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Monday, September 6, 2010

Lewis Black interview

Lewis Black – April 13, 2009

"My faith has always been based on the fact that the people are smarter than those they pick to lead them. That's where my hope lies. Whenever anything insane happens in this country, when there's some sort of natural catastrophe, people just, like, flock in and do stuff above and beyond. The real problem is the leadership in this country over the last how many years gets more and more into its own bubble." – Lewis Black

Guy MacPherson: Hello, Lewis Black.
Lewis Black: Hey, there.

GM: It's Guy MacPherson in Vancouver calling.
LB: Very nice. Thank you.

GM: Thank you. I always appreciate that you do these interviews. And I know you do a lot of them.
LB: This has been the record.

GM:What has been the record?
LB: This is a lot of 'em. I was in Toronto for two days doing, like eight-to-five, eight-to-one and then another four hours. And then today it's another two hours.

: So I'm not getting the scoop is what you're telling me. Some performers actually don't do interviews. With a name such as yours, you certainly don't have to.
LB: Sure. I mean, at times I don't do it because it's insane when we're sold out for two weeks. It becomes crazy. But I do it most of the time, especially radio. But I mean, look, these guys are putting up the money for me to run around Canada, you have to (laughs) get the people to come see the show.

GM: I agree but I'm kinda biased.
LB: Well, it's part of the deal. Then you kinda hope it helps newspapers stay in business. I'd rather talk to somebody who has some accreditation than a blogger.

GM: Well, I'm both actually. What doesn't fit in the paper, I put in the blog. I was listening to internet radio yesterday and heard you. This was a few years old, but you were saying if people think you're tough on Bush, they should check out what you said about Clinton.
LB: Yeah.

GM: So I was wondering how far you go in trying to be an equal opportunity trasher.
LB: Not very far. You know, essentially over the last eight years, any credibility the Democrats had left, as far as I'm concernced, is a wash. I initially realized it when I was watching Reagan and going, "Well, this is nuts." These votes were coming through so I opened up the Times and looked at who voted and it was all these Democrats who voted. And I was like, "You know, enough's enough."

GM: Are Republicans still the butt of jokes or have you moved on from them?
LB: Oh, no. I mean, they had the opportunity in terms of what's occuring economically to say something and they don't. Your job, I think, as a Republican with this conservative mindset in terms of the economy, so present something that you think, within the framework established, help us see the light. Like, you can't embrace the estate tax? Really? You can't? Because why? Because they're gonna have six million instead of seven? I mean, it becomes madness. They're nuts. They really are nuts. They basically had one great idea about taxation early on in the whole tax debate, way back. Then somebody there realized there became a point of dimishing returns for someone who was then going to make money and they were just paying the government. Okay, I get that. But when you lower the taxes to the point of crippling your country, and still believe somehow it had something to do with... I mean, it's insanity. "The stock market reflects..." The stock market never reflected anything except that, you know, somebody's making money. It doesn't reflect the economy. What planet can you be living on to think that?! Then it comes down to what it should be. Everybody's saying, "Oh, this is awful!" That's what it should be! It's what it should have been three years ago, you... jerks!

GM: You're one of the few American commentators I've heard that says you don't mind taxes, that they're there to help pay for things.
LB: Exactly.

GM: That always seems to be forgotten.
LB: Well, I mean, what do you wanna do? What, are we gonna have a perpetual bake sale?! I mean, really. That's the way you raise money to get stuff done. I mean, it really is disgusting. It is. I get it... there's certain parts of society where it's blood from a stone, but if you'd done it correctly, as opposed to trying to make everybody's house their castle, try to make the city a castle, people might be willing to pitch in. The whole concept is the government doesn't know what to do with the money. Well, there are certain things they have to do with the money. Infrastructure, putz. Education. The mind reels.

GM: Getting back to the Republicans, it seems that, unlike in past elections, there really was no honeymoon period for Obama. It's like they've conveniently forgotten about everything that they did.
LB: Yeah, but it didn't really help that you've got Nancy Pelosi. Obama is basically holding out an olive branch and some of the Democrats in Congress couldn't wait to lord it over the Republicans. You know, like, get a grip. Both parties bring an arrogance to the table that's exhaustive.

