We finally got to see Lewis Black live at the Black Orchid at the 2000 Chicago Comedy Festival. The next night, we conversed outside the Park West Theater after seeing Shelley Berman's performance there and we all shared a cab to the Vic Theater where Black emceed the raucous Hardcore Comedy Show. He's fun to watch on stage. He's got a reputation for being manic or wound up or excitable, which he is, but he's also exceedingly calm. It's an interesting paradox. He's relaxed, yet he's all wound up about his life and politics and the business. He's a curious mixture of a crank and a sage. Offstage, he's all sage. He's one of those guys who is in the running for "Nicest Guy In The Business." He's going to be at this year's Chicago Comedy Festival. He can be seen regularly on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and, if the folks in Hollywood ever find that bottle of smart pills, he'll be piped into all of our households via some sort of successful half-hour situation comedy. He also won this year's ACA for Best Male Standup Comic.
At a recent speaking engagement at the Los Angeles Writer's Guild, George Carlin cited you, Mitch Hedberg and Kevin Meaney as three contemporary comics that he enjoys. What three contemporary comics do you enjoy?
What three contemporary comics.....? That's tough. There are certainly more than three and if I give you just three names I am leaving out a lot of folks who give me joy. But to name a few of the many: Rich Hall, Dom Irerra, Dave Attell, Kathleen Madigan, Jon Bowman, Otto and George, Jim Norton, Sue Murphy, Judy Gold and I could go on.
What three legendary comics do you enjoy?
Legendary Comics: Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. And there's another dozen that have had their effect on me.
We've heard you say that you aren't good at office politics or working in a group. How do you think that will affect you if you ever get your own show, whether it's sitcom or talk show?
It won't affect me. I have matured. Now instead of saying, go fuck yourself, I just smile and nod my head. I don't have trouble working in a group, its why I got into theatre in the first place, it's the authorities that run these things where I get into trouble. The heads of development and their people can make a man insane. Its all the folks standing around who know nothing about the creative process that drive me crazy, but get me in a room with just the folks who are working on the show and I am fine.
We're sure you've had many meetings with TV folks, what type of projects do they see you in? What type of projects do you see for yourself? On a percentage basis, what is the breakdown on the amount of control over the nature of any project you have, versus the amount you have?
I just recently realized that they really don't know what to do with me, which is why it has taken my career so long to get off. I don't know why they have such difficulty, for years friends and fans have told me that my character is perfect for a sitcom. I would love to play the character of a college professor who is driven insane by his students and the fact that the sixties seem to have no effect on the ongoing reality except for bringing the world the destructive concept that style is more important than content. (You can see why no one has been interested in this.) Or a muckraking reporter. Or the nutjob with his own cable access show. Or a single dad who is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is being raised by his kids. I could go on. Also I wouldn't mind having a show a la Dennis Miller or Chris Rock with my own twist on things....only I'd probably end with a roundtable rather than an interview. I don't quite understand the second part of your question. The way it works is that you pitch something and they respond and by the time they approve of your project, you've got about 70% of your original vision left.
You've been a comic for 23 years. How long have you been a good comic?
It took me about ten years for me to get really comfortable on stage and to find my persona up there. I think I have been good at this for about ten years or so and during the last couple I have discovered a self-confidence I never really had up there and that has helped my writing and performance enormously.
We saw on election night that the center of the country is more conservative while the liberals seem to live on the coasts. Since you do political humor, how does this affect the reaction you receive when you hit the road? (To put it another way, how is it working in the red counties, as opposed to working in the blue counties?)
I don't find much difference in audiences as I travel throughout the country. I rarely have to change my act. Your hope is always to get them on your wavelength and keep them there. The country isn't as conservative or liberal as people make it out to be. There's just a real search going on out there for common sense and leadership. And our leadership for a long time has had very little common sense. I probably could have gotten to where I wanted to have been faster if I had any business sense. Its a lot easier to learn the mechanics of comedy than understand how the business side works. To me it was a mystery.
Do you ever feel like you're on a time limit? Self-imposed? Externally imposed?
I do feel like there's a clock on me at this point. I am getting older and that makes a difference, not so much to me but to the industry idiots who run the big show....The problem with success is it comes either when you are too young too appreciate it or you need a nap to enjoy it. I probably could have gotten to where I wanted to have been faster if I had any business sense. Its a lot easier to learn the mechanics of comedy than understand how the business side works. To me it was a mystery.
Is the road still the exciting place it once was? Was it ever? (For you, that is.)
I have always found the road to be quite exciting. I got on it to see the country and that's been a terrific experience for me. What's nice now is that there is an audience that has found me and that's made the road a whole lot fun and has giving me a whole new freedom on stage.
How do the comedy club owners treat you now that you are a known entity rather than just some comic named Lewis Black?
I have been on the road for years, so many of them are friends of mine and nothing has changed. They are glad for my success, which is nice and its nice to sell tickets for a change. This has opened doors to clubs I never played and that certainly has given me more choices. But there are some club owners who are either assholes or sociopaths and nothing that's happened to me is ever going to change that.
