“I saw my shrink today, so I’m really prepared to talk to you.”
As a kid who grew up in Baltimore, it felt like we were neighbors with DC. When somebody who came from there does great and wonderful things, it was always inspiring for me. And when I saw someone from a similar neighborhood, town, or place as me do it, I felt I could also do it.
One of those people is comedian Lewis Black, well known for his work on the Daily Show and on stages everywhere. Famous for his hilarious rants on social and observational situations, he was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. It was the first person that made me feel that way since Sam Kinison—smart, angry, energetic, and most importantly hilarious.
Since the pandemic, Black has become chairman of the board of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis, helping curate the things most important to Vonnegut and keeping the author’s alive. He has also started a podcast called the Rant Cast, an interactive part of his current live show that he’s bringing to Boston Friday, March 11 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre as part of his Off the Rails Comedy Tour.
Black and I spoke about the current war in Ukraine and his Russian Jewish heritage, his writing process, and the time when the producers of the Daily Show didn’t think he was funny.
How are you today?
Oh, just delightful. I’d like the winter to keep going. I’d like there to be more problems behind the problems. I’d like to know what’s stacked up next. It’s just beyond belief. I saw my shrink today, so I’m really prepared to talk to you.
You’re a descendant of Jewish Russians. With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, how is that affecting you?
Well, we left, didn’t we? I mean a long time ago because they were coming after us. My grandparents fled outta there in the early 1900s. So I never really rooted for that team.
Do you find it difficult to keep up with a fast paced new cycle that we’re at? Do you feel it’s difficult to keep up with and stay current?
I don’t really. I do some current things and I do this thing called the Rant is Due, which takes place afterwards in front of the audience. It’s a live feed that goes throughout the world and the folks from Boston, who are in the audience, can write in a rant, I’ll read it. So if someone writes something I think is interesting, I read what they had to say. A lot of the current stuff comes out at this point and I comment on it.
But the fast pace of it is the same, nothing’s changed. Now, we’re in Ukraine. Okay? What were we in before that? We were literally in COVID, then there’s no COVID, there’s COVID, there’s no COVID. There’s masks, don’t wear a mask. Maybe we should wear masks? Don’t wear a mask. Now there’s voting stuff. Vote, don’t vote, people should vote. This one is big and new. This one is huge and horrifying.
When a lot of things switched to being online and Zoom comedy and remote podcast, interviews, TV, segments, and stuff like that. Did you find it difficult to try and keep up with that level of technology?
I wasn’t doing that. No Zoom comedy. It’s the road to some form of psychosis. I’m not gonna sit there in front of a bunch of squares, you know, with people inside ’em, no. It’s Hollywood Squares without Paul Lynde. I would do Q and As with kids and stuff like that, but I’m not doing standup sitting at my desk.
There were people who did it and enjoyed it. It was not something I enjoyed. I need to work in front of an audience live, cuz that’s where I write. It was like I was being cut off.
Do you think your ability to write on stage and write in the moment in front of people comes from your earlier days as a playwright when you’re literally having to write for people in the room in front of you?
Yeah. I think it had a lot to do with the playwriting. In a lot of ways it was tougher. Playwriting is to me tougher in a lot of ways than standup, I’m sure there are people who disagree with that, but the thing is, you’re this group of characters and have to create a reality and then you have to have the audience buy into the creation, that’s tough.
And when it comes to writing your standup, as opposed to writing for segments for the Daily Show, is there a different process?
The difference is that I originally wrote all of the stuff, then they brought in people who worked with me. I never was a great punchline person without an audience. I was doing it once a week or once every two weeks. I would come in and I would throw stuff in, and they’d hone it down, then I would hone it and then they would finish it off. Then there were a couple of producers who came in, who didn’t think I was funny. They didn’t feel that my attitude was funny. They started cutting lines that I wrote and writers that I work with went, You know, he’s been doing this line on stage for 10 years. He gets a huge laugh. And they would say, literally, I quote, We can do better than that. And then when Trevor came on he occasionally let me flip out in front of an audience and just start yelling stuff, and then they would put it online, which is great.
Speaking of your lengthy history in both comedy and the Daily Show and just being a writer, do you ever have concerns that sometimes your material may not have aged so well?
I can’t worry about that. God, I’m hoping to get to Thursday. Are you kidding me? Worry about that? Some of it, people will say, That still really applies, and I’m amazed. So who knows?
Do you sometimes worry that the people you’re performing for on a USO tour don’t share your same views on politics?
I didn’t really do politics there. And the one thing that you can pretty much count on in the services, those people don’t like authority either. I had a lot of stuff that I could talk about and be around the edges of this total madness we’re in. I’ve said this from time to time, I’m a socialist, but basically the only way stuff gets done in this country is to say, Let’s go here. And then the job of the other side is to go, No, we can’t do that. So that’s the deal. That’s how you negotiate. That’s what it’s all about being in the middle. You fucking idiots.
Are you a Bernie supporter? Because I love his views and stuff, but I also find him to be so hilariously cartoonish that I can’t take him seriously.
Well, I mean, I like a lot of what he says, but who do I got? They say AOC is, but I don’t know if she’s bonafide. No, I don’t know. And I certainly don’t got a club somewhere. There’s no socialist club. Go back 75 years, that’s when there was a party. That was really seen as a kind of a threat. Bernie, that’s it? What’s the threat? And for the Republicans and for the Democrats to be completely incompetent when it comes to getting across the message that they’re not socialists is beyond belief. I mean, how stupid are you? You really are incompetent. The Democrats don’t seem to know how to tell you what it is that they wanna do. And the Republicans don’t seem to know how to tell you what they’re not gonna do.
As a standup myself, I’ve always said the best comedians are themselves on stage, only amplified. And I’m curious at what point does Lewis Black onstage shift into the reality of who Lewis Black is?
If I was my character, I’d be dead. If that was who I was all the time, I could be good for three days and then they’d say, He’s gonna have to go to the hospital. I think his heart burst. No, I think it’s a big blown up version of myself. And what it allowed me to do was to kinda be more myself off stage, really. So I was able to get rid of a lot of it.
What can people in Boston expect at the Emerson Colonial Theater on March 11?
Their lives will be changed for the better. And if they go home in the next three days there will be a massive check in the mail. I don’t know where it comes from. They’ll either win a lottery or there’d be something from some sort of absolute mess up in PPE money. But that’s the kind of thing that happens after my shows. It’s really unbelievable.
What they can expect is the second half is Thanks for Risking Your Life, which was an intimate special that I did the last performance that I did before the shutdown. What I’m doing now is the next special, and that’s what they’re gonna see, which is the fastest I’ve ever written anything in front or anywhere.
The other thing people should know about is that if they’re in Indianapolis, I’m the chairman of the board of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. It’s an extraordinary museum that is devoted to Vonnegut in the things that were important to him. And they do some really great work with the community and throughout the country and are growing and expanding and really keeping his work alive. And so I work with them and that’s well worth people’s time.
I really appreciate it because the hardest thing right now is actually getting people to realize that you’re coming to town. ‘’ll walk into Boston and I can guarantee walking to the theater there’ll be 10 people going, What are you doing here? It’s really something. So thank you.
Lewis Black Off the Rails Tour comes to the Emerson Colonial Theatre Friday, March 11. Tickets here.
Listen to the full interview with Lewis at https://www.deadairdennis.com/lewis_black.