GM: As your colleague, Jon Stewart, said to the Republicans: "You lost." They don't seem to want to admit that.
LB: No, they don't. And they don't seem to want to reshape their philosophy in light of the way society seems to be going.

GM: I also read an interview with you from during the primaries and you were concerned about Obama's age. You thought he was too young to take over in the situation he took over in.
LB: I said he might be too young, yeah.

GM: Is he the first president to be younger than you?
LB: Uh... yeah. I was hoping we might get one intelligent person of my generation in before the ball game was over. I don't think that's going to happen.

GM: You think he's okay now for the job?
LB: I think he's fine. I really do.

GM: Will you go after him?
LB: Oh, yeah.

GM: But if you think he's fine, why would you?
LB: He's fine for a Democrat. In retrospect, after George Bush, I kept screaming that if you're going to nominate the son, go back and get the father. Compared to the son, the father looks like, you know, Churchill. I mean, he's fine but he's a Democrat.

GM: "But he's a Democrat..." I don't get that. What are the options?
LB: There's no option. Literally, for a country this intelligent, the concept of a third party makes our head spin. I mean, he's a Democrat. The Democrats act as if they're not just as much to blame for the last eight years. They did nothing. They were pathetic. Pathetic. It was really disgusting. It was like, as I say in the act, it was eight years of the Republicans passing wind and the Democrats going, "Ooh, let me smell it."

GM: I got a couple questions from my radio listeners. A caller was reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. He was wondering how the world, or the U.S., will turn itself around before we turn to cannibalism.
LB: (chuckles) If I knew that, I wouldn't be doing this. If I had that answer, I wouldn't be doing this. My faith has always been based on the fact that the people are smarter than those they pick to lead them. That's where my hope lies. Whenever anything insane happens in this country, when there's some sort of natural catastrophe, people just, like, flock in and do stuff above and beyond. The real problem is the leadership in this country over the last how many years gets more and more into its own bubble. Part of what I think Obama's trying to do is remind the American people that "Yes, you have a government here. Remember that. We're your government." Because there has been no real connection between the American people and the government.

GM: You talk about the people being smarter than the leaders. You're talking about as a group, right? Because pretty evident that Obama's a smart guy.
LB: Yeah. No, I meant as a group. I meant leaders as a group. I have more faith in the American people than I do in our leadership. Because Obama's not the leader. I mean, Obama picks people. He picks people like Lawrence Summers, who's got real problems in terms of what he's done. I mean he's got certain – what's the word? – conflicts of interest. For all he wants to talk about people going back and forth between government and private, which is really big in this country – they work for the government then they go into private industry and go back and work with the government and make the money because they can work with the government – that kind of stuff goes on all the time. Maybe I'm crazy but I've always had faith in the... If you talk to the American people intelligently, something will happen.

GM: But when has that been shown?
LB: I know.

GM: The other question I got was this: The person had seen the movie Network recently and he thought of Lewis Black as Howard Beale. Have you heard that?
LB: Yeah, I have heard that.

GM: A role model of yours, was he?
LB: Not really. I mean, I was kind of screaming and yelling at the same time. He's a little further than I am (laughs). What really turned me off Glenn Beck was he said he saw Network and "I saw myself in him", and I thought, oh God. But I think Howard's a little further than even I would go.

GM: Speaking of Fox News, Canada's been taking a bit of a beating lately. Everyone says we get irony here, but I don't think we do, any more than anywhere else. There was that Fox show with Doug Benson as a guest and they were just goofing around being silly and we got all up in arms. They had to apologize. And then we had Billy Bob Thornton the other day.
LB: Yeah, what did Billy Bob say?

