Lewis Black on politics, aging, and being the guy who yells
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Lewis Black, having just turned 64, seems pretty pissed off about it. That’s nothing shocking, but his resignation toward aging and the current political climate brings to mind the sad, final days of Hunter S. Thompson. For Thompson, the corruption and entropy at the dawn of the 21st century was too much, and nothing was “fun” anymore. While Thompson chose to end it all, Black fights on, although some of the fight seems to have gone out of him. On his new special In God We Rust, premièring tonight on Comedy Central, it’s as if Black has succumbed to the fact that the political machine still rumbles forward unscathed and society hasn’t really learned anything from the sins of the past. Black’s response has been to turn insular, commenting on his advancing age and a technological society that has left him far behind (although he begrudgingly acquired a Twitter account in 2011). With an upcoming string of dates on Broadway titled Running On Empty, Black refuses to give up on humanity, retaining his humor, hope, and an internal fire that refuses to die.
The A.V. Club: With a little more than two months until the election, how’s your blood pressure and general mental state?
Lewis Black: I’ve managed to ignore it. I got out of the country for a while. I did Just For Laughs in Montreal and got away from it. I believe that summer is our time, a time for the people, and that no politician should be allowed to speak to us during the summer. They can start talking again after Labor Day. Unless it’s an emergency, or they have something to say that is actually a fact. Otherwise shut up, because I have no interest anymore. It’s no longer what it was when I was a kid. They’re not making decisions, and there’s very little being done. Have a meeting, shut up, and get out of my face.
AVC: I’ve never understood why we need such a massive dog-and-pony show.
LB: The Republican National Convention is four days! The hurricane is cutting it down to three. And then the Democrats are gonna do it, like, “What, we didn’t know?” As if we haven’t seen them, and they haven’t been talking to us. They’ve been campaigning already. What is this about? Is this some acid flashback?
AVC: Did your heart warm a little when you heard they had to postpone the RNC?
LB: As you well know, we lost a day of comedy. You give any of those idiots one extra day to screw up, then they’re gonna do it. If you look at the people who use the Bible as their guide, then wouldn’t they think that this is God saying, “No. Stop it”?
AVC: It is a pretty big sign from above.
LB: What else do they need? Locusts? Drought? Hurricane? God has spoken.
AVC: With social media and constant media saturation, has that made political humor more difficult? Because any time a politician slips up, there’s going to be a million spins on the same gaffe.
LB: Yes, in that sense it does, because in a certain sense everybody is game. For me, it’s never been about these guys, but what these guys aren’t doing, and how these guys affect us, not them. It’s really the effect, not them. There’s a lot of stuff that falls through the cracks that’s just as spectacular as what comes out. Take “legitimate rape.” One thing about being older is that I’m listening to this for the 400th time. This is something stupid that was said in the ’50s but you could have pardoned it because of ignorance.
AVC: What’s really frightening is that it’s ignorance toward science.
LB: They don’t believe in science. They don’t believe in biology. There’s a reason we have scientists. There’s a big reason that you don’t ignore what your scientists say: They’re the same guys who in the 15th century went to the king and said, “Don’t shit in the moat.” I mean come on! It’s one thing to think when you’re 19 and on drugs that scientists gather together on a daily basis and say, “Hey, how are we gonna freak ’em out today?” It’s another thing when you’re an adult, and you got a D in chemistry, you fucking moron.
AVC: What is your human response to first hearing something like Todd Akin’s comments on rape? Do you immediately put pen to paper, calmly discuss the matter with loved ones, or fume?
LB: Internally, I think, “When does it end? When does it really become the 21st century?” I think about it for a while. My first response was, “Okay, you [Akin] can have these thoughts, but then you lose your rights to cable. You lose your rights to a color television set. You watch everything in black and white, and you’re not allowed air conditioning.” That’s when you can have thoughts like that: when you’re sweating your tits off and you only have three channels.
AVC: In God We Rust seems a bit less scathing and more contemplative, rather than bile-filled.
LB: Yeah. I think it’s me using my voice to find other ways to fucking do this besides screaming all the time. It’s me learning other ways to get a point through. That’s part of where this came from and what really had a lot to do with it. The next one will probably be more scathing than this one. With this one, it’s not that I’m relaxed, but really about me trying to find ways to modulate my voice in order to get my point across. It’s also the fact that if you do this forever, you don’t want to become a cliché. It used to be, “Oh, you’re the guy that yells!”
AVC: Or, “Why are you so pissed off?”
LB: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, “Why am I so pissed off?” That’s my favorite. This special, which I did a year and half ago and is just now seeing the light of day, we shot it and put it together quickly, and it took forever to get it out. This is where the technology eludes me, which is how to release something so it’s close to the timeframe of the special and the things I’m talking about. I said stuff 10 years ago that I think applies more now than it did then. Some of the stuff that I did here still applies, but you want it to be within that timeframe, and you’ve got half an audience that will watch it on a computer and half that won’t, because my audience is basically between 15 and 90. That, to me, is the big question now, and I can’t figure it out. The delay occurred because I did the special, and then it went to EPIX, which is really great but is not an HBO and doesn’t have that kind of distribution. I’m not on HBO anymore. They don’t do my stuff.
AVC: There was a break or split from HBO?
LB: It wasn’t a break or a split, but they just don’t want to do my shit. I feel they’ve kind of dropped out except for Ricky Gervais. They pick their usual suspects and the guys who liked me at HBO left. So what do you do?
