"Somebody asked me to talk about George Carlin and why he was popular with young people, and I said – and I think the same applies to me – is that he expresses frustration and outrage and anger which are the common currency among youth."
– Lewis Black
Guy MacPherson: You play standup, like, 200 nights a year, is that right?
Lewis Black: More.
GM: More now?
LB: I've always played about 250 nights.
GM: And yet never in Vancouver. Have you played other parts of Canada?
LB: Just Toronto and Montreal. And not from lack of trying.
GM: (laughs) We just didn't want you, is that it?
GM: I don't believe that for a second.
GM: Just checking on the internet, and you do tons of these kinds of phone interviews.
LB: Oh, yeah.
GM: That's great. A lot of people would just go, "I'm sick of it." Especially with the number of shows that you do.
LB: No, I'm not. As long as anybody's interested in what I got to say. I find that astonishing. And I think there's an Alzheimer's effect that sets in after you do this long enough. You don't remember what you said the last time.
GM: Great, so every one is fresh.
LB: Every one is totally fresh. I'll be honest, the only time an interview really bothers me is if the interviewer did no homework whatsoever and just starts back to basic questions.
GM: Like what? Tell me so I can cross those off my list.
LB: No, no. But the basic ones. Um, you know, it's stuff like where they go, "How long have you been a comic?" I mean, where there's just no...
GM: Or "You do standup, too, that's interesting."
LB: Yeah. Or "Really? You wrote plays? What was that like?"
GM: Well, that was new to me, but I did my homework. I didn't know that you were a playwright as well.
GM: I found it funny that... A lot of people in the arts might have a fallback position in the real world, and yours was standup comedy.
LB: [chuckles] Yeah, really. I had no fallback position. It was going to be something, I think,
generally involved in entertainment in one way or the other.
GM: So you had to make it.
LB: Or teach it.
GM: I read that you didn't have a good experience at Yale. Was it because of the teachers there?
LB: Oh, yeah. The problem at Yale was the teachers. And also the whole notion of arts schools as kind of POW camps [laughs]. You know, I don't understand the idea of punishing a young artist who's made it into an arts school. There's a lot of ways to teach somebody their craft without undermining their confidence and crippling them, you know?
GM: Is it like athletes, where the coach gets on him, but some athletes can take it and some can't?
LB: Yeah. And there are ways to get on kids. It's going to be tough enough when you get out anyway, so the whole thing there should be as much reinforcement as possible because how are you helping them? You know, when they get out, they're going to get it right in the teeth. And certainly in Yale and Julliard, the ones that are considered more of the aesthetic end of this shit, they're not helping you in terms of – or they used to not help, at least when I was in school – in terms of how to survive. They're telling you how to be a better artist so you can... Why didn't they just guide us into migrant work? And I'm not saying making a million dollars; the other end is insane. But at least how to cope with it.
GM: Cope with the lifestyle?
LB: Yeah. I mean, somebody should have told me that doing a commercial is not going to... that I'm not selling my fucking soul. I mean, if you're going to survive as a... If you're going to be doing theatre, you know doing a commercial is not... If nobody's going to give you a fellowship to do theatre, and Procter & Gamble is, then you gotta take it where you can get it.
GM: You teach in the summer, involved in that theatre group.
LB: I was involved with the Williamstown Theater Festival for the last ten years.
GM: Who are the students that go to that?
LB: The students that go to that are generally kids that are either in college in performing arts programs. Generally that's the kids, you know.
GM: So they're all pretty talented.
LB: Most of them. I mean, most of the kids who show up there are interested in doing it.
GM: It wouldn't be your position to, if you saw someone and you thought this person has no chance...
LB: I'd never tell anybody that. Because if somebody saw me do standup 25 years ago, I'd think they would have said, "What are you, nuts?"
GM: You've had plays produced. How many have you written?
LB: A lot of them were written for very specific companies and for kids and stuff. I wrote a lot of stuff, but all in all I think about 40 plays.
GM: They're not all comedies, I take it.
LB: No, but most of them are.
GM: And do you still do that?
