A Conversation with Comedian Lewis Black

 Lewis Black - Photo by Kyle Christy
Lewis Black - Photo by Kyle Christy

Lewis Black is best known as the acerbic, red faced comedian whose social and political commentary is regularly featured on The Daily Show, in TV specials, films and on stages around the world. Black is performing at the Long Beach Terrace Theater this Saturday, December 1st and, in advance of his visit, I had an opportunity to speak with him just prior to the Election.

You’re coming to Long Beach in December, which sadly means it will be after the election. I imagine this is a really good time for you.

It’ll be a good time then, don’t worry. This doesn’t end. This is only an evolution of the idiocy that will continue. Much like a diamond has many facets, it’s endless. Every time I think it can’t go further... Don’t worry, you know?

Remember, by then, they’ll be playing with the economy again, both sides. In their desperate attempt to destroy it, both sides will take us to the edge yet again. It’s extraordinary. That’s when we get into the, “We passed the Bush tax cuts; what do we do in between; what if we have to take all that off the military,” all that. It’s going to be splendid. People are going to say things that are unimaginable now. Who would have thought that “legitimate rape,” you just go, 'Wow! Really?' It just doesn’t end.

I can imagine them thinking it’s 1957, a lot of them. I used to think we kind of go through the same arguments. I kind of get that, alright? I understand that, alright? Certain things haven’t been settled, especially if you’re going to have a war over it. But what’s extraordinary is these people that continue to think they have black and white TVs and no air conditioning.

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S P O N S O R
You describe yourself as being a socialist. The thing I find fascinating about that is that, in the United States, being a socialist seems sort of strange, but in 90% of the rest of the world, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to be.

Yeah. It’s become unreasonable. It used to be, when I was a kid, we were at the very tail-end of it. You could still kind of think in that fashion. After they finished clubbing the communists then they went after clubbing the socialists. There’s no threat, especially now. Do I think that’s where we’re going to end up? No. I’ve got one congressman. I have no party, for all intents and purposes. If you want to go to a meeting of socialists, you can go to a graveyard.

Exactly. Yet we see socialism working quite well in other democratic countries. I think a lot of people mistakenly think it’s the same thing as communism, which, of course, it isn’t.

They do. Every so often I do have an argument about it. Somebody will say, “I don’t want it to be like Cuba.” Well, it’s not Cuba, you idiot.

Do you find yourself challenged to support any candidate these days?

Yeah. As a comic, I can’t. I don’t want them to talk to me anymore. I want them to do their job. I feel like, when I look at my career and the amount of time I’ve spent on talking about this stuff, and the amount of time I’ve spent talking about it now, the reason is because these people will not stop talking to me. Just talk to each other. That’s what we elected you for. We didn’t elect you to talk to us. Stop running for office all the time. You can’t do that. Let’s start with summer; you can’t talk to us during the summer. That really is our time, and you’re crossing a line when you do that. And they are. And you have to stop having conventions. You just have to. I watched that convention and I felt like I felt when I watched a convention years ago when I was on acid. I had the exact same experience: What are they doing, and why?

Don’t you think the problem begins at the municipal level? There’s so much apathy, such a low turn-out. In Long Beach, for example, in our last municipal election we had a turn-out of something like 11%, depending on how you count it, maybe 30%, but either way, it’s pretty shockingly bad. I think this is how these people in state and national government wind up getting into it at all because people at a local level just don’t care at all.

Part of that is because people at the local level are just worn out, you know? They’re worn out. They’re basically trying to make ends meet. A lot of people are. Part of the job of leadership is to inspire, and these people don’t inspire. They don’t do the job they’re supposed to do. Maybe we need to have more leadership camps, where people learn how to do these things, like how to talk to people. Becoming a leader is now about the same thing as becoming a teacher. It became that over time. Actually, I don’t know how it became that, except that maybe what became important was how much you made, you know? People weren’t a business when I was a kid.

That’s another shift, too; this disdain for education. It seems strange to me that there would be this push-back against intellectualism. That seems like something that would be celebrated a bit more.

