He may be pissed off, but Lewis Black has his reasons. Punchline Magazine spent some time with the future stand-up comedy legend to see what makes him tick and ticked. In the process, we found a softer side of the surly man in black.
(Originally published on PunchlineMagazine.com, May 2006)
Planted in a red, mini love seat backstage at the Comedy Connection in Boston, Lewis Black looks relaxed and loose, maybe even satisfied, as if he’s just ended a marathon sex session. He smiles a lot, smokes a cigarette and chats with his longtime opener, comic John Bowman, as well as other friends and manager types lining the walls of the tiny room.
To be fair, Black did spend the previous hour in serious release mode, flailing his arms, vigorously wagging his index fingers and — during especially intense times — gripping with his right hand the raised letters, m, e and d on the wall behind him. So now it’s time to mellow out. The venue, of course, was sold out. And, as expected, the crowd hung on Black’s every tirade, diatribe and odd placement of the word “fuck,” as in “Cracker Fuck Barrel‚ “Dr. Fuck Phil. Dressed in black from his pants to his shirt and jacket to his trademark black trim glasses, the 57-year-old comic delivered his act as if he were an angry preacher on the verge of a rage-induced seizure.
It’s a wonderful thing to see Black air out this way. He’s seen mostly every week in his “Back in Black” segment on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he sports a loose tie and opines loudly on that week’s political misdeeds, shoddy media coverage thereof and the general stupidity of human beings. Though his language is restricted on Comedy Central, viewers still get the message: He’s angry. The idea for the segment was born 10 years ago from his stand-up routine, which snags liberally from headlines. “I don’t know why I even do this for a living anymore,” he tells the Boston crowd during his set. “I should just come up here with a newspaper and say, ‘Hey, did you read about this?'”
He’s right. The time is so ripe for Lewis Black that he could barely catch his breath between major world events. So that night, he gradually checked off members from his hit list. Dick Cheney, as usual, is near the top of said list. Of the vice president pumping his friend Harry Whittington with bird shot, and on quail hunting in general, he says, “They raise these animals to be killed. It’s like animal Auschwitz!”
Throughout the set, Black also hits on Arnold Schwarzenegger, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and the immigration debate. And in light of his belief that voting is a fairly outdated and ineffective way of choosing our leaders, he also proposes a new way to pick our next president: Throw a dart at a map. Fly a monkey over whatever city was hit. When he’s over the city, push the monkey out of the plane. The first person he holds hands with is our new president.
This technique of suggesting ludicrous ideas to solve the country’s woes is a common one for Black. It only makes his overriding message clearer. That message: We are all fucked.
“I’m on hold today. I’m not exactly sure what that means,” says Black, days before his Boston performance. “I think it means I’m supposed to be available because they may call at any minute.” It’s 11 a.m., and he speaks quietly; he sounds tired but content. His blood isn’t boiling, and he’s not dying to spout about politics. Black is in his hotel room in Salt Lake City, where he’s filming the Warner Bros. flick Unaccompanied Minors, but he’s still getting adjusted to the motion-picture world. After all, this is a guy who does 250 shows a year.
So he’s still touring in earnest while shooting the film. “I worked here three days and then had to leave,” he explains. “I came back for two days then had to fly back East. And I’m flying Delta, so you get the feeling they’re going to go on strike while we’re in the air.”
In Minors, Lewis plays an airport manager who on Christmas Eve is about to take his first vacation in
12 years. But when a blizzard hits, he’s grounded. As it turns out, so are a group of unruly minors sans parents. Black spends a lot of the movie disgruntled and dealing with these devil children. “Yeah, it’s a real stretch to get in character,” jokes Black. “Sometimes, all you have to do is wake me up at 6 a.m. and say, ‘Let’s shoot.'”
With four other movie projects in the works. including Barry Levinson’s political satire Man of the Year and the Bob Saget-helmed animated mockumentary Farce of the Penguins, the world at large is going to be seeing and hearing a lot more from Lewis Black this year.
“The movie thing came totally out of left field,” says Black. “I didn’t know this was going to happen. They called me to do this movie and then as it turns out, Barry Levinson had written a part for me in his film. But no one has seen any of these movies yet. That’s why I have a successful movie career. This will all end once they’re out in theaters.”
In addition to his upcoming movies, Black just released The Carnegie Hall Performance, his fifth live stand-up album. The two-disc set features nearly 90 minutes of some of Black’s funniest and most solid material. During the performance, he does a masterful job of brandishing jokes about what you’d expect from him — Rick Santorum being a bigoted jerk-off, how Congress interfered with the Terry Schiavo case, the problems with airport security — and of presenting a slightly softer side of his otherwise agitated persona.
He tells endearing anecdotes about his parents and about growing up Jewish; he laments growing older; and he manages to do more than a few minutes on the evils of candy corn. At a measured, deliberate pace and at a soft volume, the same he uses when talking about world atrocities and building up to a “HOLY FUCKING SHIT!‚” he philosophizes about this famous Halloween treat. “Nothing proves [long pause] just how dumb [short pause] we are collectively [short pause] as a people [pause]…nothing proves it more [pause] than candy corn.”
“He has a great mind and a great way of presenting his dissatisfaction with things,” George Carlin said about Black in a Playboy interview last year. “I like Lewis’ relentlessness. I love his overkill. I love the fucking sledgehammer. Lewis wields a mighty sledgehammer.”