LB: I had a play produced in Los Angeles last year. College kids seem to be interested in my plays, so I'm starting to send them out to them. If they want to do them, great. I'm not going to charge them.
GM: Do you also write screenplays?
LB: I've written one screenplay. The comedian I'm performing with in Vancouver is another American, John Bowman. He and I, like 15 years ago, wrote a screenplay. And now there's actual interest in it. But it was interesting before, but we were really stupid. They said, "What do you think? Would you like Bill Murray in this?" And we went, "Uh, nah, not really." Because we really wanted it to be an ensemble. And we wanted that more than we were interested in it getting done, which really was, you know, pretty dumb in some ways.
GM: And now he's not interested?
LB: No, we might have a shot at getting an ensemble because some of my friends have gone on and might be able to get us, you know, by their names...
GM: And yours, too, I'd imagine.
LB: Uh, yeah, I think it might help somewhat. Or, you know, [laughs] it'll just go right to DVD.
GM: Whatever works. As long as it gets made.
LB: Yeah. And I've written pilots and stuff.
GM: I know you've done some pilots and trying to get some sitcoms; I didn't know that you wrote them.
LB: I wrote a few with people for myself, none of which really saw the light of day.
GM: Are you still trying with that?
LB: Yeah. I have another thing. Somebody else has signed me up to develop yet another show.
GM: You don't seem like a sitcom guy, in that you'd be more the type to sit there and poke fun at most sitcoms.
LB: Well, I do, but I think there are some good ones. Arrested Development is great. And my personal favourite, which is not really... well, it is a sitcom, but not in the sense of audiences... is Trailer Park Boys. That's my personal favourite.
LB: Yeah, I love that.
GM: You get that down there?
LB: We got it on BBC. I saw it, and then our tour manager is Canadian. He's from Toronto. So I came in screaming, "I saw this thing, Trailer Park Boys. What the fuck is that?" And he went, "Oh yeah, they're great." And then he brought in the first two seasons and we just started watching them and I went berserk. And pretty much every interview I did at the Montreal festival last year – and I had just seen the stuff – I plugged them in the interview. Those guys are great!.... I love the show. I swear to God, everybody... I brought it back, I brought a whole bunch of copies for people here and they've all gone, 'Why the fuck don't we get this?' Because I think it's really bright. So that's the kind of... I lean toward that kind of thing. I mean, ultimately I lean more toward the sitcom because it's kind of the culmination of writing and doing standup and being an actor.
GM: And it's becoming more popular to do these things on film and without a laugh track.
GM: And that's the kind of thing you're interested in?
LB: Well, yeah, I mean, I wouldn't mind being in front of an audience either. I don't think the form is dead. I mean, funny is funny. The Honeymoonersmight as well have been done against a brick wall. I mean, it's unbelievable still. And I really do think it's just the writing and the situation. And a lot of the guys who could be great at it... Instead of looking for the gifted writer, at times, they look for the gifted concept, and the concept is not as important as what's driving it. We did this thing and it took place in a high school and I was the principal. The cast was phenomenal and the writer was terrific. And I thought we had real potential over time -- because that's what you need -- to take people further and further along. I thought it would have been a good show.
GM: Was it network?
LB: Yeah, it was ABC. And ABC didn't like the fact that it took place in a high school. They said, "It's really great except that it takes place in a high school." Well, who cares, asshole. It could take place in a nuclear submarine, you stupid shits. If it's funny, it's funny. But the guys I'm working with now are the guys who produced The Shield and produced Denis [Leary]'s show, and wanted to work with me. I've been lucky. I mean, the one thing I've been lucky at in terms of working in comedy is that I've been able to work with really bright people, which is probably the reason a lot of it has not gotten on television! (laughs)
GM: You've been with The Daily Show since '96.
GM: Is that when it started?
LB: Uh, yeah, it's been nine years. Yeah.
GM: We didn't get it until Stewart took over.
GM: So it was Craig Kilborne before that.
GM: Just him?
LB: It was Kilborne, Colbert, me. Colbert is the only one who's kinda survived. Beth Littleford was on at that point. A. Whitney Brown was on. And I forget who else. Brian Unger.
