Lewis Black is an outspoken comedian with biting commentary on politics, society and anything else that has raised his comedic ire. His pointed revelations have entertained audiences on stage, television, as well as readers of his books.
Besides popular specials on HBO, Black’s regular appearances on the Comedy Central network have earned him fervent fans. He’s known for his passionate, ranting viewpoints on social and political issues, while finding biting humor in every part of American life.
Black’s mantle is graced by his 2001 American Comedy Award for “Funniest Male Standup Comic” and his 2010 Grammy for “Best Comedy Album” for his Carnegie Hall Performance. In 2007, he was nominated for ten CDs,a Primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special” for his Lewis Black: Red, White and Screwed. Black is the author of three books, ten CDs, eight DVDs, and has appeared in 22 films. He’s devoted much of his time to numerous charities and continues to “lead by doing”.
Sacramento Press had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with Lewis Black as he prepared for his upcoming Sacramento Community Theater show on Saturday, August 17th.
Sacramento Press – How as your childhood and upbringing prepared you for your career today?
Black: I was born and raised around Washington. Our local news was national news. Congress was in my face all the time and I got a good sense of it and saw it disintegrate over time.
Who were the comedians that inspire you?
Black: [George] Carlin, [Richard] Pryor, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, anybody I saw on the Ed Sullivan Show. He watched many comics but the first three really had the most effect. Bob Newhart was the master, like Jack Benny of style. They could pickup something from anyone.
You’re known as a ‘rage’ comedian. How do you straddle the line between rage and losing your audience?
Black: I don’t know how that works. I’ve managed to stumble upon some kind of formula. Your anger can only be for so long. They’ve got to know that you’re angry, but not psychotic.
Are you a news junkie? How do you find the topics for your act?
Black: I start off the day looking over the front page of The New York Times and see what thing I find disturbing and it goes from there. If something upsets me, that’s what I’ll glom onto. I read a lot of editorials, and they often lead me to stuff I normally wouldn’t find. I do a lot of research on my own. There’s a magazine called The Week that helps me catch up on things. It gives me little snippets from all different kinds of papers. My mother sends me stuff, my friends are constantly sending me stuff. I don’t have a staff. You basically do it on your own as you pretty much just pick up the paper.
Speaking of outrageous news, any thoughts on A-Rod or Anthony Weiner?
Black: A-Rod? [chuckles] As a Baltimore Oriole fan, I’d like to keep him playing for the Yankees as long as possible so they can’t buy other players. They can’t use the money from his contract to get other players. Talk about the typical “I didn’t do it” shmuck. All these guys come along and all they gotta to do is say, “I did it.” We forgive faster than anybody else. He even refused to admit it rumor had that he did it and now it’s like his head got smaller.
If you haven’t come up with your own jokes about Wiener, then you need to go to some kind of comedy psychiatrist. That was like a gift from God. That’s where you get all the planets into alignment with the stars when you get somebody who’s a Weiner who actually behaved like a weiner.
You equally skewer all sides of the political spectrum. Have you ever worked with a political candidate or cause?
Black: No, I once did a thing for Christopher Dodd a long time ago. I just liked him personally, and I did a thing for him, but that was years and years ago. After that, I stopped doing it because it puts me too close to them. I don’t need to be too close.
As a comedian, who would give you great material if they ran for the Presidency?
Black: If Rick Perry wants to come back, perfect. Rand Paul, go for it. Cruz? Is somebody kidding me? That would be tremendous! Hillary would be good for stuff. With Bill wandering around, there’s always that little bit of tension and that would help. Christie would be fun. The ones the Republican right wing wants would be the funny ones because they are living without knowing what day it is, most of them. They’re living in a century that doesn’t exist.
Speaking of politics, what is your opinion of Fox News, MSNBC, and Comedy Central as news sources for the American public?
Black: Of the three, we’re [Comedy Central] clearer than Fox or MSNBC only because we try to go after both sides. If you shoot for what’s funny you get a sense of what the facts are. Both of those guys have agendas and we’re in a period of time when we don’t have time for an agenda. You’ve got to figure some stuff out. Social Security, [for example], I don’t care how you do it, you’ve got to figure out ways so pensions survive. If you’re not going to figure that out, then good luck.
