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If you're going to make a career out of a shtick, it's a good idea to pick something that's still going to be culturally relevant years down the road. Since Lewis Black's rise to fame has occurred while George W. Bush has been in office, it's tough to tell what will happen when there aren't complete buffoons running wild in the White House; chances are pretty good, however, that his war-on-stupidity character is going to have a place in America for some time to come. Of course, Black, a Washington native, plays the role so well because he's playing himself: an educated guy so pissed-off that he can't help but rant. Audiences love it when he gets hot under the collar, and for his trouble, he received last year's Best Comedy Album Grammy for The Carnegie Hall Performance. This year has been especially busy for Black, with a new Comedy Central television show, Root Of All Evil; a current stand-up tour; and the release next month of his book Me Of Little Faith, in which he turns his enraged eye to the inanity of organized religion. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Black about the show, the relationship between politics and religion, and how the end of the Bush administration is like being in rehab.
The A.V. Club: The sort-of mock-trial format of Root Of All Evil—where did that come from?
Lewis Black: The idea started with Scott Carter, the executive producer of Real Time With Bill Maher. I've known Scott forever. I used to run a room in New York and would do plays and stuff; Scott used to work there as a comic. With a guy named David Sachs, he's written a bunch of pilots. I don't know how these things come together, but the two of them came up with this idea. They felt that I should be the judge. The idea would be picking two subjects or people or ideas and seeing which one was more evil, and I would be allowed to judge it and say whatever the fuck I wanted. That's the way it's evolved, but it's just started, and it will continue to evolve.
AVC: Is it hard to sit quiet while other, lesser-known comics do a lot of the talking?
LB: It's not. It's fun, because it's less work.
AVC: Less risk of having a stroke on the set?
LB: Exactly. What's funny about it to me is that their take on something wouldn't be my take on it. The hard thing for me at times is to figure out where to interject, because I'm sitting there going, "This is good." I become too much of an audience member.
AVC: Your new book is all about religion. Is religion as a political issue finally starting to become less important?
LB: No, we're not that lucky. Much like when the left—back when there was a left in the country, in the late '60s—got tired of banging their heads against a brick wall, the evangelicals are starting to bang their heads against a brick wall. People are starting to say, "You can't be the ones that decide everything, so shut up!" much the way they used to tell the left, "There's only about 50 of you on campus; shut up already." There's a level of insanity to all of this. We're marching to hell in a handbasket, and they're saying, "Well, read this book." Really? A book written by people in the desert under extreme conditions of heat and lack of water? I was talking to someone once from The Weather Channel—
AVC: You've worked with them in the past, correct?
LB: They brought me in for segments. My act used to have 45 minutes in it about weather, before things got so nuts. That's how you know things were going good—I was talking about the weather. But this lady from The Weather Channel said she would go talk to these farmers about global warming, and they would say, "The Bible tells us that we're only going to be here for 10,000 years, so this is all meaningless to us." That's when you go, "Holy fuck!"
AVC: Believing that the world is doomed anyway must explain why those people voted for Bush.
LB: That's when it gets in the way. That's where it gets crazy. I came out of the '50s and '60s, and even in the '50s, when I was 12 years old, people didn't talk about this. Until Kennedy ran, religion wasn't a big public display, outside of the debate about whether we should pray in schools. This is really nuts. This breast-beating and shit.
AVC: Will politics and religion be separated like that again any time soon?
LB: Between [Mike] Huckabee telling me his word is the word of God and Obama's pastor, who apparently has his own 24-hour channel now—
AVC: Jeremiah Wright.
LB: You put that guy on for 24 hours a day? I leave CNN on when I'm sitting there trying to get rid of e-mail, and he was on every eight minutes. Can you believe this is the news? It was just clips of him talking somewhere, and then him talking somewhere else I've never seen anything like that. It will end up hurting Obama, because everyone says, "Why did he stay in the church?" I can't imagine that anyone who was in politics would sit in a church where a guy was talking about that stuff on a regular basis. How many times did Obama go?
AVC: Maybe he was a Christmas-and-Easter guy.