GM: I was just reading an interview with Colbert and three of the other correspondents. It was an Onion interview. And they were saying when Kilborne hosted it was a lot more mean spirited back then.
LB: Uh... I don't know if it was mean spirited. I mean, certainly at times it was mean spirited. It was inherent in what we were doing. There's a streak of that in satire. And it's also what works for Kilborne, as opposed to for Jon. But I think from the beginning we had a really good group of writers. I would do stuff at the beginning where I would literally do an Arabic voice badly, a Chinese voice badly, a Japanese, when I was describing stuff. Somebody told me that I was really being mean and I said, "I'm doing it so badly it's stupid, it's not mean. It's dumb that I'm doing it." I mean, it's that whole thing. I don't really remember it being mean spirited, but I don't have that much of a memory.
GM: I think what they said they would go on these remotes and just find somebody and really make fun of them.
LB: Yeah, but also, we found people that were just un-... Until people kind of found us, the people that we were talking to were unbelievable. You just sit there and you go, "Are you kidding me?"
GM: And now that they've found you, is it that they know you're coming and know that it's the Daily Show.
LB: Yeah. A lot of them know my standup now, too, because I have three CDs out and the fourth one's coming, and I did an HBO special, so all that helps.
GM: When's the fourth one coming?
LB: January. I'll probably have it when I come to Vancouver.
GM: Is it still on that small independent label?
LB: Two on the small independent label, and he still does the production of it, but now it's Comedy Central Records. Comedy Central has a record division. We went to them because there's just access. People can buy it in the store.
GM: I think I read that you said they weren't interested in releasing a CD of you earlier on, and that this guy, the independent guy, was.
LB: Oh yeah, no, Comedy Central didn't have a record division at that point. I couldn't find anybody to do my CD. And there were people doing CDs. There were a few of them. And he tracked me down and I was the first one he did. Since then he's developed a stable of very good people. Like Jon is on the label, Judy Gold is on the label, Kathleen Madigan is on the label, the two brothers... the twins [the Sklar Brothers]... He's got a number of them.
GM: What's that label called?
LB: Standup Records.
GM: I know you work on new material all the time. You've said that when it's time to let the older material go, you let it go. You've got four CDs out in how many years now?
LB: In about six years.
GM: I know comics who use the same material for six years.
LB: Yeah, I know. I don't know how they do it.
GM: Just because it would get so boring for you?
LB: It would make me insane. I gotta keep making shit up. [Dave] Attell and I went on tour together and the thing that we'd talk about is the fact that if he'd been in the town like three or four months before, I would be the headliner. And then if I'd been there, he would headline. We both feel the obligation... A lot of guys feel the obligation... You go back every eight or nine months, you don't want to be saying the same shit.
GM: Are there people going, "Oh, do that bit! I wanna hear that!"
LB: Yeah. But I ignore it. And they kinda calm down about it because I think they realize it's not what I'm gonna do. I think eventually I'd go back and do just the greatest hits tour.
GM: Yeah, when you can't think of anything else.
GM: Have you been on The Tonight Show yet? You said Leno doesn't think you're funny.
LB: A long time ago he'd said that.
GM: He actually said that?
LB: Well, he said he didn't think... Yeah, that was pretty much what I had heard.
GM: Well, that's a vote of confidence for you right there.
LB: (chuckles) Yeah, I know. That's what I had heard. And now his opinion has changed. Part of it, too, for me was Conan was, "What do you want to do? That'd be great!" (laughs) And this was like, well, you know, and then I'd have to do the set, and then do it again, and then do it... And it was like, you know, no, I'm too old for this.
GM: Don't they do that on Letterman, too?
LB: They do that to a point on Letterman but not as much as they've done it on Leno. And that's kind of loosened over time.
GM: Do your desk bits turn into longer standup pieces or vice versa.
LB: No. Very rarely. Little bits here and there, but rarely. Because it's almost like a totally different thing. Also a lot of it has to be enveloped in the show itself and connected to the show and they want to put it within the context of the show. So that makes it a little tougher.
