Interview: Comedian Lewis Black 

click to enlarge Lewis Black.
  • Lewis Black.

For a guy who makes his living by working up a head of steam on stage (next Thursday at Old National Centre) and screen (The Daily Show, other Comedy Central shows and specials, some pretty bad movies), Lewis Black is quite easy to talk to: friendly, gracious and trying his best to be funny, even when the circumstances aren't quite right. Things were certainly a little gloomy when we spoke by phone on Friday, April 19, against the backdrop of a manhunt in Boston and search and rescue mission in West, Texas.

NUVO: It's been a rough news week. Well, maybe a great news week if you're on cable news, but terrible if you're a person.

Black: Yeah, it's awful. But the news is them covering the news: there's no news. I get the focus on it, but come on! If you've got something to say, then you come back on; otherwise, we had a gun control bill that failed, and that's not being covered on any sort of a level.

NUVO: How disappointing is it that we can't follow up on that sort of emotional impetus toward doing something about gun control?

Black: Yeah, it's unbelievable; it's really appalling. It's background checks, okay. So the reasons we can't do background checks are because... It's not worked until now, so let's not try to fix it? The whole thing is madness. 'What if I want to give a gun to a friend?' Well, then, give it to him; I don't give a shit. People do all sorts of stuff like that, and they figure that their friend isn't a maniac, and nothing bad's going to happen, and it'll be okay, and the cops won't find out. If you're giving your gun to somebody who's going to kill somebody, then you're a moron. But those are the two reasons I've heard - and those aren't reasons enough to not pass a simple, sane background check. You can continue to go to your gun shows and buy your guns. How many more rights do they need? It's just about asking what your name is and doing a five to seven minute background check. The other thing is don't tell me we can't figure it out! As I'm saying in the act, if I can download three million vaginas in a minute, you can fucking do this.

NUVO: And the other thing that's frustrating is that the NRA has killed this bill in full daylight, with everyone paying attention. Or maybe people are distracted.

Black: I think people get it. And there's also a bunch of chicken shit: 90 percent of the country is with you, and you don't think you can beat the NRA in your district? Really? And it's an inordinate amount of power compared to who they are; what they are is vocal.

NUVO: So I wonder how you as a performer stay sane and healthy when dealing with a certain level of rage on stage, day in and day out.

Black: You just go for the punchline; you spend your time trying to find the punchline. The stupid thing is I'm funny when I'm angry, but I'm still looking for what's funny. I can tell the audience, 'Who do you think is going to come for your guns? Me? You think I'm going to get up? I've got games to watch. I'm not getting up in the fifth inning of the Baltimore Orioles game to come to your house and look for a gun.' The same people who think the government is going to come for their guns are the ones who think the government is completely incompetent. And if they're completely incompetent, does that mean the only thing they're competent at is coming to get your guns? You can't have it both ways. I'm not from a gun culture - and there are people who are from a gun culture, and that's the real problem. And the job of the Senate is to bridge that gap, and they're not doing it. I have much deeper feelings about that, but I'm there to entertain people; I can't change the world up there, but I can certainly make them laugh about the world they're fucking dealing with. With my parents, there was no gun culture: They didn't hunt for game; they hunted for buffets. The nice thing about being able to yell and scream is being able to get this stuff out of your system.

NUVO: That's interesting. I was thinking of being angry on a daily basis as a taxing thing, but it's more like it's cathartic.

Black: Yeah, it's cathartic, because as long as I maintain humor I'm allowed to say whatever the fuck I want. And that's kind of extraordinary; I'm still kind of stunned by the whole thing.

NUVO: A play of yours you wrote in 1983, A Slight Hitch, was revived a couple years ago. Did you have a chance to embed some of your ideas in your plays in the same way you do your standup routines, or was that a different thing?

Black: Totally different. This is a romantic comedy. If my name weren't on it, nobody would know I wrote the play, and it's about a totally different thing than I talk about on stage. It's a completely different part of my brain. One is the act of an extrovert; the other the act of an introvert. It's insane! What I find impressive is how people like Woody Allen are able to bridge that gap; I can't bridge it. I couldn't write a play, in a sense, for myself.

NUVO: What's that about?

Black: I spent a long time writing plays for people that could act, that were really good actors, and the stories I'm looking to tell - granted, if there was a place where I could put myself as a character in there, I would - but the story predicates who's going to be in there. Granted, there's a little bit of myself I'm putting in there, but if it's a romantic comedy about a wedding, and if the lead character's 30, I'm not going to get to play him. 'He's a little old for that part!'

NUVO: What are you talking about in this run of stand-up dates?

Black: It's basically about the failure of my generation to get shit done on any level whatsoever and the reasons why we're not moving forward as a people, which I believe is because we all have ADD. That leads to the discussion of giving speed to kids - when they don't really have anything to do; I have stuff to do, and we're the ones who need speed, we're the ones who need to focus. I go through all of the reasons why I think we have it, from the development of media from three channels on TV to a computer where there are 18 billion websites and then Facebook and other social media, which leads to a culture where you don't pay any attention to where you are, but you know all the other places where you might be and what you're missing. Then I go back to the Weekly Reader report on how Congress and the government is fucking us in the ass - it just depends on what week it is, and this week it's gun control.

