When news first broke that Lewis Black would be appearing in ABC’s new miniseries about Bernie Madoff, one couldn’t help but hope the enraged comedian might portray the world’s most devious Ponzi schemer. Alas, that part went to seasoned actor Richard Dreyfuss while Black has taken on the role of Gregory Perkins, a composite character who manages to avoid jail time despite funnelling billions of dollars to Madoff.
The Madoff series comes smack dab in the middle of a busy run for Black, who stood out as the short-tempered Anger in Pixar’s Oscar-nominated Inside Out last year and is currently performing on a national stand-up tour in which fans are encouraged to submit their own video rants for him to play onstage at the end of each show.
On top of all that, Black expects to return to The Daily Show for one of his classic “Back in Black” segments next month, though even he doesn’t know what he will be ranting about this time. Despite all the changes on that show over the past year, Black remains its longest-serving contributor—he made his Daily Show debut 20 years ago, when it was still being hosted by Craig Kilborn.
When The Daily Beast spoke to Black last year, he had some very positive things to say about Bernie Sanders. With the Iowa caucuses around the corner, we caught up with him again ahead of the Madoff premiere on Feb. 3. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What can you tell us about the character you play in the new mini-series about Bernie Madoff?
I play one of the pricks.
And how did you approach playing that character?
I was just more of a prick than I normally am. [Laughs.] No, I didn’t have that kind of part. I wish I did have that kind of a part, but I got to wear a yarmulke, which is always a treat. I hadn’t done that in years. So I could feel truly pious and [like] a prick.
You’ve joked in your stand-up act about how the Bernie Madoff saga is stranger than fiction, and too good to be true given his last name. What makes this story such a perfect encapsulation of American greed?
How do I put this? The triumph of self-confidence. If I appear to be, if I look like, if I’m confident, if I’m more confident than the guy in front of me… But it’s also the whole concept we have of acquisition at this point. It used to be keeping up with the Joneses, when I was a kid. Now it’s like keeping up with the military-industrial complex. “Boy, I hope I’m doing better than a third world country.” What level of madness is this? Donald Trump’s run for the presidency is in a way of the same cloth. “I’m so confident, you don’t even know what to do with me I’m that confident.”
You see similarities between Trump and Madoff?
I’m not going to go there, because then he’ll go, “I saw this thing in The Daily Beast, this son of a bitch Lewis Black…” But what I do see is the idea that there’s something inherently important about making money to certain people. More important than it is to other people who have other values. As a friend of mine said, you don’t see Trump’s name on a hospital or a college.
I believe you’ve just done one “Back in Black” appearance on The Daily Show since Jon Stewart left. How do you think Trevor Noah is doing so far?
I think it’s a hell of a task. I think he’s doing as well as can be expected. It’ll just take time. It’s like, I love what Stephen Colbert is doing [on CBS]. Stephen, who is already a seasoned professional, is having to overcome his other show [The Colbert Report]. And I think he’s certainly moving it in that direction. It’s just going to take Trevor that kind of time. It’s a huge transition. He has to find his voice and the show has to find its voice. In the end, it’s going to end up being based on his point of view and his sensibility.
Well, there is certainly plenty of material to work with in the 2016 race. Which of the candidates is infuriating you the most these days?
The one that I found most astonishing is Ben Carson. How does Ben Carson become a legitimate candidate? I just don’t understand it. I literally don’t understand it, at all. “I was doing surgery one day and I thought, gee, you know, I could be president.” What?! What I’ve learned from him is that if you speak softly, in a reasonable tone, and you close your eyes so that they’re just a third open, much like a lizard you might see baking in the sun, you can say any batshit crazy thing you want and people will find it reasonable.
Well, it’s really extraordinary. Stuff will come out of his mouth and you just have to say, “No, that’s it, you’re done.” In the same fashion, Republicans can talk about it, and do all their rigamaroles and jump up and down, but they’re the ones who wanted Trump. You made the pact with the devil when you let Trump run. The Republican Party did not behave like adults in terms of the Tea Party. And now they’re getting Ted Cruz running as a result. And then Trump was going to bring eyeballs. And as soon as Trump said what he had to say about Mexicans, that should have been it. Who allows someone to run for the titular head of your party after he comes up with a comment that is basically, for all intents and purposes, let’s say 70 percent racist? And then it takes them 45 things later to be like, “Now you crossed the line.”
He seems to be testing the waters too, because this past week he said he could go in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any support.
I wish he would shoot me. If he’s going to shoot someone, get rid of me if he’s going to win. My real take on it is what we see with Trump is what we saw initially with Palin and then Trump and Palin together. What we saw is precisely the intersection of reality and satire. I can’t be funnier, as a comic, than what’s going on. Years ago, I’d say “Michael Jackson” and the audience would laugh. Now, my opening act goes “Donald Trump” and gets a huge laugh. I come on later and go, “Donald Trump” and it gets a huge laugh. It’s all you have to say.
As of now, the GOP side has turned into a battle of Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz. Which of them do you think would be worse for the country?
They both would bring a certain amount of baggage, I think they’re equally bad for the country, in their own special ways.
Which do you think has a better chance of becoming president?
At this point, I would say Trump. Every time we come back to this point in time, every four years, somehow Iowa and New Hampshire become the center of the universe. And somehow I don’t really buy that. I don’t think ethanol is the most important thing on earth right now. We’ll see what happens, but to me it’s skewing the election this time. And the other thing is the 16 candidates didn’t help. People always go, you’re a Democrat. I’m really not, I just don’t like them. I am a Bernie Sanders supporter and it’s only because it’s the first time I’ve ever had a candidate. I’m a socialist. I finally have a candidate and he’s not going to win. Why? Because he said he’s a socialist.
But are you surprised to see him out-polling Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire?
No, because it’s just fatigue with her. She’s been in front of us for so long it’s like watching my parents, who are married forever. My parents have been married 70 years, I don’t think they hear a word each other has ever said. After a point, you don’t hear it. The same thing occurs with the president. By the time Obama took office, we’d already seen him too much. They are in our face 24/7, it’s ludicrous. Nobody can survive that. Except, apparently, Kim Kardashian.
You memorably portrayed Anger last year in Pixar’s Inside Out, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature. Will you be attending the Oscars?
No, I think if we had been nominated [for Best Picture] we might have. But they told me at least, that the cast doesn’t get invited. That may change, but I think the chances are slim.
What do you make of the boycott by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith?
I can understand why they want to boycott it. I also think what really needs to be done is to look at the voters, most of whom are older and white. The boycott will help. If nothing else, what the boycott did was get these idiots and the press to finally pay attention to who’s voting. This has gone on for a while. I don’t know if Straight Outta Compton deserved [a Best Picture nomination]. I do know that there are certain movies that I’ve seen that I think should have been nominated, before this year, that never got nominated in terms of black-themed motion pictures. But what else is fucking new? Did Mad Max get a nomination?
Yeah, for Best Picture and a bunch of other awards.
See, that’s the one to me that is really beyond my comprehension. I really think that is the most senseless nomination I’ve seen in quite some time. It was what you call a chase film. It was like an old Western. “They’re coming after us, we’re gonna get to this next town. And once we get there, oh no! Now we’ve gotta go back.” What kind of a fucking—it was like watching that game where you try to run to the base without someone tagging you. What the fuck kind of a movie is that? You compare that to Straight Outta Compton and that’s the one you nominate?
Some people are calling for Chris Rock to pull out as host. Assuming that doesn’t happen, what are you hoping to hear from him?
I think he couldn’t be in a better position. I think his being in that position is as strong as a boycott. For him, it’s stronger, because he can go after it, because of how fucking funny he is.