody's talking," he observed. "We all kind of spend half of our time in this bubble. I'm forced to Twitter and Facebook. It's an advertisement - people are advertising themselves."

Politics and constant wall posts drive Black crazy, and that's why he rants. But he'd rather talk about other stuff.

"The thing that I try to do (is) make fun of it," he said of his frustrations. "It's easier to deal with . . . and I take a lot of naps."

While on tour, also he reads the papers and magazines to keep up with current events. But most of the time, he wanders around the towns he visits.

"In the end, the positive (part) is the people," he said. "There is an extraordinary sense of community that nobody . . . knows how to tap into. There is a sense that you want to help."

Too bad the best part of America can rarely be seen in Congress . . . or only comes out in times of catastrophe or war, he said, his screech petering out.

Light. Relieved. Mollified.

These are the unexpected things one feels after 40 minutes on the phone with Black, even if one didn't do much of the talking.

"I did get stuff off my chest," Black admitted. "I just want to be a comic . . . and give people a bit of a laugh and (a chance to) step back from a period of madness."

- Erin McCracken,
FlipSide staff

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