GM: He was being interviewed with his band and I guess they had agreed not to mention that Billy Bob Thornton was an actor. And in the introduction, the host of this national radio program mentioned that he was an actor and Thornton shut it down. And his quote on Canada was "it's mashed potato without the gravy." Then he got booed off the stage in Toronto and they cancelled the rest of their tour. I'm like, c'mon people, who cares? I know you don't have a lot of Canada material...
LB: I'm hoping, by the time I get through... I keep picking up little things. Part of the reason I wanted to do this, I wanted to see the entire country, because I'll go across the country on a tour bus, and I wanted to see if I could try to develop material about Canada. Ultimately my hope would be I would do this whole route and I would do some of my material. I'm going to be doing Just For Laughs. I'm hosting one of the galas, so my hope was I could actually do twenty minutes of material about Canada at the gala.

GM: Well don't hold back.
LB: (laughs) Don't worry. But I'll tell you, this guy at Fox – not Doug, because Doug just said something silly. I mean, Doug's a stoner, but the other guy, the host, is an idiot. I mean, he's just an idiot.

GM: Stanhope spoke well of him.
LB: No. Did he?

GM: He did, yeah.
LB: Stanhope? About Benson or the...

GM: No, about the host. He was on that show and he said the guy is a good guy. I can't remember exactly what he said, but it's in his blog.
LB: Wow. (chuckles) I've never met the guy. I just think the show is appalling.

GM: I only saw that clip.
LB: Watch the show sometime. It's staggering. I'm a little surprised that Stanhope considering there are 20 guys or 10 guys who could host that show, if you want a conservative kind of comedy show, who know how to do it.

GM: Talking about trying to develop Canadian material, I've read that you essentially develop your act on stage rather than writing it down.
LB: Yeah.

GM: It's funny, because you're a writer: a playwright and an author. You think you'd have to write things down. Why is it a different process for standup?
LB: I did write stuff down for a while and found that it just got in my way. It's very weird. It's almost like a dichotomy: there's this guy who writes and then this guy who performs. It's bizarre. I don't have that kind of Woody-Allen-I-can-write-stuff-for-myself.

GM: Do you sweat over each word like you would with a play?
LB: No. I don't really have to because I kind of have a sense how to get the laugh. What I do is I sweat over basically, "okay, I got it now, I can move on". While I'm up there, we've got this, now we can go onto the next thing and go onto the next thing.

GM: So there's a sense that each time it might be a little different.
LB: Yeah, it is. And sometimes it's stupid because I do it to the point where it's a habit and then I start fucking with it. Because I think I can get more out of it and end up losing some of what I had and I gotta go back to what I had originally because what I'm doing is putting more air into it than laughs.

GM: Some of the fun is seeing you as you try to think of the word and get even madder.
LB: (chuckles) Yeah.

GM: Is it when you're on these big tours that you bring it out there?
LB: Yes.

GM: So you do it bit by bit.
LB: Yeah. I turned 60 so I started talking about turning 60. And it was three minutes. So then I started talking about birthdays and I started talking about death. You know, you just start adding stuff. Same thing: I followed Vince Gill on stage at a benefit. I've followed all sorts of people, but when you follow somebody who's... Because all of a sudden you have Vince Gill, the country & western legend icon, very clean, and then followed by me, it's an odd position to have been put in. So the next chance I had when I hit the road, I just said, "I gotta tell you what happened." And I started talking about it. And I started fitting it into what I was talking about and it's grown and grown and grown.

GM: How often do you turn over material?
LB: The hope is every year I have 60 minutes of new material.

GM: There's you and Louis CK and... I don't know how many comics do that.
LB: Apparently there are not a lot.

"Conservative guys will say, you know, 'I'm a big fan even though you don't agree with my politics.' And I say, 'What are your politics?' I say, 'What do you think mine are?' And they say, 'Well, you're liberal.' I said, 'I'm beyond liberal, you idiot!'" – Lewis Black

GM: Not a lot. I know all too well. I know you get worked up and that's part of the persona. I'm just wondering how it affects you physically. Can you sort of relax as you're doing it so as not to cause stress, because it's an act, essentially, even though you may care about the subject?
LB: You mean can I relax while I'm on stage?