LB: Kathleen Madigan said to me that if it were a Catholic church, it wouldn't have mattered, because no one would have been awake. And Hillary's telling me she's praying. I don't need that. I don't need politicians doing a 24-hour prayer with Oral Roberts to get our country back on track. Where are we going? I pick up the paper every day, and it's like, "Are you kidding me?" And it means no one is paying attention to the issues. There's this watershed where the media is beginning to stop paying attention, and John McCain is saying things that are insane, that you can't allow a candidate to say. Every other day, you'll listen to him, and he'll say something, and you'll go, "What? Did he just say that? No, he didn't say that."
AVC: What was your reaction to the Pope's visit?
LB: The good news was that somebody who was completely irrelevant arrived in the United States and was made relevant again. It was stunning. I have friends who are Catholics, and half of them were like, "Well, it is the Pope," and the other half were like, "I've spent years trying to get away from that son of a bitch." My mother was literally apoplectic, because it's like voodoo. You might as well have had a guy from Haiti come over with bones around his neck and cut off chicken heads in front of everybody, and everyone just goes, "Woooo! Look at that! That's phenomenal!"
AVC: How did your own religious upbringing affect the perspective you take in your book?
LB: I'm a Jew. I wrote about it a little in the first book [Nothing's Sacred], being born and raised Jewish, but I go into it a little bit deeper in this book. When I was starting to write my book, there was The End Of Faith by Sam Harris, and all these extraordinary books analyzing organized religions and why they're problematic, and how they've made it difficult for us to evolve. It's all been done, and done well. My Catholic comedian friends have better jokes about church molestation.
AVC: So the book isn't meant to be a potshot at specific religions.
LB: I write about my relationship to religion. If I write about Catholicism, I write about my relationship to my Catholic friends. In the late '60s and '70s, all these gurus started showing up in the United States, and friends of mine would start following them around, so I would actually go out to see how nuts my friends had become. When you go into a church bookstore, there are hundreds of books about how people found God; mine is about looking, but I don't get it.
AVC: As the Bush administration winds down, does it feel like there's a returning sense of normalcy?
LB: I describe the condition of the country of being as if we just woke up in rehab. We're in a hospital bed somewhere, and there's a nurse standing over us, and we have to stop drinking. Through the clouds, we're trying to recollect and get a little exercise even, and get it back on track. We've skidded completely off the rails. Nothing compares to this. It's Vietnam at 500 mph.
AVC: People have stopped using the V-word recently, but what's changed to keep people from making that comparison?
LB: It's an even more backward take on Vietnam, that Domino Theory: "If you let those Commies take over Vietnam, all of fucking Asia goes." Now they say, "If we make Iraq democratic, everybody's going to be democratic." It's the exact same fucking scenario, but without jungles, just houses in which people can hide. Five years later, we're in a complete morass, and we've got McCain, who was in Vietnam, telling us it's not Vietnam—what planet are these people from?
AVC: When the founding fathers made us a democracy, they didn't put in the Constitution that we're supposed to make everyone else a democracy too.
LB: If everybody in this country voted, I'd be like, "Okay, we love democracy." But a lot of people don't vote—we're one of the countries that votes the least, for all of our breast-beating about being a "leading democracy." I would feel much better if Bush hadn't been elected, and had taken over. We could be like, "Well, what are we going to do? He took over!" But he was elected, that's what's astonishing. I went over and did the USO Tour, and it's a fucking shock. We're completely insulated from the Army and war. There's no sense of sacrifice. Even now, none of them—including Obama, who they tout as some other kind of candidate—will step up to the plate and propose an end-time, or even a timeout.
AVC: How does this stand-up tour compare?
LB: I'm in Long Beach, California, and there's a highway, 20 parking lots surrounding me, and a giant port with nothing but gas billowing up—you can't even see the ships for the shit in front of it. Apparently Los Angeles is down the road, but trying to see it is like looking through fucking gauze. It's a shithole.
AVC: Is this tour showcasing new material, or subject matter from the book?
LB: My touring has never stopped; from the time I started doing stand-up, I've been on the road. It's what I like to do. What's fascinating is trying to find a through-line to the act; I've got about 35 new minutes nobody has seen. If people have seen bits and pieces of my act at this point, that stuff has been expanded ad nauseam, because I've figured things out. I'm trying to come up with new things that apply to what's occurring now, and apply all the things that have occurred in the past year—because I can't even keep up with it—and figure out a way to wrap it all together. I've got stuff about airline mergers, which just shows that my stand-up is getting more insane by the minute.