GM: Your standup is still the Angry Guy, right?
LB: Oh, yeah.
GM: So you have to pick something different to be angry about on The Daily Show as you do on the stage.
LB: It's just what interests me. On The Daily Show, I'm caught within their... not 'caught'. It's not bad; it's certainly great. But I have to deal with whatever they're interested in commenting on. [Whereas in standup] I can pick anything the fuck I want to talk about. The Daily Show focusses on stuff I focus on, but they don't give it to me to focus on. My point of view would be different. Like, I did a little bit here and there about Janet Jackson and I have almost 50 minutes on Janet Jackson at this point.
GM: How much you love her?
LB: Yes, and adore her. The whole family.
GM: You said it takes you longer now to come up with a take on stuff.
LB: It's always taken me a long time to come up with a take on... If there's something like the tsunami thing. That's gonna take me... if I ever talk about it at all. But I will, because they're playing music or whatever the album will be. The whole culture that comes... Any tragedy spawns this whole culture around it. It just makes you nuts. Now it's all about children being molested.
GM: What is?
LB: The news here. What a tragedy. And there's thousands of perverts running around Thailand and Indonesia picking up young people. You know, pedophiles. How many fucking pedophiles are there?
GM: We're having this big concert in relief of the tsunami victims. Does that come from a good place or is it all just self-serving?
LB: Who knows? It comes from a good place, I think. But in the end, half the discussion, too, now is what's happening with the money? Where does it go? Half the problem is the delivery system.
GM: But you wouldn't discourage someone from giving?
LB: No. No, not at all. I'm gonna give once I figure out who the fuck to give it to. That's the problem. And why the world doesn't fucking put something in place... It's like literally a tragedy happens and I don't care where it is on the planet earth and we respond like we're chickens with our heads cut off. You'd think that the world at this point would put in place some sort of a thing that would be able to... as opposed to 45 thousand million charitable organizations and a gazillion this and a gazillion that. Have some fucking... You've got a UN, for fuck's sake! How difficult would it be to actually come up with a way in which tragedy could be dealt with immediately, as opposed to "What? What are we gonna do? Geez, we'll send some ships, we'll do this."
GM: Have a contingency plan.
GM: But you say this is not in your material yet?
LB: No. No, my lag time is tough. Something'll happen and then it takes me a while to actually deal with it.
GM: Once everybody stops talking about it, you'll come out...
LB: Right, exactly (chuckles).
GM: I'm reading Seriously Funny. Have you read that book? The Rebel Comedians of the Fifties and Sixties, by Gerald Nachman.
GM: The chapter on Stan Freberg, Freberg was quoted as saying, "Outrage in its natural state is not too salable. The hard part comes in covering the social
message with the candy-coating of humor otherwise you end up just another crackpot on a soapbox."
LB: Mm-hmm. You have to deliver the funny. I get away with screaming but I think part of it is I always have something that basically surprises. Hopefully.
GM: Otherwise you're just up there spewing your opinion. Is everything you say, can we believe this is your strong opinion? Or sometimes do you just take an idea because you know that it would be funny.
LB: I think some of it is my strong opinion and some of it is just funny, some of it's stupid-funny. Sometimes I say something just because it's stupid (chuckles).
GM: I don't know your age...
LB: I'm old.
GM: You're still really popular with the kids. Is this just because of The Daily Show, do you think? Because a lot of older standups, young people just go...
LB: I just had a quote about Carlin. Somebody asked me to talk about George and why he was popular with young people, and I said – and I think the same applies to me – is that he expresses frustration and outrage and anger which are the common currency among youth. And I think that's part of the hook. I also think a lot of the times I get... Also, not only young kids, I have families coming. Three or four in a family. Mother, father, two kids. And they watch me together. And I think that's great. It certainly puts the kibosh on what the fuck family comedy is. A lot of kids say, you know, "You're like my dad, only funny."
GM: Because most of our dads are curmudgeon kind of guys. Do you feel more things are pissing you off these days than when you were younger? Or is it about the same?
