When Lewis Black started his stand-up career in Chapel Hill, his jokes flopped.
Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro had just opened when he first ventured there after graduating from UNC, performing stand-up in between sets for his friend’s band.
“I did it for about three or four weeks in a row, and I was awful, just awful — but I kept getting up there,” Black said.
Forty years later, Black’s still getting back up there.
On Saturday, the Grammy Award-winning comedian and UNC alumnus will take the stage at Memorial Hall as the culminating act in the annual Carolina Comedy Festival, hosted by the Carolina Union Activities Board.
Senior Carly Mathews, the CUAB president, said that Black’s show presents a unique opportunity to foster community bonding.
“The fact that a group of 1,400 people can laugh together at the same thing — I think it’s a great way to build together,” she said.
Black tops off a roster of prominent features this year, which includes Dean Roughton, author of “The Most Educated Idiot I Know” and a UNC alumnus, and comedian Matt Stanton, as well as “Saturday Night Live” cast members Aidy Bryant, Brooks Wheelan and Bobby Moynihan.
Yet what distinguishes Black is that this year marks his 11th time performing at his alma mater.
Black said he originally planned to tour Duke University but fell in love with UNC as soon as he set foot on campus.
“It was one of the few places going 24 hours in terms of academics and 24 hours in terms of a party,” he said. “I felt completely at home there.”
Black attended UNC in the 60s and said his undergraduate career, which occurred in the midst of cultural, racial and gender-based turmoil in the U.S., made for a politically exciting experience. It also constituted a time of personal growth and exploration.
“I got to start as a comic while I was down there — or at least got to make the first attempts,” Black said.
Black went on to garner national acclaim, prompting UNC alumna Katie Nelson to reach out to him in 2003 while she was still a student.
Nelson was working on a humor magazine at the time and expressed interest in launching a comedy festival at UNC. He readily participated and has since returned each year.
Sophomore Merrick Osborne, the CUAB comedy chairman, said Black’s dedication stems from his relationship with UNC.
“He sees Carolina as the jumping-off point for himself and he really wants to pay it forward,” he said.
In addition to the Saturday show, Black will lead a Friday “Class with Black” where he will workshop with students and counsel aspiring comedians.
“My advice for people who want to do it is you just have to do it again and again and again. There’s nothing else,” Black said.
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