We're late in the day with what we're doing. They couldn't do it after Virginia Tech; they couldn't do it after Columbine - and they can't do it after this. Do they have to go into a nursery and shoot kids? Do they have to show up at a maternity ward? We have other stuff we need to get on to, and we're not even moving, and I think it's because we came out of that eight years of Bush and the war, which still kind of continues - and as a country, we were one big stroke victim, and now we're kind of learning how to talk again.

NUVO: Were the '60s and '70s really glory years in terms of paying attention and thinking things through? Or is TV, back to when it was invented, the culprit?

Black: TV was, in part, why civil rights came to pass, because it was in our face every night. It was like, 'Holy crap! That's what they're doing, and that's not right,' and even though people weren't living in the North in integrated neighborhoods, you didn't think, 'Oh, boy, I really want to hose down black people and set dogs on them!'

What's appalling to me is that the issues that they were able to compromise on back then were, in the end, much more volatile than the issues that need to be compromised on now. They're really simple, in many, many fashions, and if you compare them to coming up with a civil rights bill - Are you kidding me? You couldn't even do that now; these people would be incapable of doing it. When I was a kid, I always thought of those older folks, 'Boy, what a bunch of douchebag idiots,' and now I'm watching my generation be the older folks, and they're dumber than my parents' generation. I say that the only nice thing about living now is that, if you didn't get to see the dinosaurs pass from this earth, you can see it now, because it's really dinosaur thinking.

NUVO: Do you look for solace or solutions to anything, or is it just about being able to articulate the madness?

Black: Yeah, I don't have any solutions. I think the solution is for elected people to listen to people like scientists, because they're scientists, they wear white lab coats, and they're not some sort of a voodoo cult. There's a good portion, more than you could imagine, of Congress that treats science as if a scientist is just below a Wiccan.

NUVO: It's very strange and retrograde, like hearkening back to the time of Galileo.

Black: It is like that - it's a leap back to before the '60s, into the '50s, when they went, 'Well, you don't really have to worry; you can stand 20 feet from a nuclear bomb explosion and watch it through those glasses.'

NUVO: One of my favorite routines of yours is the IHOP routine. How do you handle requests to revive old material?

Black: The big problem is if someone wants me to do that routine they'd have to come up and tell me the routine again and then I could do it. I have thought that the last time I go around the country would be a greatest hits tour, where I'd just go through the things that I liked doing and that people have requested, like IHOP, candy corn, seeing Janet Jackson's tit. It's tough because the gay marriage stuff I did was six years ago - and it has to work for me for it to work on stage. I've got to keep going on dealing with what's in front of me now, so that I maintain a higher level of interest, rather than just kind of playing the song again, an old song.

NUVO: And that's kind of an ideal for a certain type of observational comic - to have a new hour or more every year.

Black: I basically try to come up with a new 60 minutes every year, and if I'd really been able to work the powers that be in television better, I'd be doing a special every year. But that's just been a pain in the ass in a lot of ways. George Carlin had a contract with HBO, and rightfully so. He did one year after year after year, and that's kind of my model in a sense. That's really what I do, or try to do. But we've ended up in this era somewhere between the old technology and the new technology, and I feel like I'm caught in between both of them.

NUVO: Louis C.K. kind of paved the way to making money off of specials by doing them exclusively online. Is that something you're thinking of?

Black: No, because I lose a good half, if not more, of my audience. People over 45 aren't going to watch it. Louis, to his credit - I think what he did was great - but he has a TV show. My demographic is, I think, wider spread than his, in that sense; my demographic is 15 to 90, it's crazy. What we're going to try to do, if all goes well, is pay-per-view, and that way if poor kids want to pay a few bucks apiece to watch me, great, and it puts it on the TV and it'll be done live. So, hopefully, that will work, and I'll find out if it works; it's what I wanted to do last time, we just couldn't get it done.

NUVO: Well, I've got more than I can print. Anything else?

Black: My last thought is I just wish I was funnier during this interview!

NUVO: I did start this off by asking about a manhunt.

Black: There are guys who can really come up with stuff quickly that kind of crosses the line - which is great; it's not like I don't think that's funny. But the funniest part is watching these people on the air who are beyond belief. It's like watching an absurd film; you just keep watching all of this and thinking, if you pull back from all of this for a minute, you can watch the coverage of this as a major motion picture that's a satire of this kind of coverage.

NUVO: Especially when they fuck up and fail to take responsibility; there's no self-awareness.

Black: It's weird; John King has not been on, the one who fucked up. They sent everybody else there, but I think they've got him strapped down in a room.

NUVO: He was so sure about his sources.

Black: He was really excited. Yeah, you'll be seeing John King working your local news soon.

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