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Comedian Lewis Black ’70 began his comedy career while studying playwriting at Carolina, and 52 years after graduating, he returned to campus as a two-time Grammy Award winner, bestselling author and playwright to give students advice and a new perspective on humor.
During his April 6 campus visit, Black spoke to Associate Professor Michelle Robinson’s American studies course, “Comedy and Ethics,” which explores the production of comedy, the social psychology surrounding humor and the history of stand-up comedy in the 20th century.
Earlier this semester, the students studied plays, television scripts, joke drafts and even class notes that Black donated to Wilson Library.
“We are so lucky to have an opportunity to see Lewis Black in person in our classroom, telling us about his career and his work as a comedian,” said Robinson, who teaches in the College of Arts & Sciences. “The students had the opportunity to visit Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection and see everything from his undergraduate thesis to letters from Oprah Winfrey thanking him for being on her show.”
When Robinson’s students walked into Peabody Hall for class on April 6, they had no idea that one of the comedians whose work they studied was waiting for them at the front of the room.
“The moment I walked in, I turned to my friend and was like, ‘Who is that? He looks so familiar.’ It took me a minute to realize that it was the Lewis Black and that he was literally in our classroom,” said Zoe Frederick, an American studies and psychology major taking the course. “I was awe-struck because we had learned so much about him and even got the first look at his collection that he donated to Wilson Library. It was just such a surreal experience because I have been a big fan of his for a while and so has my family.”
Robinson began the class conversation by asking Black about his time at Carolina and how his comedy career began.
“I did stand up when I was [a student] here. I started doing performances at Cat’s Cradle, and I was horrifying,” joked Black. “So, I know for a fact I must be better now, 50 years later.”
Black also recounted his first visit to Chapel Hill before transferring as an undergraduate and why he still maintains a residence near campus.
“There was a bus station up Franklin Street, and I walked down the block and onto the old part of campus and was overwhelmed,” Black said. “I just thought, ‘This is where I belong.’ I had never experienced that in my whole life, ever.”
When Robinson mentioned that the students looked through Black’s donated papers, he encouraged them to also keep their notes and drafts throughout their academic careers and said, “It doesn’t count as hoarding if your papers end up in a library.”
“Donating my papers to UNC gave them meaning they didn’t previously have outside of myself,” Black continued. “I kept those papers in my apartment, so one of the great things when [the library] said they wanted my papers, was I went, ‘Ha, I don’t have to pay for storage!’
“The fact was, when the library took my papers, it was more of an honor than a Grammy. Much more.”
The students then passed a microphone around the room and asked Black about his stand-up persona, his role as anger personified in Pixar’s “Inside Out” and his political commentary on “The Daily Show.”
“I know this is cliché but listening to Mr. Black talk about how he got to where he is currently was very inspiring,” Frederick said. “I guess it showed me that you really can do anything with your life, and you can pursue the career you want and be successful regardless of what you majored in, thought you were going to do, even what your parents want you to do, and I think that is something that I’ve had to learn too.”
Robinson said Black’s visit solidified the ideas her class discussed throughout the semester and made the content more relevant by sharing personal anecdotes about many other comedians discussed in the course.
“There’s so many things that Lewis Black has to offer us, but one thing that’s really useful for students to see is a comedian who addresses a political life in America,” said Robinson. “We’ve talked a lot about comedians who maybe treat politics in a trivial way instead of really sinking their teeth into it and bringing our attention to important dimensions of the political sphere, and that’s something that Lewis Black does very well.”