What do you feel is doing wrong with America today?
Black: Internally, we’re at a standstill, and that’s really offensive. We have to get stuff done. We really have to get stuff done. We’re still in the midst of the argument, “What’s more important, the individual or the group?” Sometimes that argument gets really intense, and we’re in the midst of a really intense one.
I think there’s a level of greed that has evolved over time during my lifetime. I think that people have become greedier and greedier and greedier. It’s was unimaginable to me when I was a kid. There used to be a 90% tax rate, but there were rich people still, and they didn’t suffer. Now I’m not saying there should be a 90% tax rate, but we’re not doing well.
What seems to be America’s biggest problem?
Black: I think we’re a country that can’t focus any more. I think we’ve all got ADD. The only way to get stuff done is to focus, and we focus when there’s a catastrophe. Meanwhile, Detroit goes belly up, and nobody gives a s—! Nobody. Nobody’s said anything. No one stood up. No one shed a *** tear. (It’s) beyond belief. Why? Because it was economic. If they’d been hit by a tsunami, people would be up there helping them out. They let this city go, and not one politician did anything.
If they ran for the presidency, someone should go to Detroit and ask, “What have we done here?” You’re either wandering around Afghanistan, fixing up that country, but don’t help Detroit? Help the auto industry that screwed the city? At least try to figure out how to do it. It’s $18 billion. It’s chump change. I wouldn’t have said it was nothing, but if they’re going to keep saying a trillion dollars, then $18 billion is nothing. And they’ll get a city back on it’s feet. Send in a whole group of advisors. Take a look. Try to figure it out. They can plan the city streets in Iraq. [expletive]
What is America doing right?
Black: What we’re good at is catastrophes. Nobody responds better to catastrophes than we do – nobody on the planet Earth. We get there. People drive hundreds of miles in their cars. They drive hundreds of miles to help out. It’s extraordinary! That is why I have faith in this country. Because there’s no group of people who give like these groups of people give when there’s a catastrophe. We saw it on 9/11; we see it when Sandy hit. When Katrina hit, it was the American people who went down th ere. See, it’s the people. Government tries to follow … but it’s really the people. I think it’s extraordinary. When the tornado hit Oklahoma, they swooped in from everywhere. And there’s a lot of people out there who show generosity of spirit. When we want to be good, we’re really good.
It seems that even the calmest people get emotional when the Westboro Baptist Church shows up. What are your thoughts?
Black: They picketed ME and it was an honor. They picketed me and they never heard anything I ever did. And then there were a group of Christians picketing them, saying “We’re not like them.” That made it great, because there were pickets and people picketing the picketers. They’re really something. Talk about missing all the points. Talk about missing Christianity! They’re reading about a third of the book, maybe less- maybe about twelve lines.
What do you think about America’s obsession with reality TV?
Black: I just don’t quite get it because it’s not real. What they don’t see is the editing, so it’s not reality. It’s just a case of taking real people, and getting some good producers who edit it into a story. People watch it, because I know people who watch “Duck Dynasty” and “The Quarters” and all the rest of it. I find myself watching some of the stuff from time to time and thinking, “Wow! I’m crazy, but this is a whole ‘nother planet!” And then you get people acting as crazy as can be, trying to get noticed. Once people learned that the difference between a major celebrity and just another guy was that the camera was on them, all hell broke loose.
You recently gave the commencement speech at Thurgood Marshall College at UC San Diego. What was that like for you, being an inspirational speaker?
Black: It was great because I like talking to kids and I don’t think they’re spoken to. I’ve got children of my own so now I can screw up other people’s kids. If it weren’t for them… They were the ones who found me when they were 13 and 14 and they got their parents to pay attention. I owe them a debt of gratitude. I never thought they would listen, but they are the ones who ARE listening. And there’s other advice I can give them that I felt was important, that they don’t seem to get. I don’t think we’re straight with our kids in a lot of ways.