GM: As you're getting worked up, because it's not new to you.
LB: Oh no, I still get worked up. It's like acting; it's new every night. These people don't know how angry I am (laughs).

GM: You get worked up about the same stuff in real life?
LB: Pretty much. I mean, certain times, no. But yeah. That's pretty much it. Anything I find that generally works me up is going to go in the act (laughs). It usually starts with me picking up a paper going, "You gotta be fucking kidding me!"

GM: Thankfully that's pretty much every day.
LB: Pretty much. I mean, they seem to be writing it for me. They don't seem to want to let up.

GM: I see now why you want the newspapers to stay in business!
LB: Well, I'm big on it. The fact that I really can't read off a TV screen, which the computer screen is. And I think it's my age. I think it's not designed for reading. It was not designed to be read from. It was designed to see stuff, images. Fucking thing.

GM: I'm 46 so I'm with you. I can read but it really screws with your attention span. There are hyperlinks and you start reading something then go off somewhere else. You can't just sit down and read it.
LB: Yeah.

GM: You're a satirist. Who are your favourite satirists?
LB: Um... phew... Um... wow. I like P.J. O'Rourke, conservative as he might be. He's really funny. And I like my friend Will Durst.

GM: He's great.
LB: Terrific. He doesn't get his due, I don't think. And Kate Clinton is very funny. She's funny. She's kind of out-there. Not really out-out-there. You know, she's a lesbian comic. And a good one. More socially oriented. And my friend John Bowman, who actually opens for me when he can. But he won't be up in Canada because of a DUI six years ago.

GM: You're kidding.
LB: No. It's unbelievable.

GM: Paula Poundstone is going to be here on Thursday.
LB: I haven't seen her in a while.

GM: How does she get in the country if Bowman can't? She had a DUI. I mean, essentially.
LB: (chuckles) It was really weird. We had gotten him in before. You know, paid a fine or whatever, and did all of this stuff. Letters of this, letters of that. And then all of a sudden it was no, he can't get in. Now he can't get in and, you know, you gotta redo the records again. He's extremely funny.

GM: He is. I've seen him twice with you and he's really good.
LB: Yeah. And he's got this whole thing now about advertising. It's really pretty brilliant.

GM: Who will be coming with you this trip?
LB: I've got another really great comic: Kathleen Madigan.

GM: You're kidding! She's one of my favourites.
LB: Yeah, for my money she's the funniest woman in America. And that's tough because I love Susie Essman and Joy Behar, Judy Gold... and there's a whole bunch... Maria [Bamford]. But Kathleen I've known for a long time. She's at the top of her game. She's a pain in the ass to follow, though. "Really? You had to be that funny, fucker?"

GM: A. Whitney Brown, as a satirist, I really like.
LB: I like him but I haven't seen him in forever.

GM: I was going to ask if you knew what was happening with him.
LB: No idea. None. And I also think in the realm of that you've got Colbert, who's brilliant.

GM: A. Whitney Brown did something at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival a few years ago.
LB: I just haven't seen him. I mean, I don't know what he got up to.

GM: We have coming through town, in the span of maybe three weeks, three different comics all playing the hockey arena, GM Place. It's a huge place. It's where the NHL team plays.
LB: You've got three comics so it's gotta be Larry the Cable Guy...

GM: Nope.
LB: Ron White?

GM: Nope.
LB: Um...

GM: Close. Close on those two.
LB: Engvall?

GM: No.
LB: Foxworthy?!

GM: Yes.
LB: Wow. Oh, well, he's got that show.

GM: So Foxworthy. The other one's an obvious one.
LB: Who?

GM: Dane Cook.
LB: Oh yeah.

GM: And then Russell Peters.
LB: Oh yeah, that's right, I keep forgetting. Russell I forget because he doesn't...

GM: He's doing two nights, back to back. I'm wondering about playing these huge venues. I know when Steve Martin got that big it really took away from the comedy. Can you imagine playing that kind of venue?
LB: No, not really. I mean, I'd do it if I'm with six others. We played, like, eight thousand in a hockey arena for this benefit where I followed Vince Gill, but, no, not really. I don't enjoy it. It's too big. There's no back wall.

