Comedian Lewis Black: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Not the Answer
The journeyman comic—and longtime socialist—opens up about the opening of the National Comedy Center, political correctness run amok, and our thin-skinned president.
If there were ever a time for fiery, finger-stabbing political rants, it’s now. And few do it better than Lewis Black, whose belligerent, profanity-laced style and nose for satire have made him an indelible voice on the comedy scene since he debuted on The Daily Show over two decades ago.
These days, in addition to popping up on Trevor Noah’s Daily Show for his hilarious “Back in Black” segment, tussling with old pal Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, performing stand-up, and doing occasional voice work (like the role of Anger in Pixar’s Inside Out), the 69-year-old is on the board of directors of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York—a non-profit that bills itself as “the first state-of-the-art museum dedicated to telling the vital story of comedy in America.” He’s joined on the board by the likes of Carl Reiner, Jim Gaffigan, Laraine Newman, Paul Feig and many more.
The Daily Beast caught up with Black to discuss the state of the Trump administration (and comedy) and much more.
The National Comedy Center will open next month, which is very cool. There aren’t too many museums dedicated to comedy. What makes this such a valuable institution?
Well that’s what makes it valuable, I think. Somebody had to take a shot at it, and this was a good time to take a shot at it. Technologically, certain things can be done in terms of presenting comedy to people—such as interactive exhibits in which they can see a variety of comics in short bursts and clips, as well as the history of it. And where comedy is culturally in the zeitgeist, I think now is kind of the sweet spot. There’s a lot around, and there’s a big interest in it. And it’s not just about satire; it’s about all of it. It’s about movies, it’s about animation, it’s about TV shows, it’s about radio shows. It’s the whole history of comedy.
When you say that now is the right time for it, this presidential administration does seem to play a part in that. Comedy has taken on a heightened role during the Trump era, granting people relief from the day-to-day chaos.
Right. But the other thing is, I’ve been working on [the National Comedy Center] for like two years, since Kelly Carlin decided to leave her dad George Carlin’s stuff with them. Then I went up there and did a performance, and then they took me through what their plans were. Even at that point, there had already been this comedy explosion. And now, we have a place where somebody who really wants to be a student of comedy can go and study the history of it. If you want to study art, there are a million art museums.
You’re participating in a panel there following the grand opening, “Comedy and the First Amendment,” that’s dedicated to your idol Lenny Bruce. Do you feel we’ve learned our lesson from the saga of Lenny Bruce, or that there’s still a certain amount of policing going on when it comes to comedy that’s unsettling?
I mean, what’s weird is the president seems to have learned the lesson. He seems to be learning the language. It’s amazing how the backlash against him is sometimes less when he says things that are utterly appalling than the backlash on comics who are trying to find the context to tell a joke.
You’ve also got the Trump administration censuring Michelle Wolf over her White House Correspondents’ set and calling for the firing of Samantha Bee over a joke. It’s so odd, given that Trump ran on a platform of abolishing political correctness.
It’s really on both sides, though. Both sides have that neurosis. There’s the political correctness on the other side that also does its own policing job, which is really astonishing. At times I’ve thought, “Really? It’s coming from the left? Are you serious?” It’s astonishing because it’s like, we don’t change the world, assholes—we’re comics. People don’t go, boy, I listened to this comic last night and now I’m going to completely change my lifestyle. I saw a comic last night and now I’m going to give up my guns!
Comics can inspire social change though. Look at what happened with Hannibal Buress and Bill Cosby.
Yeah, but that’s kind of a different moment. Although it’s an important moment. And the other thing is, there’s people who sit around and are critical of what a comic does, or says. Do you have nothing else to do with your time? And what are you watching this stuff for? And it wasn’t directed at you. Sometimes, certain things are said and it’s put out online and repeated thousands of times, and that wasn’t the purpose of it. Social media comes into play in that framework.
Do you think people are more critical of comedians these days because there are a lot of comedians that are really blurring the line between comedy and political commentary these days? If you watch Bill Maher’s show now, most of it is straight commentary. The intro and outro aside, it more closely resembles a cable news program than a comedy show.
