Comedy boils over when Lewis Black hits the stage

[15 August 2007]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Picture an angry bull or bulldog in an old cartoon: His hoofs/paws beat the ground, his nostrils flare and steam is coming out of his ears.

Then picture the human equivalent—Lewis Black.

He roams the stage, pacing back and forth, getting more and more angry and worked up. His nostrils flare—well, sort of—and if steam doesn’t actually come out of his ears, his temperature is definitely rising.

And when he blows up, instead of chasing bullfighters or cats, Black lets loose a stream of outrageously funny, often profane verbiage aimed at pandering politicians and the idiocies of modern life.

One of America’s leading political satirists and a regular on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Black in recent years has developed into a multimedia comic star. In addition to his “Daily Show” TV gig—for which he’s signed up through the 2008 election—he’s made two specials for HBO, “Black on Broadway” and “Red, White and Screwed” (both out on DVD), four specials in the “Comedy Central Presents” series, is featured regularly on “Inside the NFL” and appeared in “Comic Relief 2006.”

He’s released five comedy albums since 2000, the most recent, 2006’s “The Carnegie Hall Performance,” winning a Grammy Award earlier this year for best comedy album.

Black also appeared in three movies last year—“Accepted,” “Man of the Year” and “Unaccompanied Minors”—and provided the voice for Jimmy the Penguin in Bob Saget’s “Farce of the Penguins.”

Black’s first book, “Nothing’s Sacred,” published in 2005, reached the New York Times best-seller list, and he’s writing his second.

Less well known is Black’s work as a playwright. He’s written more than 40 plays that have been produced throughout the country, and has a musical, “The Czar of Rock and Roll” (co-written with the late Rusty Magee), scheduled to be staged at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in October.

We recently spoke to Black by phone from his home in New York, where he was working on his forthcoming book and preparing for a stand-up tour.

On Thursday, he will become the first comic to perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. When asked if that might cause the famously conservative Disney to turn over in his grave, Black said, “I expect that he’ll defrost.”

Here’s what else he said during our interview:

Q: Your official biography notes that you were a colicky baby and seems to link this with the fact you’re easily irritated and angered. How did you develop your trademark style?

A: It came partly from my mother, who was always yelling or screaming about one thing or another. And I think it’s because when I was a kid people would laugh when I got angry or (upset). You go to the positive reinforcement.

Q: Does letting it all out preserve your health and help you avoid having a heart attack or stroke?

A: It does give me perfect blood pressure. Everybody’s always asking me about my blood pressure. They did an interview once where they hooked me up to a blood pressure machine and they’d rile me. I’d yell and scream, and then it would just go back to normal in a few minutes. Everything else is probably rotting, but the blood pressure is spectacular.

Q: In your HBO special “Red, White and Screwed,” you said your parents, after having to meet Paul Wolfowitz following your appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, told you, “Don’t ever do this again.” How much did your parents influence both your political awareness and sense of humor?

A: They basically told me not to trust authority. I got that from both my mother and my father.

Q: The late writer Molly Ivins once wrote that “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.” Do you agree with that?

A: Yeah, I do. It’s also one of the few weapons that the powerless have. There are not a lot of weapons, other than numbers. But I think that’s pretty close to the truth.

Q: Then again, the playwright George S. Kaufman famously said that “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”

A: I think it’s true for theater, that’s for sure. You don’t see a lot of satirical plays, and basically, until “The Daily Show” you could say that about television.

Q: Are there any mentors or writers or comedians you admired and learned from? In your book, “Nothing’s Sacred,” you profess an admiration for Mark Twain, writing, “Not only was he funny, but he’s dead and he’s still funny.”

A: Yeah (laughs). There’s Paul Krassner, who I think did just a remarkable job with “The Realist.” Kurt Vonnegut, certainly. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. Also Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters.

Q: Although you actually burst onto the national scene during the Clinton administration, for a political satirist you can’t really beat the current administration, can you?