AVC: Doesn’t Louis C.K. release directly to the fans?
LB: He releases his stuff directly over the Internet, but half of my fans aren’t going to watch me on a computer screen. It’s weird, and that’s really the big question.
AVC: At 64, do you feel that you’re able to accept some of society’s stupidity at this point, and just let things rust, as it were?
LB: I think that I don’t panic as much as the folks on the left or the right do. I don’t have that sense of panic. I’ve watched it long enough, I’ve seen it go, and you think, “This is the most insane thing that could ever happen,” and then it gets more insane. You realize that for all the shenanigans that go on in the big circus of politics, everybody wakes up and goes to work. The supermarkets are filled with food. Calm the fuck down! It’s not the end of the world. If they elect Romney, then you’ve got a legitimate worry about the Supreme Court. That’s a legitimate worry. Good luck fucking with women’s rights. Good fucking luck. We move so slowly that panic isn’t allowed. This group of fucks in Congress, more than any other, should be ashamed of themselves. They point at each other and say it’s the other guy’s fault. I don’t give a shit. We don’t have time for that anymore. Your job is not to tell us what’s wrong with the other side. Your job is to sit down with that group of pricks that you don’t like and fucking deal with them. That’s why you were elected, asshole. You sit down with them, have your fucking discussion, and stay out of my face. It’s just like high school. Most people didn’t want to work on student government, and most people didn’t give a shit what the Homecoming float looked like. No one gave a fuck. Go away, figure it out, and then bring the fucking float out. Yay!
AVC: Speaking of high school, your first creative outlet was writing plays. What drew you to that medium?
LB: Stupidity. I’ve always really liked theater. It fascinated me. You can create a reality and get people involved in that reality. It takes place in real time. I’m not an athlete, so to me it was as close as you could get to athletics in an intellectual fashion. I’d listen to people’s conversations and think, “I can write something more interesting than that.” I’d lock myself up and try to think of shit that was more interesting and really drive myself crazy.
AVC: Early on, you must have been attracted to Tennessee Williams or that kind of “in your face” theater.
LB: Yeah. Arthur Miller, Williams, Beckett, Sam Shepard, and Chekhov. I mean it’s the fruitiest profession on earth. I wasn’t a Glee kid, but I just thought it was a way to express stuff, and the way people talked fascinated me. It’s hard to explain. I’ve got a play going on now that I’ve been reworking over the past 12 years. We’ve done about four workshops, and this is the third production coming up in October in New Jersey at the George Street Theater. Last night I found myself rewriting again and I just thought, “What the fuck is wrong with me?”
AVC: So that passion never dies?
LB: It’s the play that I thought was going to help me get known as a writer. This play is 30 years old. It was optioned for Broadway for a long time, and I thought if it didn’t go to Broadway it’ll end up in places like the Milwaukee Rep or some regional theaters, and then I could go teach college.
AVC: Your comedic influences, like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Bill Hicks—these were troubled souls. What has kept you grounded in your personal life?
LB: Probably my friends. The other thing is that I shifted careers, so when I started doing standup… I was 40 when I started going on the road. Not that I didn’t go crazy during that time period. It was like, “Really? We can sit in the bar until 5?” But I was really spending all of that time learning another skill. I didn’t have time to fuck around. All of a sudden I was making a living. I was broke until I was 40. Really broke. I could get by, but I had nothing. No health insurance, so if something happened I was screwed. I was lucky my parents had money and my brother was willing to support me for a long time. Once I started doing standup, I had an income, and that was amazing to me.
AVC: You were like Rodney Dangerfield, doing the late-career shift into comedy. That doesn’t really afford you the opportunity to fuck around and be hungover all the time.
LB: I went, “Wow, what a profession. I can be drunk until 6 in the morning, and then I don’t have to show up to work until 14 hours later.”
AVC: Cocaine was pretty much comp’d back then, right?
LB: Yeah, but I was lucky, because I missed the big years of it, when it was big in the clubs. It was still floating around, but I missed that big wave. It wouldn’t have been any help. I would have been doing nine shows a night.
AVC: When you first started out, what was the pinnacle of success for you? Has that ideal changed over the years?
LB: In terms of standup, it was really to be recognized as good at what I was doing. I know guys now that I think are exceptional, but don’t have the recognition I have. That was really the first big step, which was getting recognition from the comics I hung around with in New York.
AVC: As a socialist, who or what do you think is most dangerous for our country? Does everything eventually circle back to religion?
LB: In part it is religion, but it’s religion as a club and a weapon. If they just used religion strictly as religion, you go, you do it, and that’s it, then that’s fine. You don’t need to bother other people with it. This is the thing I’ve never understood: If someone is going to hell for being gay or being a Jew or a Muslim or having an abortion, then what are you worried about? You don’t need to try and convert these people or try and save them. If you really believe in your religion, these people are already doomed, so stop worrying about them. You don’t need to make a case for them. The other thing is the outright ignorance. We’ve got more information now than anyone’s ever wanted, but we’ve got less facts. Both sides keep telling us they’re going to get us work, and neither has really said how they’re going to do it. The reason I like socialism is that it’s kind of enforced Christianity. It’s basically very Christian, in the sense of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These people have nothing, so you have to share. There’s a whole group of Christians who believe the individual is more important, but in the end I don’t think that’s what Christ was talking about.