Nearly every comic has a persona that he discards early on. Did you? What type of act were you doing when you first stared out? When did you become the comic that you are today?
I went through a number of comic personas, none of which worked because my main problem was stage fright. It was huge for quite some time and it took a long time for me to get over the vulnerability I felt up there. All of my initial material was about my sex life, it was very funny. I was just out of college and I just told stories about my sexual mishaps. I then began to talk more and more about politics as the other material grew stale. I stumbled onto this persona when my friend, the comedian Dan Ballard, said to me one night, "I yell and I am not even angry. You're angry and you don't yell. Start yelling." And I did, and that was that.
Are you a disciplined writer? Do you write every day?
I wouldn't call myself a disciplined writer. I don't sit down and write. I am more of a disciplined thinker. I read and I think about it and yell at my friends about it. And then I go on stage and talk about it and that's where I do my writing. On stage. My persona takes whatever ideas I have had and runs with it.
On a scale of one to ten, how is your memory? Do you employ any tricks to remember the new stuff in your act?
My memory generally sucks. I have a hellish time remembering peoples' names, which I guess comes with the territory. Sometimes I feel like I am in the early stages of Alzheimer's. I really just use key words to remember my act and the same goes for new material, unless I stumble on a line and don't think I'll remember it. Then I write it down. I have thousands of pieces of scratch paper saved that have parts of my act.
You attended the prestigious Yale Drama school yet you find yourself making a living as a standup comic? Do you think Yale's Drama Department is proud of you?
I don't think they really know I exist. They have held major fund raisers and have never approached me about working them. I had a lot of trouble while I was at Yale because I have always had a problem with authority figures, but most authority figures have a sense of humor, but not these folks. One day I will tell the story of my time there, outside of the friends that I made and a couple of excellent teachers and actors I encountered, it was a terrible experience and I believe it cost me a real career as a playwright. It's part of the reason I am making a living now as a stand-up comic. Its where I learned to write and for that I will always be grateful. Otherwise my relationship with Yale and the American Theatre is a long story.
You have a theater background and seem to be the quintessential New York guy with New York sensibilities. Why then did Comedy Central have you tape your 1998 special in Hollywood? (Any adjustments have to be made for that?)
It was where they were filming all the specials. I didn't have any problems adjusting, the audience was terrific.
Why do you think standup comedy is the black sheep of the entire arts scene? (Or, do you perceive it as such?)
Probably because we work in bars, I am sure that has something to do with it. There isn't that "artistic rod" up everyone's ass. That's a terrific question and I wish I had more time to think about it and come up with a better response.
What do you think of the current state of standup in New York?
I think its as strong as it has ever been, if not stronger. There are tons of clubs and alternative stages. There are an extraordinary group of gifted professionals performing here. I just don't think that its given the kind of press it had in the early days. They are not tracking the up and comers the way they used to. Time Out, the magazine has been a big help, but that's about it.
We're not trying to start trouble here, but if John Stewart ever left the Daily Show would you want to take over?
I would love to, but they would never let me. They don't see me in that role. When Craig Kilbourne left they didn't even audition me to see what I might do. They have me pigeonholed, but that's probably my own fault. And maybe they were right, maybe my persona wouldn't work in that chair. But I must say that John was a truly brilliant choice and his presence has helped lift all of our visibilities.
In a 1998 interview, we read that you still could not get booked on Letterman or Leno. Why do you think they resisted putting you on their shows? Has that situation been rectified?
Leno, quite simply doesn't think that I am funny. He was shown my first Conan appearance, years ago and said that he didn't get me. Besides I would be unable to go through the nonsense required to do a set on that show. It's absurd and utterly appalling, what they put people through and the way they screw around with their sets. We spend night after night honing our material and then they see fit to come in and fool around with it. Its just plain wrong. Just recently I appeared on Letterman and it was a lot of fun and they have asked me to come back. And I owe a huge debt to Conan for giving me national exposure and trusting my work and putting me on repeatedly. It was a huge help and I am trully grateful to him, Frank Smiley and Paula Davis. By the way, Eddie Brill is now booking Letterman and I think you will see a noticeable change in the comics on that show. He will make a huge difference. It was a pleasure to work with him.
When receiving your award at the American Comedy Awards for Best Male Standup, is there anyone you forgot to thank?
I could fill up two pages with the people I want to thank and I'd still leave out a bunch.
There were a lot of people who kept me going when if I were trully in my right mind I would have stopped. Mostly I felt terrible that I forgot to recognize Dom Irrerra(sp?) and Dave Attell, but when they announced my name my head exploded. I wanted to start by saying that these two guys truly make me laugh and have inspired me and that the only reason I won was that I obviously was a better person.
No one really knows how special that award was for me. It meant more than anyone can imagine.
||SHECKYmagazine.com HOME||Back to the Top||