GM: Do you think they enjoy it or it's just a case of money or just pleasing as many people as they can?
LB: I think they enjoy it. It's like, what are you gonna do? If people are gonna pay... They come into Vancouver and do one show. I'm going to try to do two, which I thought was crazy.

GM: Russell Peters is doing two at GM Place.
LB: Yeah. It's that thing of if you can do it. I just don't enjoy it, to be honest. It's just too big.

GM: You enjoy the theatre, as opposed to a club? What's your ideal place?
LB: I enjoy the theatre. The club is nice because there's a kind of intimacy and you can find smaller stuff. It's conversational. But I like the theatre because I can be big. If I'm that big in a club... I always thought it was kinda nuts to be that big in a club.

GM: A little too scary for the people?
LB: I think it's a little much. But I like playing both. But I enjoy theatres more. Probably. But I wish I could do more clubs again.

GM: You reach a certain level and you just can't.
LB: Yeah, I just don't have the time. You're really just kinda going back to places and trying to maintain an audience. I've tried to do clubs when I can do them.

GM: There are few comics who get to have that across the board success over the age of 50. Or even 40. You mentioned to me the last time I spoke to you that your outrage and frustration are the common currency of the youth and that's why they're attracted to you. But it's got to be more than that, otherwise every comic would just rage.
LB: I guess. I don't know what the deal is. Somehow I've managed to hook 'em.

GM: Are you insecure, like many performers, and think it could all disappear at any time?
LB: It could disappear in a year and a half.

GM: (chuckles) So you've got a good year and a half from any given point.
LB: I always feel that there's like a year and a half and then the gig's up.

GM: Do you attract fans from all over the political spectrum because you do go after everyone?
LB: Yeah. Conservative guys will say, you know, "I'm a big fan even though you don't agree with my politics." And I say, "What are your politics?" I say, "What do you think mine are?" And they say, "Well, you're liberal." I said, "I'm beyond liberal, you idiot!"

GM: I've always wondered how a conservative comedy fan can...
LB: No, they kind of do because it's the same frustration. "What are these people doing to me?"

GM: Because I'd say 95 percent of the comics – as a number I just threw out there – if they do any political stuff come at it from the left, or beyond in your case. So if you're a comedy fan and you're also right wing, do you just avoid all those great comics? Or do you go in spite of your beliefs?
LB: I think if you're really a rigid conservative or right wing, I think it's tough. I don't think you go that far. But then I support these people, the Brady Bill. The gun control people. So I put it on my website and then I started getting these e-mails, like, "I really liked your work until I saw that you..." And I'm like, "What has my work got to do with it?" Seriously? What is my doing on my off-time bother you? Do I come to your house and say, "Gee, I wish you didn't collect stamps?" Or they're like, "You wanna take my gun away." Have I ever asked you for a gun? I said, "At what point did I ever ask you for your gun? I don't give a shit about your gun. Get a grip on it. Instead of looking at it as what they're going to do to your gun, try to figure out how you can keep those guns from idiots. Okay? That's all I'm asking." And then they kinda write back, "Wow. It was amazing you wrote back!" (laughs)

GM: What's happening with The Root of All Evil? Is it still going strong?
LB: No. We're dead. Scott Carter and David Sacks, it was their idea originally, then we worked on getting it worked out together.

GM: How many years did you do it?
LB: We did two seasons.

GM: Did you enjoy it?
LB: Yeah, it was fun. I think that we would have nailed it where it should be by the third season. Once again, it was kind of a learning experience. My problem is it's been easier to learn standup than a lot of this business shit. Because trying to deal with Comedy Central and da-da-da-da, I just think terms of the way we set up the show... But I think we were moving toward where it should be. And they didn't want to do it and I didn't want to fight for it. It's not like I had a patient and I believed in a certain cure. It was just time to move on.

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