Lewis Black isn't angry. He's mostly exasperated. But given that exasperation, plus his booming, gravelly voice, apoplectic features, and tendency toward relentless rants, it's easy to see why the word "angry" comes up so often around him.
Best known for his "Back In Black" tirades on The Daily Show, as well as his numerous Comedy Central and HBO specials (his latest, Red, White, And Screwed, premières on HBO on June 10), Black is a veteran stand-up comedian with close to 30 years at the mic under his belt, most of them spent on the road. In the beginning of his career, though, he only wanted to be a playwright. He graduated from the Yale School Of Drama, and even went on to teach drama and open his own theater in New York City's Hell's Kitchen, performing stand-up before some of the productions. Eventually, his stand-up hobby began to take center stage, and nowadays, he draws everyone from college kids to aging curmudgeons to his almost year-round comedy tour. More recently, though, he's been branching out. Last year, his memoir-cum-rant Nothing's Sacred was published, and he's working on a Daily Show spin-off called Red State Diaries.Before a recent Las Vegas gig, Black spoke to The A.V. Club about writing, his appreciation for Larry The Cable Guy, and whether the world is going to hell.
The A.V. Club: You were nominated for a comedy-album Grammy this year, but didn't win. Was that a surprise?
Lewis Black: No, you don't really expect to get it. I was up against Chris Rock. What are you going to do?
AVC: You were up against Larry The Cable Guy, too. It's a weird category.
LB: It is weird, but I actually like Larry. I wrote the intro to his book. I've known Larry forever, and he's kind of been given a bad rap. I think he's a lot funnier than he's given credit for. Everybody sees him as kind of a right-wing nut, and he's not. And they yell about him because of his audience, so what is he supposed to do? People, what do you want Larry to do? Just not have an audience? "Since these people like me, I'm not going to perform for them?" You don't choose your audience.
AVC: You've been on The Daily Show for a long time—
LB: Yeah, most of my adult life. This is the 10th year.
AVC: You've only been an adult for 10 years?
LB: That's pretty close, yep. This is my 10th year. I was on, like, the second or first week [The Daily Show] was on. It's really evolved into a fairly bright piece of satire. And it's also evolved because the world news is so insane on its own level, and the world has gotten so insane. The world has gone to hell. We've been better off. How sad is that?
AVC: Do you really think the world has gone to hell?
LB: No. But it has, in a sense. I mean, we're in a hellish period. When the guys who do news can't figure out how to point out what the fuck is going on and we're left with the job, I mean, how dumb is that?
AVC: How do you feel about that? That some people say The Daily Show is their only source of news?
LB: I understand that. Some people say, "Isn't it sad that the kids watch The Daily Show?" Who said kids had to watch news? When did that become a fucking assignment? The only reason that part of the adult generation watches the news is because of the Vietnam War, and they had a fuck of a vested interest in it.
Nobody in college races home and says, "I can't wait to see the news! I can't wait to see who CBS is going to hire!" And also, it's a constant wall of news between CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox. I think it's not bad that kids watch anything about it; it helps them develop a sardonic point of view about what the fuck they're being told.
AVC: You do stand-up a lot on the road.
LB: Until recently, about 250 nights a year.
AVC: Do you ever get sick of it? Of traveling?
LB: As of now, no. I like it. That would be nuts. How dumb would that be, if I didn't like it? It's what I do.
AVC: How did you initially develop your onstage persona?
LB: I just tried everything, and then a friend of mine told me, "I'm not angry and I'm yelling, and you're angry and you're not yelling. You'd better start yelling." He said, "When you go onstage, I want you to start yelling." And I did. I was angry, but I was sittin' on it, which is really creepy. I wasn't really expressing my anger, and there's nothing worse than someone who's suppressing something.
AVC: Do you tailor your act for different states?
LB: No, not at all. Not even close. There's no reason to. Everybody's got cable.
AVC: Meaning what?
