“I wish this were a funnier interview.”
You can’t exactly fault Lewis Black for reverting to pure discontent when discussing the big news of the day. Last Friday saw the release of Pixar’s latest masterpiece Inside Out, in which he suitably voices the red-hot emotion of Anger. He had never expected to be tapped for a Pixar summer flick.
“Not in this lifetime, at least,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Mostly, it was shock that they wanted [me]. I was stunned.”
But in the time that he’s been helping to promote the film, the 66-year-old comedian was—like so many others in this country—busy following the news out of Charleston as it unfolded on live TV.
“I was utterly appalled. When does it end?” Black says. “It reminded me of the bombings of the churches I saw on the news [when I was a kid]. You watch that on TV on a regular basis, it has an effect on you. And to see it again on an almost even more primitive level, or on its basest level? One kid, walking in with a gun, and sitting with them,” says Black.
“It’s almost easier to accept, ‘Well, he wants to kill these people. He’s gonna go in and shoot them.’ Not sit down with them! At a prayer meeting. Talk about a level of detachment from reality and empathy. That’s the bitch of it: Just when you think [America is] over this kind of shit, we’re not.”
Black can vividly recall the days of his youth when he did what little he could for the civil rights movement in radical 1960s America. One summer during his time at Yale, he and a “number of other very white, very middle-class kids” would regularly form a human barricade in front of the Black Panthers’ New Haven headquarters, just in case the cops swung by to harass the Panthers.
“The Panthers would always come out and yell at us,” Black wrote in his 2005 memoir Nothing’s Sacred. “The idea behind [that summer in New Haven] was that if we could appeal with simple intelligence to the American people about the war, civil rights, and economic justice, we could change their minds... Yep, obviously we were nuttier than fruitcakes.”
After all these decades, Black is still trying to talk to—if not bark, swear, and yell at—the American people about civil rights, war, and economic justice. But now he’s a world-famous comedian who moonlights as a “voting rights ambassador” for the ACLU.
In the waning years of the Bush administration, he embarked on a comedy tour called, “Red, White, and Screwed.” He feels we’re all in similar shape today.
“At some point, some adult somewhere in the room has to stand up and say that this kind of nonsense has to stop in terms of the amount of time and money we spend electing people,” Black says. “This is nuts. For a country that doesn’t want to spend money, we want to spend an awful lot of money watching a group of idiots learn how to become presidential in front of us.”
Black sees himself moving further away from the process each election cycle because it “pushes [him] over the brink.”
“Yeah, I can write funny about all these guys. I mean, I don’t even have to write funny about them, because they’re going give me the stuff. They’re gonna hand it to me,” he says. “‘Donald Trump is running for president.’ That’s already a punchline. That’s the joke! The joke’s done!”
Anyone who has listened to Black do stand-up knows he is not one easily enamored by politicians or presidential candidates. One of his old jokes, after all, goes like this: “A Republican stands up in Congress and goes, ‘I GOT A REALLY BAD IDEA,’ and the Democrat says, ‘AND I CAN MAKE IT SHITTIER!’”
And he never really caught Obama Fever, either. “Nobody makes a better speech,” he says, “but I don’t think he spent enough time down there dealing with those jackasses in Congress.”
But at least for the 2016 election, he does have a candidate he might be able to get excited about: Bernie Sanders.
“I’ve said from the beginning that I’m a socialist,” Black says. “And now I have a candidate running: Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination, which is a little upsetting to me, because I wish he’d just say, ‘Fuck ’em.’ But that’s the way of the world.”
Black recognizes that there’s “this big fear of socialists taking over the United States,” but he says the worry is “a form of dementia.”
“We have no party. There’s like seven of us. I’ve got no meetings to go to. So I’m excited. I’m mostly excited that he’s just stating stuff that needs to be reiterated that the [Democrats], basically, don’t reiterate. And it’s in terms of financial inequality,” he says.
