By TOM CHESEK
You would think this was a sweet point in time to be Lewis Black.
The gravel-voiced gadfly already a household name thanks to his “Back in Black” vignettes on The Daily Show has much to hype this season. His new weekly TV show Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil just made its debut on Comedy Central. A forthcoming book, Me of Little Faith, is poised to blow the lid off this organized-religion thing. And he continues to sell out venues across the USA with his own Black-label blend of vein-popping vitriol.
So why, then, is Lewis Black not smiling? Why does the most indignant, exasperated man in America continue to rant, rave and rail against the many real and/or imagined indignities, hypocrisies and stupidities of modern American life?
Because we wouldn’t have it any other way and when the Yale-educated social activist slash leather-jacketed curmudgeon takes to the soapbox with his high-decibel, slightly Tourettes-inflected stand-up act, there’s no finer music.
Having consistently filled the house in recent years, Black and his longtime opening act John Bowman return to the boards of the Count Basie Theatre for not just one but two sold-out shows, tomorrow and Wednesday night. If past Basie gigs are any indicator, Black will tweak topics both global (wars on terror, prez-candidates in peril and public figures in spectacular freefall) and strictly local (both comics have been known to have some fun with the name of Red Bank’s landmark restaurant The Little Kraut) with a salvo of bunker-busting F-bombs and all the surgical delicacy of a pair of explosive-charge bolt cutters.
Black’s hardly the only funnyman to pack the house at the Monmouth Street mainstage it’s happened also with 2008 shows by slobbo Stern sidekick Artie Lange and Whose Line improv imps Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. So when we were told by management that Black was “unavailable for interviews at this time,” redbankgreen turned instead to Count Basie communications director Diana St. John for some ideas as to why the historic Red Bank auditorium has become a popular pitstop for headlining ha-has, from George Carlin and Bob Saget to Kevin James and Lily Tomlin a phenomenon that’s especially interesting in light of the comedy-club “implosion” of recent times.
According to St. John, “The idea that people can come to a theater to see comedy acts is a real plus. Not everyone wants to sit in a club or bar, and up until recently, most comedy clubs were not smoke free environments.”
“The fact that the Basie is a larger venue allows us to attract some bigger names in comedy like Lewis Black, Ron White and Artie Lange,” St. John says, pointing out that each of those acts was a fast sellout. It’s also worth noting that, contrary to the Red Bank venue’s reputation as a “family” entertainment facility, most if not all of the featured comics work blue.
In scanning the schedule of Basie offerings, however, it becomes apparent that you don’t need a marquee name to sell out the house as witness the recent Doo Wop bill, the Dora the Explorer tie-in Go, Diego, Go! and the Broadway National Tour production of Hairspray.
As St. John sees it, “It’s really a matter of what is hot right now and what will sell. The packaging of these shows is important, as is the ticket price and time of year.” The acts, she adds, also “have great marketing departments behind them.”
For example, the Doo Wop shows are brought in by LAR Enterprises, an oldies promotion company based on Long Island that has many years of experience assembling “the kind of shows that give the audience member more bang for their buck,” St. John says.
One curious side effect of the theater’s status as a perennial stop on the touring schedules of music-biz veterans like BB King and Kenny Rogers is that tribute acts from the semi-annual Elvis extravaganzas and Sinatra salutes, to the recent Pink Floyd Experience and annual Fab Faux fundraisers have become big business at the Basie.
“Tribute acts certainly have their place in the market. Let’s face it, our kids will never get to see Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead, but that music is what they’re listening to,” St. John says. “We’re seeing a return to classic rock, so it’s great to have a quality tribute band that will give the next generation of music lovers something to experience.”
All of this box-office bustle is not bad at all for a place that doesn’t have its own parking lot. But given the competition for the audience’s ever-dwindling discretionary dollar (particularly from the nearby PNC Bank Arts Center and Asbury’s newly resurgent Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre), how does the Basie stand its ground, especially here in a year when some long-awaited renovations will cause the house to go dark for months starting in mid-summer?
St. John acknowledges there are likely to be potholes ahead, but they’ll be faced by all venues.
“We are fortunate to be located in Red Bank, parking notwithstanding,” she says. “We’ve built a strong foundation with a devoted audience base, and that customer loyalty is what we will focus on.”