WHAT: Lewis Black
WHERE: Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
WHEN: 8 PM Fri., May 13 and Sat., May 14
Being funny is serious business for satirist/comedian/social critic/playwright/author/actor Lewis Black. He not only strives to make people laugh, but is also extremely passionate about expressing his opinions about subject matter that others might find too controversial. The Grammy Award winning Black takes on politics, religion, current events, and many other topics with ease. His outspoken nature reminds one of the styles of such comedic greats as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. He has been referred to as ‘the king of the rant.’
Black’s television series, Lewis Black’s The Root of All Evil, ran for 18 episodes on Comedy Central until 2009, and his popular Back in Black with Lewis Black segments on The Daily Show continue today. He was cast in the role of Anger in the Academy Award winning 2015 Pixar film Inside Out. Black played Ezra Merkin on the acclaimed ABC miniseries Madoff in 2016, a role he is very proud of. He has appeared in feature films and has done specials for HBO, and he has also authored three best-selling books and written more than 40 plays.
Lewis Black recently phoned me from Colorado during a massive snowstorm before a sold out show there.
Jane Spietz: Were you funny as a kid?
Lewis Black: I was surrounded by funny people, so that really helped me. So I developed a sense of humor. I picked it up from my friends. I gravitated toward people who were funny.
JS: How did you make the switch from playwright to standup comedian?
LB: It wasn’t difficult. I’d been writing and writing and writing, and I was really beating my head against a brick wall. I was tired of it. In the meantime, I was doing standup on the side. Then we started running a small theater in the basement of a restaurant in Manhattan, which had a bar in it. We did theater out of there and I started introducing all of the plays. We started doing one night of standup in there. As I got more and more comfortable, I started to develop what one would call an act. That was what people seem to gravitate toward. It was like all of a sudden I could make a living. By the time you’re 40, and you’re broke, you kind of go, ‘oh, maybe I should do this.’
JS: Is it uncomfortable for you to let loose in front of your parents?
LB: No, never. My language doesn’t bother them. I learned most of it from them.
JS: Who are some of your major comedic influences?
LB: Richard Pryor, Kurt Vonnegut, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Paul Krassner, Bob Newhart, Bill Hicks, Lily Tomlin, Shelley Berman. Those are pretty major. There are others.
JS: You have described yourself as shy. I find that hard to believe.
LB: No, it’s true. It’s easier on stage. I have no fear on stage. I’m not shy if I know people, but yeah, I’m a little withdrawn.
JS: Are there any topics that are taboo in your routine?
LB: Nothing. I mean, I have used the word abortion to show that I can’t do comedy about it. That’s the only topic.
JS: What is your favorite subject to take on?
LB: Stupidity. Stupidity in high places, stupidity in low places. Stupidity in general.
JS: You’ve also talked a lot about health insurance companies in your act.
LB: They’re unbelievable. What country decides going to improve their health care system and then invites part of the problem to sit down and help them solve the problem? It’s senseless. There always is this thing, and it’s not just Bernie Sanders’ idea – it’s a basic idea.
Somehow there’s this thought that business is more important than people. The problem with capitalism is, whether you like it or not, we are living in a time when money has become more important than people. And I don’t care what people think about that sentence, by the way. I’m tired of it. Enough’s enough. People are really important. We have to figure this out. Everybody kind of wants the same thing. What we’re doing is really madness.
JS: Speaking of Bernie Sanders, you have said that you are a Bernie supporter and a socialist.
LB: Everybody sees it as like, ‘well, you know he’s not going to win.’ I think the win is having a socialist run. From the time I was a kid, I thought that this made more sense. I worked for Republicans to run and I worked for Democrats to run, and I didn’t really enjoy their company. There were no socialists in the neighborhood so I thought, well this is good. There’s nobody around to bother me. Now you’ve got a candidate. That’s extraordinary. That’s really remarkable. People don’t realize how remarkable that is. There hasn’t been one in my lifetime. There may have been one other, but this is a major candidate. You take small steps. I don’t know how people don’t realize that. That’s the price. America lives at the speed of light and we move like snails. Bernie has made a huge impact.
JS: What do you make of the 2016 election overall? Certainly there’s a lot of fodder there among the current crop of candidates.