A: No. Not only can’t you beat them, you can’t even write fast enough. I have never read in the course of a six-year administration what could only be defined as fiction. ... They talked about building this wall across the border. And then any comic who had any common sense said, “Who’s gonna build the wall, ha ha ha.” And within weeks, some state was building their own wall down there and the company got busted because it was being built by illegals ...

It’s partly what makes “The Daily Show” click. The (Attorney General Alberto) Gonzales (controversy)—you sit there and edit him saying “I can’t recall” 20 times in a row. How you gonna top that?

Q: Looking ahead to the 2008 election, are you already suffering from campaign burnout?

A: I’m not even paying attention. I literally ignore it. The Democrats have responded to the Republicans’ lack of dealing with reality by truly not dealing with reality, either. ... Deal with Gonzales, you people (shouting). What are you out wandering around the country for? I get so angry about this: I don’t care what you’re going to do two years from now. I need (stuff) done now.

And now they’re talking about (Hillary’s cleavage) (shouting)! Her (cleavage)!?! (still shouting). ... (Bleeping) morons. I’m supposed to pay attention to what their hypotheticals are, when there are real problems out there? I think it’s disgusting.

Q: As a New Yorker, do you have any particular thoughts about your former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani?

A: Giuliani!?! (shouting) He’s awful, awful. And if that’s what American wants, then America has completely lost its mind. Then Bush’s job has been completed and he’s made America stark, raving mad. Let’s vote for a guy whose basic contribution is that he spent three days doing a commercial (being photographed at the World Trade Center site after 9/11), or what in a sense has become his commercial for his campaign. That’s his claim to fame. Because the president didn’t show up and do his job, Rudy did the job for three days. And then he turned around and screwed the (New York City) cops and screwed the firemen. That alone is enough to dismiss him.

But I lived under his mayoralty. Boy, if people have trouble with the kind of mild arrogance that Bush or Cheney display, wait till they have to deal with him. ... He really makes me sick. That he’s the front-runner—how nuts is that?

Q: Here in California, particularly in Sacramento, we have the additional treat of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in action.

A: That must be fun.

Q: Can you share with us any of your observations about our governor?

A: Now everybody seems to love him (shouting incredulously)! That’s all I get. (People saying,) “Well, he’s done a great job.” And that shows you where we’re at, too. Basically, we’re at the point where he becomes a good leader because he sits in a tent and smokes cigars and talks to people? Is that what it takes?

Q: Do you expect “The Daily Show” to continue to have the same huge impact it’s had?

A: Oh yeah, I do. When it comes to idiots, America’s got more than its fair share. If idiots were energy, it would be a source that would never run out.

Q: I’m not sure our readers are as familiar with your work as a playwright. Do you know if any of your plays have been produced out here?

A: Not in Sacramento, but in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And the one in San Francisco (“Nightfall”) was reviewed by a guy from a magazine called New West, which is now defunct. And he said, after seeing that play, that he felt that no plays written by me should ever be produced in California. So that knocked one state off. ... I continue to work on plays, but I’ve always felt that you could put a note in a bottle and send it offshore and you’d have as much chance communicating with people.

Q: Any thoughts on burning issues you’d like to share with our readers, like Rupert Murdoch buying Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal?

A: I love the fact that they’re saying, “Boy, what is he going to do to that paper?” Like financial news is reality. The Dow Jones is a 13,000 hoo-hah. It was never supposed to break 10,000 and now it’s at 13,000 and they’re whining. ... So what’s he gonna do, make it like Fox News? The financial pages are already like Fox News. It really doesn’t affect me. I’ve never really had that much interest in that stuff. ... But this Gonzales thing is extraordinary. Bush talks about the kinds of values we pass on to people, and then in the course of his administration he has defended so many people who were truly incompetent. He’s rewarded incompetence, and has basically chosen loyalty over competence. ...