When you’re not on stage, facing a camera, at a microphone, or in front of a keyboard, you’ve managed to find time to be very involved in several charities. Could you tell us more?
Black: I’ve been involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for about 18years. I got involved with them by accident. I did a benefit and then became more and more involved, even though I knew nothing about Cystic Fibrosis. Now after 18 years, we’re on the verge of a cure. It’s an astonishing story. There’s more than a possibility that if we had the money, we could cure it in our lifetime – no “ifs, ands or buts.” We could cure it.
It’s a remarkable group, and they’ve done some things in terms of language as they approach drug companies and how they get things done. It’s completely new; they came up with a different system and it’s worked. It’s worked in concert with drug companies. A lot of people might find some arguments about that, but be it as it may, the results are pretty extraordinary. 4% of the disease is cured, but it’s 4%. Bet you can’t say that about any, practically hardly any other disease.
And if they can cure it, I think it would mean a lot in terms of the idea of hope. There is light at the end of this f—ing tunnel when it comes to certain things. And it’s kind of a brutal disease because it’s like a kid is given the death sentence. And it’s not an easy world to survive through it. They do kind of a venture capitalist form to fund the research and it’s really remarkable. 91 cents of every dollar goes to research. They have a volunteer list of people who work for practically nothing. And the guys I work with when I get a chance, like Michael J. Fox, that group that’s fighting Parkinson’s, they’re working off that model now.
I also work with a mentoring group called the 52nd Street Project that works with inner city kids in terms or theater and dance and film and photography and it’s grown experientially over the course of my life. They have a theater of their own that I helped fund. What else is this money for? My brother and some friends passed away who’d worked on the project, so me and a friend of mine paid for the naming the theater. And that was terrific.
You’ve devoted a great deal of your time and energy to our troops. Why is that important to you?
Black: We’ve really got to figure out how of all those people who have served in the armed forces can be served properly, because they’re not being served properly. We give them a lot of lip service. We get these people to work for basically chump change. The idea is that at the end of the day, they’ll do A, B, and C for you. But they barely get to the alphabet in terms of what they should be doing. It’s ridiculous! I’ve done three tours for the USO in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Everybody who came back from there, everybody who came Vietnam, everybody who came back from World War II… Everything that should be done should be done and it should be as top drawer as humanly possible. And they [Veteran’s Services] don’t do it. We expect them to sacrifice for us, but we don’t sacrifice for them. It’s absurd! If the American people sacrificed on the level that they ask the troops to sacrifice on, then we wouldn’t have any problems – none!
What are some things people don’t know about Lewis Black?
Black: That I don’t act all insane all day, I’m not screaming all the time. It takes too much energy! At my age, I need a nap to get really really angry. I play too much golf, which can have a hair-trigger at times, in terms of yelling and screaming. I’ll play some golf, do really good for 3 or 4 rounds. Then there just comes a point after about 3 or 4 rounds I’ll just go screaming.
Other than golf, what are your guilty pleasures?
Black: Red wine is one. This is not really guilty, but since I don’t get to spend a lot of time by myself, dinner with friends is really important. My other guilty pleasure is that I watch certain teams like the Yankees, the Miami Heat, and the Dallas Cowboys. I don’t like those teams so much, that I can watch those teams just to root for whoever is playing [against] them. And that gives me as much satisfaction as watching my own teams.
You have 10 CD’s, 8 DVD’s, multiple film and television appearances, and several specials on HBO, the History Channel, and on other venues. What’s coming up next for Lewis Black fans?
Black: I have a pay-per-view coming out August 24th , and everyone can watch that live. Actually the show in Sacramento is one of the final preps for that performance. So you can see it, and pay to see it again! [laughs] I have a play going on right now in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. We’re doing “One Slight Hitch.” And I’m working on what will be a new play or book or both.
Lewis Black will be presenting his one-man view of the world, Lewis Black: The Rant is Due on Saturday, August 17th at the Sacramento Community Theater. Tickets are available on Tickets.com and range from $32.50 – $56.50.
Lewis Black: The Rent is Due at The Sacramento Community Theater