Looking out across the landscape of American politics and American war, the passionately angry (or angrily passionate) Black says he seeks too many of the same things he desired from the last administration—and the administration before it.
He wants Social Security fixed. He wants the federal government to invest more in infrastructure and education. He wants immigration reform passed and signed into law. And Black—yep! still!—wants the hell out of Iraq, where he has traveled to perform for the troops.
“At this point, I wish we really would extract ourselves,” he says. “What in the name of God are we supposed to be doing there at this point? They’re just beating the shit out of each other based on some tribal stuff that goes back thousands of years and some words in the Quran. I mean, come on! I just don’t like to see [American troops] there anymore. As scared as I am of ISIS, I’m as scared of the people who think they know what to do. Lindsey Graham, the Joint Chiefs—I don’t think they know what to do anymore…Lindsey Graham, we’re gonna go over there? What? What are you gonna do, Lindsey?”
For a minute, I wondered what other thoroughly depressing topics the comic and I could talk about—besides war, ISIS, and racist mass murder in South Carolina. So, naturally, Bill Cosby and sexual assault came to mind.
“What does it take? How many women have to speak before people say enough is enough?” Black asks. “But he wasn’t a father figure to me, in terms of comedy. I really didn’t pay that much attention to his comedy. He was always, like, too slow for me. I could never get into him. He would always talk about how the use of profanity for a comic was cheap. So my reaction to that was, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
It's the politically depressing and infuriating stuff which Black frequently revisits in his act, anyway. He’s constantly on the road and isn’t anywhere close to kicking the habit, even in the years that he’s really started thinking about death.
“The places [in America] that are really great to play are the places where they’re really thrilled that you showed up,” he says. “You show up in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, you’ll get a crowd that’s really ready to roll. They’re laughing just because they’re out.”
But unlike some of his fellow celebrity comics, Black hasn’t fallen out of love with playing college campuses. Recently, comic heavyweights such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have said they don’t perform at colleges anymore because of millennials’ overbearing sense of political correctness.
Well, if Brandeis and Berkeley can’t book Seinfeld or Rock, they can always give Black a call.
“I think that some [college kids] are too politically correct, but I don’t think that it’s a sweeping thing,” Black says. “If I feel it’s in the audience, I just go after them. I just go after them for what they’re trying to pull. You don’t pull that kind of shit at a comedy show. I just turn it around on them… When I walk onto a college campus, I know there are certain things—and I never know what it is—where they’re not gonna laugh the way other audiences laugh. And as soon as that happens, I go right after them and tell them why they missed the joke, and why it doesn’t apply. And that they can take that bullshit and go leave it at the door—and I explain it to them.”
Here’s Black’s exact strategy for handling a sensitive crowd.
“I go, ‘Here’s the words you stopped at. I can tell you precisely the words you fucking stopped at. You stopped at this word, and you went and made a judgment, and you didn’t hear the whole thing.’ Which means you don’t even know if it’s politically correct. When you walk into a comedy show, you leave it at the door. Ninety-eight percent of comics working are cognizant of the mores of the times, but they will go to the edge. That’s our job! If we don’t go to the edge, then what the fuck are we useful for?”
Black gets why his peers might want to avoid young, sensitive, coddled students nowadays. But in doing so, they’re missing out on potential educational opportunities.
“If someone doesn’t want to [play college campuses], I can understand that,” he says. “But I have not felt that deep-seated sense of political correctness. I see kind of uptightness. There are things they get a little uptight about, but I don’t see it as an overriding thing. When I play pure college audiences, you can use it as a time to [teach]. You know, I’m not going out there to teach stuff, but that’s something you can teach them: to lighten the fuck up!”
That’s right. After all this time, Lewis Black—the goofball comic—is still trying to “appeal with simple intelligence to the American people,” even if those people are a gathering of touchy college kids.
Who knows? Maybe he was even able to change a mind or two.