It’s shocking. I mean, it’s shocking. It’s disturbing. When someone like Rick Santorum says some of the things he says about it—The people in his party who really give a shit need to chastise him. You don’t leave it to the other party to chastise someone in your party who is promoting ignorance, because essentially that’s what they’re doing. They do the same thing when they challenge science. “It’s a coven of witches somewhere and they’re all doing alchemy.” Stop it. That kind of thing doesn’t help the Republican Party. “The profit is more important than the planet.” It’s stupid, at this point. Climate change is a real thing. It’s not up for discussion anymore. And the reason we know this is because of scientists. And it’s the one thing I won’t discuss with people. There’s nothing to discuss. You watch a chunk of a polar icecap astonishingly float away, you watch a chunk of Greenland disappear, and you don’t know what that means? You have a group of scientists telling you this, so you go on the internet to find the people who agree with you? Scientists aren’t wandering around trying to come up with scary ideas.

People I know personally, people I think of as reasonably intelligent, have adopted all kinds of really bizarre and false beliefs. Have you heard about chemtrails?

No.

It’s a myth, a completely false belief, that the vapor trails behind jets are somehow a government plot to pollute the air, land, and water.

Wow. I mean, wow. You know, part of it’s the internet. Until there’s some sort of vetting for information sources, you don’t need to have a resume to put up a website. That’s why I love newspapers. It’s the thing that’s most important. For whatever their failures are, for whatever you can scream about newspapers, someone reads a resume before someone is hired to go on to work.

The other thing, I think, is that people are lazy and they don’t vet themselves. They don’t stand back and say, “Wait a minute. Is this reasonable at all?” It seems pretty bizarre to me.

It’s unbelievable. Especially coming out of the time frame I came out of, which was kind of the end of education as we know it.

Something I didn’t know about you until today is that you have a strong background in theater. I know you’ve done a lot of acting over the years, but you started out as a playwright. Have you had any desire to return to that?

I have returned to it, sadly, because I don’t get enough humiliation anymore, so I’ve gone back to where I was really humiliated and abused. I have a play that I wrote about thirty years ago that then I spent the last ten years doing workshops with a friend of mine, a director, and we got it into a shape that I felt was really—The Williamstown Theatre Festival did it and then the ACT Theatre in Seattle, a really good theater up there, did it, and now a nice theater in New Brunswick, about 15 minutes from New York, is doing it. It’s called the George Street Theatre, and it opens October 2. It’s called “One Slight Hitch.” And it’s in pretty good shape now. I’m pleased with it. Once it’s performed at George Street, we’ll see where it goes from there.

That’s wonderful. How does that feel, to get back to that part of yourself?

It feels really good. I feel like it’s a thread that got lost. I feel like I didn’t really understand play writing. I used to do a lot of guessing. I think I have more of an understanding of it now. I still don’t think—I mean, the people who write really great plays are—they somehow—I think writing really great plays is like the level of Einstein, you know? In terms of just your connecting—coming up with this equation and coming up with a reality that people enter, it’s really extraordinary. And I’m still not well-versed in it, but at least I feel like I now, at least, have a much better perspective of what I’m doing.

Do you think this is going to result in you creating something new?

I don’t know. If it does, it will really be a sad day for me, because it’s really hard. It means a lot of sitting down. It might. I have some ideas I’ll pursue now because of it, and we’ll see if it goes anywhere. But if it’s not a play, it’ll be a book. I want to write something else.

Fantastic! You have a number of books out. Most of them comedic in nature, would you say?

Yeah. Each one became more serious, but the thread is comedy. The last book is probably the most serious, but it’s generally funny. One was about growing up and how I ended up. I wrote it, really, for kids. Like, “None of this makes sense.” I’m like, “Don’t worry about it. It will make sense and you’ll find your way,” and how I stumbled into my way. I had a lot of shit I had to go through. Not traumatic, emotional shit, but just shit you go through to try to get from point A to point B in this idiotic maze. In my case, “You shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t do that,” you know? When you work for bosses who are idiots, you deal with those kinds of things.

The second book was about—I talk a lot about religion, so really, it’s a book about why I believe what it is I believe, and how I arrived at that conclusion, because I have odd instances within the midst of—I don’t buy any of the organized stuff, but I do have this belief. So, it’s how I ended up with the belief.

