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Lewis Black -- Indie Comedian
How a tiny indie label landed a big fish of a funnyman 

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Nov. 7, 2001



Nov. 8-10
Lewis Black
The Funny Bone













I had lost all hope for stand-up comedy years ago, when out of nowhere comes a half-hour program on Comedy Central called The Daily Show that featured a bespeckled curmudgeon with introspective views of the news that not only were gut-wrenchingly funny but dead-on accurate.

The guy's name was Lewis Black. And not since the condensed comedic anger of Dennis Leary has a stand-up tapped into the pure hilarity of being pissed off at the world. But where Leary can come off as an a-hole on stage, Lewis manages to be genuinely irritated by the stupidity of basic human nature while at the same time pointing toward his own embarrassing foibles and paranoia.

I can say with all honesty that Black's debut comedy album, deftly called The White Album, is the funniest comedy CD I've ever heard. Over the span of 50 minutes, Black eviscerates everything from weathermen, to the Ozone layer, Al Roker, the F word, IHOPs, Heaven's Gate and especially Bill Clinton, always gritting his teeth in sheer exasperation. Black sounds like an irritated Jackie Gleason grouching at a lazy, good-for-nothing idiot son sitting in the audience, laughing at him.

"The first time I heard him, I thought 'This guy understands everything that's stupid with society,'" said Dan Schlissel, former Lincoln, Neb., resident and owner/operator of Ismist Recordings, the label that released Black's CD.

Schlissel still lived in Nebraska in '95 when he first saw Black perform on one of those dreadful cable comedy shows, this one called Tompkins Square Park. "It featured three comedians over a half-hour, and one of them was Lewis Black," Schlissel said. "The dude was ridiculously funny. I told my fiancée that I'd love to put out a record of his some day, but it'll never happen."




At the time, Ismist Recordings was struggling to keep its head above water, having spent most of the past decade putting out CDs by some of the region's hottest punk acts such as Urethra Franklin, Frontier Trust, Such Sweet Thunder, Polecat and Wide, great bands with loyal but tiny followings. It was a distribution deal gone wrong with Slipknot that eventually pushed Schlissel over the edge and out of Nebraska. He moved to Minneapolis in 1998, burned out on regional indie bands and unsure of his label's future.

Then out of the blue Schlissel heard a commercial on the local metal station for a Lewis Black show at Minneapolis' Acme Comedy Company. He went to the show -- his first time in a comedy club -- and wrote a loveletter of sorts to Black, which he tucked into a copy of Wide's Hidden Agenda CD Ismist had released a year earlier.

"The letter said that I wasn't a nutcase or a stalker, and that I was giving him the CD to prove that I really ran a record label," Schlissel said. "As I was walking out of the club I saw him getting a drink at the bar. I told him I would love to put out a CD by him and to my surprise, he said he would love to work with me."

Black had already been turned down for record deals from Comedy Central and Warner Bros. Almost a year after their first meeting, Schlissel and recording engineer John Machnik, who had previously worked with Schlissel on a Killdozer 7-inch, were in Madison, Wis., recording four nights of Black live on stage. The material was cut down to 75 minutes; Black whittled it down to the final 50 minutes of pure comic anger.

The White Album was released last October with virtually no promotion other than a handful of punk 'zine ads. "After eight years of running an indie label for rock bands in Nebraska, I didn't have a lot of money left for publicity," Schlissel said. "The account was tapped dry."

In addition, Schlissel was unable to line up a national distribution deal. Regardless of only being available by order on the Internet and at shows, The White Album has sold more than 8,000 copies in less than a year, almost surpassing the sales of all previous Ismist recordings combined. "It was the first time I ever had to repress a CD," Schlissel said.

He points to Black's weekly appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as guest spots on The Conan O'Brien Show and constant touring for the sales numbers. "Once we get into real distribution, it'll go nuts," Schlissel said.

His next Lewis-related project is the release of a special edition vinyl version of The White Album in conjunction with the anniversary of a Beatles album of a similar name. Schlissel continues to dabble in the laugh market, releasing comedy CDs by Doug Stanhope and Jimmy Shubert, while he contemplates separating the comedy titles from his indie rock label, which he continues to operate.

"I find myself doing more and more comedy and fewer and fewer bands," he said. "I have five more comedy CDs in the works, including a second Lewis Black CD."

The advantages over rock 'n' roll are obvious. Working with a comedian means dealing with only one ego (two, if his agent is a prick) instead of an entire band-ful. And then there's the advantage of having the artist actually on the road, selling product. "The fact that these guys are on tour makes a difference," Schissel said. "Lewis tours as much as 50 weeks a year."

So is Black as upset as he seems on stage and on TV? "He's like that character only when something really irritates him," Schlissel said. "He's pretty laid back and naturally funny. It bubbles to the surface, especially when he gives me shit, which is fine with me."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly Oct. 31, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


"He's pretty laid back and naturally funny. It bubbles to the surface, especially when he gives me shit, which is fine with me."