The other thing that upsets me is sports. Usually, when you have a president who makes you psychotic, you can go, “Well, I’ll watch sports.” And now sports are rife with this. You can’t enjoy the home run chase because it’s Barry Bonds—unless you’re a Giants fan. The rest of us are like, he screwed that up. And then Michael Vick in football and the cheating ref in basketball.

The only thing that is fun to watch, that you get any satisfaction from in sports, is that these bike racers are getting caught. And I hate bicycle racing so much that that makes me happy. That’s the happiest I can be, because that sport may be in ruins.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m writing a book. It’s supposed to come out in May, and I’m typing away in hopes that I’ve got enough. It’s a book on religion. Basically, it’s just about my relationship to religions. Because what America needs is another book on it ...

Q: Do you have a tentative title?

A: The tentative title is “Shut Up” (laughs). No, I’m not sure yet. I have no clue. I’ve been trying to come up with something, but nothing has made sense.

Q: It seems like you’ve already used the best title, “Nothing’s Sacred.”

A: I know. Don’t think I haven’t thought of that. I was thinking, “Oh you idiot.”




“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”: Black has been delivering his “Back in Black” commentaries on the Comedy Central series since its inception in 1996.

He has made guest appearances on many talk, news and sports shows, including “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Inside the NFL” and “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” and has acted on episodes of “Law & Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Mad About You” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.”


“Lewis Black: Red, White and Screwed”: Filmed in Washington, D.C.‘s Warner Theatre in 2005, Black’s second HBO special aired in 2006 and was released on DVD the same year. His longest riff is about his appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner (and such luminaries as Vice President Dick Cheney and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz).

“Lewis Black: Black on Broadway”: Black’s first HBO special was taped at New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre during his Rules of Engagement tour and aired in May 2004. Released on DVD in 2005 by HBO Video, Black takes aim at WMDs, Martha Stewart and other likely topics.

“Lewis Black: Unleashed”: The 2003 DVD captures Black doing his stand-up routine, including his commentary on the 2002 Republican and Democratic national conventions.

Black also has starred on Comedy Central’s “Last Laugh With Lewis Black” and “Comedy Central Presents.”


“Nothing’s Sacred” (Simon and Schuster, $13.95, 256 pages): Originally published in 2005, this memoir is about Black’s family, growing up in Silver Spring, Md., and what he’s learned along the way.

He is writing his second book, scheduled for release next year.


“Accepted”: In Steve Pink’s comedy from 2006, Black plays Uncle Ben, a mad former professor who becomes the “dean” of a fake college created by graduating high school students who failed to gain admittance to real colleges.

“Man of the Year”: Also from 2006, Black plays Eddie Langston, a campaign advisor to Robin Williams’ Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like talk show host and political satirist who decides to run for president of the United States. Written and directed by Barry Levinson.

“Unaccompanied Minors”: When six kids traveling by themselves get stranded by a snowstorm in a Midwestern airport on Christmas Eve, Black’s Oliver Porter, the airport’s passenger relations manager and resident Scrooge, has to deal with them. This was Black’s third film released last year.

“Farce of the Penguins”: Black supplies the voice of Jimmy the penguin, best buddy of Carl the penguin (Bob Saget), in Saget’s funny and dirty take-off on “March of the Penguins.” The film had a limited release in 2006 and came out on DVD this year.

In addition, Black has had small roles in a variety of movies over the years, beginning with an appearance in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986).


“The Carnegie Hall Performance” (Comedy Central, $13.99): Winner of the 2007 Grammy Award for best comedy album, this two-disc CD from 2006 captures Black in live performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall in September 2005.

“Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center Blues” (Comedy Central, $12.99): Black received a Grammy nomination for this 2005 live album, recorded in Santa Rosa, Calif., in summer 2004.

His other comedy albums are “The White Album” (2000), “End of the Universe” (2003) and “Rules of Engagement” (2003).


Black has written more than 40 plays, including “The Deal” and “One Slight Hitch,” which have been produced in theaters throughout the United States. A musical, “The Czar of Rock and Roll,” co-written with the late Rusty Magee, will be staged in October at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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