The last book was a Christmas book. It’s a book about living my life single. I’ve lived most of my life single. I’ve been in relationships and lived with women and stuff, but I was married only once, and since then I’ve not even contemplated it. So, it was a book about being single disguised as a Christmas book. Because it’s that time of year, more than Valentine’s Day, really, that’s it’s all about family, and if you don’t have one, there’s a certain level of trauma you go through every year, like the fact of what you’ve done with your life.

How do you reconcile that?

Well, I reconcile it with the fact that I’m happy. [laughs] I’m content. Some of us choose not to get married. And you have a lot of people cheering for you not to get married. Who wouldn’t prefer being in a really great relationship? But you look around and—Some of my friends are in really great relationships. Some of my friends have been in horrific— There’s a lot of just horrific relationships out there. The last thing people want to be is single. They really want a good relationship first, then second is a bad relationship. They’d rather be in a bad relationship than be single. It’s absurd. (laugh)

The other thing I wanted to talk about was what I consider to be one of the greatest TV shows ever produced, “The Root of All Evil.” Did you write that? How did it come to be?

Thank you. It came to be because of Scott [Carter] and David [Sacks]. They came up with the idea. Scott is an executive producer of Real Time with Bill Maher, and I’ve known him for years. David wrote a pilot for Fox for me, and he’s written on hundreds of shows [The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, 3rd Rock from the Sun, The Tick, Malcolm in the Middle]. It was their idea, and I thought it was a really good one.

I was lucky because I’ve known a bunch of comics forever and they really wanted to do the show. What’s sad is that Comedy Central, in their infinite wisdom, gave us the first season, then the second season, rather than putting it on when they put on the first season, which was either the fall or winter, put it on in the summer. And we said, “It’s not going to sell, because kids aren’t home. And it didn’t. And it was a better show the second season and it would’ve been a really good show the third season because I really had learned what I had to do. We all kind of knew better what we needed to do. We all understood it better, and it would’ve been a great show.

I think it stands as a definite high-point in comedy television. Just the idea of bringing comedy and this sort of intellectual discussion together, I thought it was a joy. It must have been fun to do, too.

It was a lot of fun, and it would’ve been more fun as we went along. The problem, as it always is, was the suits. It was Comedy Central. And the reason the show went off the air was that they said, “Well, why don’t you come in and re-pitch the show to us?” And it was like, “No, we’re not doing that. We’ve done it. I’ve done enough for your channel and you’ve done enough for me that we don’t need to sit down. If you don’t think we can carry this off, then you’re crazy.” Look who we had: Patton Oswalt, Greg Giraldo, I mean we had Paul F. Tompkins. We had a remarkable cast of comics working on that show. Andy [Kindler] was on it, Kathleen Madigan, you couldn’t beat it. And they walked away from it. And I blame them. I don’t give a shit. They’re left holdin’.

Anything else in the works, as far as TV?

No. Things keep popping up, people are always, “Do you want to do this? Do you want to do that?” Twice a year, something—I’ve been involved with stuff, off and on, for the last 15 years, 20 years. There were two or three things that came up and they say no. Inevitably, they say no. I kind of don’t go out west anymore, to come to LA to try and sell the stuff. I don’t need it, you know? I like what I’m doing and I don’t need them kind of going, “Oh, you know, we really want to work with you. Oh, we were just kidding.”

That must get old really fast.

You get tired of it. I don’t need rejection. I have rejection in long-time supply, right now, and I don’t need it now. I know what I can do when I’m on television. I’m on, this segment that’s run for 16 years that people gravitate to. Don’t tell me it’s going to be a problem selling me on television, you know?

Thanks for your time, and even though you’re coming out to Southern California, Long Beach is not LA. We’re going to be really glad to have you here.

I’m looking forward to it, I’ll tell you that. I can’t wait. We’ll have a lot of fun. I can guarantee you that. Election or not, we’ll have fun.

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To purchase tickets, or learn more about Lewis Black's various endeavors, visit LewisBlack.com.

To find out about upcoming events at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, which includes the Arena, Terrace Theater, and Center Theater, visit LongBeachCC.com.

Many thanks to Lee Adams for her excellent transcription services.



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