LB: No, I think it's always been the same. I've always been a little outraged. [cell phone
rings] Hold on. It's another interview but I'll hold them off.
GM: Oh, sorry about that.
LB: Don't worry. I would have hung up if I wasn't interested.
GM: We were talking about whether you still feel as angry as when you were younger.
LB: Oh yeah, I was always kind of frustrated. I just wrote a book and the book is somewhat how I ended up with my point of view. It basically just starts I'm Jewish and it starts there. Going to temple and they're crazy. Seriously, I've got this thing where I talk about the fact when I was a kid they had us hide under desks in case of a nuclear attack. At that point I knew, I said, "These people are fucking nuts!"
GM: Has the book been published?
LB: It'll come out April 1st.
GM: Has the climate of humour changed since Bush was re-elected, or is it too soon to tell?
LB: Uh, no, but I think at least for me it's coming (laughs) because enough is enough. I mean, I've been very nice. I think I was kind of kid glovey with him because I thought... And also because I do still ultimately try to entertain people. So you don't really want to throw down the gauntlet.
GM: And alienate 50 percent.
LB: Yeah, because I'm not there to just, you know... And I think that there was a certain amount of confusion here and all that, and you go, "Okay, well let's give him a chance." And now it's like, "Are you fucking serious?" And not that I really believe... Because you know, during the election I wasn't taking either side because the other side... I said the Democrats responded to the void in leadership by doing what they always do which is shove their heads up their asses. But this is just beyond belief. It's just extraordinary. Teaching abstinence, privatization of social security, which is just madness, Rumsfeld. The list becomes endless.
GM: So you're going to unleash pretty soon.
LB: I have. I've already started to.
GM: I guess you don't have any take on the Canadian government.
GM: We don't either.
LB: Yeah, but you guys at least seem to be people friendly. You know? I mean, seriously. And we're really corporate friendly. And it makes a big difference. We're always constantly saying, "You want a health care system like the Canadians?" And I go, "Yeah!"
GM: It's funny to hear you guys saying how terrible the Canadian health care system is.
LB: You still deliver a better health care system than us. We're like 16th among industrialized nations, and they talk about, like, "Oh, you want to be able to choose your own doctor? Why?!" Once again they can't figure it out? Because apparently everybody's gotta get some sort of kickback in this country before we move on. It's like the mob.
GM: I was interested to learn that you had different personas before the angry guy, and I can't imagine what they were.
LB: I was just trying stuff. I didn't really know what to do. I sat on my anger a lot. It was probably more scary for the audience. There's nothing worse than having a guy who's kind of angry but sitting on it.
GM: Because they don't know when he's going to go off?
LB: Yeah, really, because it's kind of creepy.
GM: Were you doing more observational, or was it still political?
LB: When I first started I was just talking about my sex life and it was funny. And I started working in DC and it was somewhat more about working in the government and I would talk a bit about politics. It was all mostly social issues that I always kind of dwelled on rather than political issues. I always try to go the social part which to me is a little more personal.
GM: And then somebody told you to be angry.
LB: Somebody said "Yell." And I was like, "Really? Geez, I hadn't thought of that."
GM: And it just clicked immediately?
LB: It really clicked. But it was refined for about five years and then it really worked.
GM: Did it help with your stage fright?
GM: Because you could direct it into anger?
LB: Yeah. Partly my stage fright was helped by the fact that I just ran this club and hosted show after show after show and I'd get up before the show and talk about theatre and the shows we were doing and why we were doing it, and I didn't have to be funny all the time, and I started to become relaxed with talking to people.
GM: And now it's completely gone?
LB: Yeah. I mean, occasionally it comes back. You know, going to Canada, there's always a little something. There's always a little trepidation when you're crossing the border because... But I've got less of it.
GM: Is it because you're worried about what we know?
LB: I'm not worried so much about what you know but about how I get across... That I'm not just sitting there talking about America in the sense of... Except that's what I end up talking about. Basically my take is... I ended the last few things I've done at the gala [in Montreal] by saying "Invade us. You got an army. We don't know what we're doing. Anytime we get close to having a real leader, we kill him."