That’s true. In essence though, he’s still got six writers that are looking for the joke. They may not find the joke, but they’re looking for the joke. And I know a lot of the guys who are writing for him and they’re looking for the joke—and he’s looking for the joke. And a lot of it does get lost, because we’re living in a time of—and I said this a lot as the election was taking place—how do you satirize something that’s already satiric? So what sounds like commentary is actually just repeating the cards that have been dealt because you haven’t found a framework large enough to encompass this.
I wanted to go back to Lenny Bruce and the First Amendment in comedy. You ran into your own First Amendment controversy of sorts back in 2000, when you were arrested for that Opie and Anthony bit “The Naked Teen Voyeur Bus.”
Oh, that was just silly. What was so silly about it is that, we’re on this bus and the concept is that we’re driving around topless girls through the City of New York with the idea that what we’re doing is expressing freedom of speech. First off, you can already be topless in New York State—it’s legal, so that was ridiculous—and driving a bus of topless women around was not so much an expression of freedom of speech but more about how you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie house, but can you yell “FUCK!?”
What was weird was to be arrested. And when we were held [in jail] for a chunk of time, that was the end of me and Rudy Giuliani as far as any feeling I had about him because it was like, are you kidding me? They put us in jail overnight, about six of us—Jim Norton, a producer, and the girls. When we went to trial, before they could even get through what we did the judge went, “There’s much bigger things to do. You’re not guilty. Please get them out of here, this is stupid.” That, in the end, is what you hope the court system is there for. You hope the system of laws comes into play because the Democrats, Republicans and whatever we have now don’t really come into play. They just make us insane.
It’s still surreal, as a New Yorker, to see Trump as president. I remember an early episode of your show Root of All Evil where you pitted Trump against Viagra, with the late, great Greg Giraldo as Viagra winning out over Trump. And now ten years later he’s POTUS.
And I did this thing on The Daily Show in 2012 where we joked that what we needed was a crazy third-world dictator and so it was time to elect Donald Trump. And who knew!
Did you think we missed Jon’s perspective during the election? That if we had Jon at The Daily Show desk during the 2016 election it may have changed some minds?
I don’t know. I know he would think that anyone who thought that was insane, but I don’t know if it would’ve helped or not helped.
How are you containing your considerable rage under President Trump?
I approach it from the standpoint of finding the insanity of it. Now, so much has been coming up that I’m like, OK, you’ve gotta just pull the Band-Aid off. Enough is enough. You can’t tell me that Canada is my enemy. You can’t tell me that Europe is somehow my enemy. You know how I know they’re not my enemy? Because I go there a lot. That’s where I need to fucking vacation, OK? And a lot of people I know come from some part of Europe. We can’t go back to this Pat Buchanan mindset where we think Europe is being undermined by immigrants. I mean, what planet are you on?
There was the recent Helsinki summit where many believed that Trump capitulated to Putin. Do you think that Trump is compromised? Do you think Russia has something on him?
I don’t know. I do kind of have a sense that there’s something that went down in terms of deals. He wants a hotel there, or he wants something there, or there might have been a money-laundering thing. That kind of stuff. And he has this insane concept of deals. He thinks he’s making a deal with [Putin], but you don’t make a deal with him.
He paints this image of himself as a strongman and a master dealmaker, but he’s recently been played by both Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin. It’s strange that more of his followers can’t see that.
A lot of those people aren’t paying attention to that, what they’re paying attention to is that he’s scaring Congress. A big reason they elected him is because they wanted him to kick the shit out of Congress. They finally wanted to go, “Fuck you!” But if you want to pick someone who’s gonna blow up Washington, you have to pick somebody who at least knows where to put the dynamite. Because a lot of the time he just holds it in his hand and it explodes.
You still identify as a socialist, right?
There does seem to be some momentum when it comes to Democratic-Socialist candidates, with the election of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Does that at least give you a glimmer of hope?
No it doesn’t, because it’s not going to happen. The one thing I’ve learned in my lifetime is that we’ve got to get to the middle before we start pushing things in other directions. We’ve gotta get to the middle, and they have to sit down and decide how to do things.
A lot of people in the Democratic Party aren’t willing to go to the middle, which is a big reason why Hillary lost. You had 12 percent—possibly more—of Bernie voters who voted Trump. And I don’t see how the Democrats align those two factions of their own party.
Yeah, I think you’re right. What I’ve always said about the Democrats is that, if they’re given a sword or a spear, instead of using it their immediate instinct is to fall on it. You know?