And maybe at the end of the day that disgusting but popular candy is a perfect metaphor for the nation. At the very least, it might provide an explanation as to why Black — a man who thrives on exposing the ugliness of this country — can keep thousands of people coming back for more. No matter how bad that wax-like confection tastes, we’ll keep eating it. And no matter how bad the nation is, we’ll still want to hear about from Lewis.
“I think I get forgiven by the audience because my character is so fucking nuts,” says Black. “But I think I’m also kind of even-handed. Also, there’s a huge, massive frustration that’s been built up and nobody’s talking to these people. I think the reason The Daily Show works and my comedy works and the reason Stephen’s show [The Colbert Report] works is because no one else is trying to speak English to the American people. They just keep saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s OK. Look, the economy’s good!’ And they know it’s not good.”
“What gets me angriest is when I’m watching Meet the Press or that Bob Schieffer one, I forget the name of it‚” he says. “The thing that really gets me the most are those Sunday morning shows because it’s the only time politicians have to talk for more than three or four minutes, and they actually have to speak. And that’s when I realize just how bereft we are of leadership. I just get crazed because I start thinking, You’ve got to be kidding me. Where do you get the balls to say that?”
THE APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR
If you look at Lewis Black’s childhood, it’s hardly shocking that he feels this way about government and authority in general. At first it seemed that Black really did everything in his power not to engage in politics. But politics and government just kept finding him. He and his younger brother, Ronald, were born and raised in Silver Spring, Md., barely eight miles from the nation’s capital. He also grew up during a time when the Soviets were scary fuckers, when you practiced the old duck-and-cover in school and when having a well-stocked bomb shelter was totally cool.
Add to these variables his parents: Jeannette and Sam Black had to have been two of the most progressive parents of the 1950s, consistently challenging the status quo with their words and their actions. By today’s standards even, they’d be considered ahead of the curve. Jeannette had her master’s degree and taught math in an all-black high school in Washington, D.C. She quit after the administration told her to stop straying from the rigid curriculum, wherein there were no real practical applications for students, many of whom were not going to college. She was a terrible cook, would eventually work for Women Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War and forbade Lewis from becoming
a Boy Scout.
Sam was a mechanical engineer who built sea mines for the government during World War II and the Vietnam War. He quit 10 years earlier than he planned after reading the Geneva Accord and deciding there was no justification for the U.S. occupation of Vietnam. He then dedicated his life full-time to art, mostly stained glass and painting. He was also the one who introduced his son to theater and playwriting, two things that defined Lewis’ artistic endeavors long before he clumsily stumbled into stand-up comedy.
“They were remarkable,” Black says of his parents. “They were as supportive as you could be. They were always a little worried about me, but they always backed me up. They came to everything I wrote.” In fact, they were there the night he recorded his latest album at Carnegie Hall. Black also drew a lot of inspiration from his brother, Ronald, who died of lung cancer in 1996.
His love of the theater is why he went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in drama. It’s why he and some friends bought and ran a theater in Colorado Springs, Colo. And it’s why he would, in 1977, earn his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
There was nothing deliberate about Black’s introduction into comedy. After he graduated from UNC, a friend who played in a band asked him if he would mind doing some stand-up between sets at their weekly gigs at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C. “I was awful. I mean really dreadful, like scary bad,” Black wrote in his book Nothing’s Sacred. “Between the dry mouth, the shakes, the vertigo and the nausea, I was a mess.” Oddly enough, he returned week after week. “Something about the pain of it all must have intrigued me.”
He continued plugging away at stand-up part-time. Even during the Nixon administration, while he was working for the Appalachian Regional Commission (an anti-poverty group), he did some stand-up at the Brickseller in downtown D.C. While in drama school, he also found time to get married; the marriage lasted less than a year.
After graduating from Yale, Black eventually moved to New York City, where he became the West End Cafe’s playwright in residence. He always emceed the shows he produced there, indirectly finding his comic voice and honing his stand-up chops. After a decade, he left the Cafe and became a full-time stand-up comic. Nearly 10 years later, Black is one of the nation’s most popular comics and social critics.
BLACK IN PAPERBACK
As if Black weren’t busy enough touring to support The Carnegie Hall Performance and also filming movies, he just recently finished work on his latest HBO special, Red, White and Screwed, which airs in June. In addition, he and comedy writer and producer Jeff Stilson (The Osbournes, The Chris Rock Show, Politically Incorrect) are working on Red State Diaries, a show for Comedy Central, in which Black visits Republican states in an effort to learn more about the people there. “I basically try to comprehend how they’re different or if they are different,” he says. “We tested the show, and it did well. I think Comedy Central is rethinking it for the fall. Who knows what they’re fucking going to do.”
And the summer will be packed as well, with two of Black’s movies (Accepted, a teen comedy, and Farce) both set to debut, in addition to the release of Nothing’s Sacred in paperback on July 11.
The question now is whether Black will have time to relax, which for him means golfing. “I’m most at peace when I golf,” admits Black. “Which is sad because it’s really a disturbing, sick game. Maybe I wouldn’t say I’m at peace exactly. But it’s the one place where I don’t think. Well, I still think, but it’s about stupid shit, like I bet if I breathe through my ass I could hit the ball better. I enjoy the hell out of it.”
Even if he can’t manage to squeeze in nine holes or if shuttling between movie sets and comedy stages becomes a tad stressful, Black recognizes that things could be worse. “These are problems anyone would be thrilled to have,” he says. “What a terrible life.”
For more info, visit www.lewisblack.net.