LB: Meaning everyone gets the information. It's not like people are out of the loop anymore. There's no need to treat people as if they're idiots. You don't have to pander. I don't have to act differently. I do the same gig. I might change it a little; I might slow it down if I'm in the South. I talk fast, and they're not used to people talking that fast. So it's that sort of thing.
AVC: Who are your comedic influences?
LB: George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman.
AVC: That was quick.
LB: Well, I know them pretty well. You do enough interviews, you get pretty quick at that.
AVC: What are your top five most-asked questions?
LB: That's one of them.
AVC: Another is probably, "Are you sick of the road?"
LB: Hmm, no, that isn't asked a lot. "What's upsetting you most now?" "What's Jon Stewart like?" That kind of stuff.
AVC: That's so vague. When they ask you "What's Jon Stewart like?" do you just say, "Nice. He's nice."?
LB: Yeah, I say, "He's nice. He's gay, but he's nice." [Laughs.]
AVC: You live in New York. What do you think of the stand-up community there?
LB: I think it's pretty good; it's pretty solid. I think it's solid now just by default, because other cities don't have the amount of spaces to work at. We're really the strongest and largest in many ways.
AVC: How would you compare it to L.A.?
LB: I think it's stronger. I think comics in New York are interested in being comics. And there're comics in L.A. who are touring comics, who are certainly more interested in stand-up, but a lot of L.A. stand-ups are really looking to do something else.
AVC: Like getting a sitcom?
LB: Yeah. If you're in New York, you're looking to do stand-up.
AVC: Would you want to have a sitcom?
LB: I did another pilot for FX, which we're waiting around for. We wrote this thing, and now we're waiting. I play kind of a pundit who ends up screwing… He goes to Washington and gets a big job, screws himself over, and has to come back to his life in New York and start back at square one, and he's always living on the edge.
AVC: Do you write every day?
LB: No. I mean, I do think about it every day. I never write anything down. I write onstage.
AVC: What's your process like?
LB: I get an idea about something. I just start thinking about it, and then I get onstage and I talk about it, and then I think about it some more and talk about it some more, and think about it some more and talk about it some more, until it starts to take a shape.
AVC: You went to Yale.
LB: Drama school. Big difference. It's not Yale. It's drama, okay? Get a grip. It's theater, all right? You know, memorizing lines or writing plays or "Let's put the show on here." It's not, "We need a 35-page paper by Friday."
AVC: Do you think attending a school like that is valuable?
LB: I think it's valuable in certain ways. There are some really great art schools. But most art schools have a problem, because a number of people who teach in art schools carry… Shit, how do I explain it? Not a grudge, but a certain kind of anger because they're not doing it.
AVC: Because they're failed artists?
LB: They're not failed artists, in any way, but they see themselves… I think they bring something to the table, you know. There's a kind of cruelty in many art schools that is really not worth anybody's time or energy. You know, there's no reason to bash the shit out of a student in art school. They picked a profession which is fucking impossible. If you get into a school like Yale, as much as they… I've taught for a long time, and there's a way to teach somebody without necessarily breaking them down. You can teach them something and maintain their confidence. I think that many things that go on in an art school have a tendency to undermine confidence, and that shouldn't be part of the ballgame, ever.
AVC: What's your approach to teaching?
LB: I give people shit, but I do it in a loving way, that's what you do. Then you make sure that you constantly reinforce the fact that they know what they're doing.
AVC: Are you planning on doing another book?
LB: Uh, yeah, but the way things are going, I don't know when. I have no concept of when unless they give me a really long deadline.
I'd like to do one on religion. My version of the Bible.
AVC: Did you enjoy writing Nothing's Sacred?
LB: No. Anybody who likes writing a book is an idiot. Because it's impossible, it's like having a homework assignment every stinking day until it's done. And by the time you get it in, it's done and you're sitting there reading it, and you realize the 12,000 things you didn't do. I mean, writing isn't fun. It's never been fun. It's momentum, and once you get the momentum going, that's great, but it's a brutal experience in many, many ways. And when you're done, people tell you "Well, gee, I'm not interested." "Great, I'm glad I sat down and wrote this!"