LB: I think it’s appalling. The media has been reckless and the media has been kind of as stupid as they were during the Iraq war. Trump knows how to play the media, while the fact is that the media also lets Trump play them. He’s the only candidate who phones, who calls in. You don’t allow that. They give him more time; they give him more space because he says ‘stuff.’ They certainly don’t know how to ask him a question. They allow him to rattle on. And they don’t put the kind of pressure on him in terms of their questioning. They just kind of let him go. It’s all so tiring. CNN brings on this person; she is a political analyst who works for the Trump campaign. Well, that’s not a political analyst. That’s someone who works for the Trump campaign. A political analyst who works for Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders – they’re not. I’m tired of listening to them. And you don’t need six of them telling you what you just saw and what it all means. And they’ve run this thing down our throats. And this isn’t the way it should be. It’s been a year that this is been going on. A year! There’s got to be an adult who finally goes, ‘Enough is enough. Nobody should be doing this.’ There’s no other country on earth that subjects them to this kind of thing. And meanwhile, all of them, including Bernie, are discussing things that should’ve been done 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, yesterday. It’s ludicrous. I don’t need to listen to a bunch of people tell me what we should be doing when we haven’t done it. I don’t need a president of the future. I need a president who is willing to deal with the day before yesterday. Because that’s when the house of cards tumbled, and nobody seems to want to pick them up.
JS: You’ve been the voting rights ambassador for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) since 2013.
LB: They asked me if I would be the ambassador for voting rights. I said I would do it as long as I didn’t have to support everything they did. (Laughs) As much as I respect what they do, a lot of what they do is a waste of time and energy. A lot of other stuff they do I believe in, but I really believe in voting rights and so I said sure. I spent my youth watching people finally get their voting rights and then to watch these idiots trying to take it away is beyond belief. It’s nonsense. It’s hard enough to get people to vote. Now you’re going to make it a pain in the ass? No other country subjects their people to this kind of crap. Democracy, my ass.
JS: I’d like to travel back to the year 2000 and hear about your adventures on ‘The Naked Teen Voyeur Bus.’
LB: That was great. I was doing a radio show in New York called the Opie and Anthony Show. I was advertising stuff like gigs that I was doing around town for that weekend and they said that they had this naked voyeur bus. They’d been going around the country in the bus with a couple of women who were topless. This was their way to show their support for the First Amendment, which was really psychotic. (Laughs) The show had said they would take six, eighteen and nineteen year old teenage girls on the bus with these other girls. They said to me and Jim Norton, another comic, ‘Would you two rather be on the bus or would you rather be in the studio?’ Well, I’m going to go on the bus. It was extraordinary. We drove to New York. Nobody was freaked out. And then three blocks from where we needed to get back to the studio, we were stopped by the New York City police. The reason was because it was really important to Rudy Giuliani, who was the mayor at the time, that we clean up New York and this was really wrong. This was the route that Bill Clinton would be coming down three hours later! We were held in jail. It was horrifying. I said that this would be the last time I would ever come back there. We were in a horrible place called the Tombs of New York. Twenty-four hours later we got out and the judge said ‘Lewis, what are you doing here? Really, seriously? This is supposed to be a case.’ Giuliani was out of his mind.
JS: Tell us about your character in Inside Out.
LB: I played Anger and I was apparently the first one that was cast. I was used in the pitch that ‘Lewis Black will be playing Anger.’ That was an honor. I was very pleased to have been picked for that role.
JS: Are you that angry in real life?
LB: No, I’d be dead!
JS: You will be bringing your The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Naked Truth Tour to the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee for two nights on May 13 and 14. What can your audiences look forward to?
LB: After every show I do a Q&A with the audience. It goes out live all across the Internet, around the world. You can watch it on your phone. If you go to lewisblack.com it’ll explain it to you. Or if you go to my Facebook page, it’ll tell you how to see it. I do a half hour Q&A. People ask questions from the audience, people send questions from the web, people send in rants. I read the ones I think are really funny but also some that aren’t funny. All the stuff that I do isn’t funny when I’m doing it. The whole thing is a work in progress. It’s kind of a primitive TV show. Since I’m not going to get a TV show, it’s the only one I’ve got. After we do it, the next week people who haven’t seen it can watch if they didn’t see it live. I’m looking forward to it.