Lewis Black: That Time ‘Dictator’ Donald Trump Went After Me Over a Joke
The comedian and sometime Daily Show ranter opens up to Asawin Suebsaeng about the time Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump really, really lost his cool.
Comedian Lewis Black can still remember his days dodging Donald Trump’s angry phone calls. Black had just gone on TV and mocked Trump’s political ambitions and his business—and in doing so likened him to a Third World despot.
“There’s one candidate who’s got me really excited: Donald Trump!” the comedian said (sarcastically and satirically, given Black’s socialist politics) during one of his recurring segments on The Daily Show. “Now, you might say he’d make a terrible president. I mean, the guy bankrupted his own casino. A casino! Where the house always wins! Unless it’s Donald Trump’s house.”
“What this country needs is a crazy Third World dictator, and Donald Trump has what it takes to be that,” Black continued. “He’s already got a plane with his name on it, solid-gold buildings, a harem! … He’s even got the look of a dictator! Now, is [Trump's] hair any less crazy than [Kim Jong-il’s] hair? And he’s got what every good dictator needs: a ridiculously over-sized ego … This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life! A president who’s not afraid to tell the truth—about being a lying asshole.”
This wasn’t in the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, when the GOP nominee has become accustomed to being labeled an authoritarian or even fascist. This was back in March 2011, just as Trump was starting to transform himself into a national political hero of the far-right—particularly the anti-Obama, racist birther movement.
The Daily Show segment was cheekily titled “Trump 2012,” and Trump, apparently, saw it and wanted to give Black a stern talking-to.
“I did a piece about him in 2011 on how what America needs is a banana republic dictator,” Black told The Daily Beast, during the last weekend he had to prepare before launching his latest Broadway run. “His assistant called my assistant, said he wanted to talk to me. At first, it was like, ‘What? Why would he call me? No one ever called me about anything I ever did on The Daily Show. So I said I was too busy and couldn’t talk to him. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m a comic, he’s an entrepreneur—a businessman. How is it that I’m more busy than he is? That’s unbelievable.’”
But Trump persisted. It seemed as though he really, really wanted to chat with the stand-up comic who had made fun of his failure of a casino, compared him to murderous tyrants, and knocked his hairdo on Comedy Central.
“A call came the next day—and I just said no,” Black recalled. “I didn’t want to talk to him to legitimize him. That’s how I felt… If I accept his call, that legitimatizes him. And I didn’t want to give him any little sense of legitimacy that I could have given him by answering the phone.”
Black says he’s only had one other personal interaction with Trump: a similarly unpleasant New York experience that took place roughly 10 years ago at a star-studded Manhattan gala.
“I have been within 10 feet of him at an event I was working, for some book event, at the [New York City] museum—the big one, with the fucking whale thing. And he was upset because he didn’t get the right table. He was yelling about it.”
At this point, the 68-year-old comedian has been writing and performing jokes about Trump for nearly three decades. The only difference today is that Trump is now one of only two people with a legitimate shot at becoming the next leader of the free-fucking-world.
“When I first arrived in New York, I did a [TV] special…and I talked about Trump then,” he said. “Back then, the banks of New York City bailed him out, and I went berserk. And I didn’t even know him then.”
And his opinion of The Donald—as a vile, destructive rich-kid, and woefully immature force in American culture—hasn’t changed all that much since the ’80s and ’90s, give or take an adjustment or two for racial outrage.
“It’s appalling and it’s disturbing,” Black said, when asked about the Trump campaign. “And with a whiff of racism in it.”
A lot has changed since I last spoke with Black in June 2015. For one thing, Trump was still something of a joke-candidate to pundits, reporters, much of the public, and the so-called, nebulously defined “establishment.” The smart money was still on Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, or whoever. The Muslim ban, the Muslim registry, the “humane” deportation force, going after the families of terrorist suspects and the other war crime proposals—that was all still mercifully in our futures. The actual, real-life nomination of Donald Trump to become the new standard-bearer of the Republican Party wasn’t a thought Black would have entertained. “Not even after too many afternoon drinks, I never would have thought this was possible,” is his phrasing.
“Yeah, I can write funny about all these [candidates],” Black told me last year. “I mean, I don’t even have to write funny about them, because they’re going to give me the stuff. They’re gonna hand it to me: ‘Donald Trump is running for president.’ That’s already a punchline. That’s the joke! The joke’s done!”
But the joke’s on Black and all other voters who feel that they’ve been handed the miserable choice between The Donald and Hillary Clinton.
At least Black—the famously angry comedian (to the point that he was tapped to voice the character of “Anger” in Pixar’s 2015 film Inside Out)—now has a new Broadway show that he can use to vent his frustrations.
On Monday, Black returned to New York’s theater district for his first installment of “Lewis Black: Black to the Future,” a series of shows at the Marquis Theater that concludes in October—shortly before Election Day. The shows, comprised of mostly new material, will focus on just how pissed off he is about this election, Clinton, Trump, and more Clinton, and yet more Trump.
“It’s the right time, this is really when it starts,” Black said. “What we’ve been doing is a ludicrous exercise that no other country on this Earth has any wish to do to itself. No one. Nowhere else on the planet tortures themselves in this fashion. NOBODY! And we’ve never nominated two people distrusted this much, or disliked this much. Never. Again, this is not the way it’s supposed to work!”
And Black’s views on Hillary Clinton (both Clintons, actually, if you rewatch his act from the ’90s) are far from flattering.
“There seems to be a lack among the Clintons where there’s a lack of common-fucking-sense,” he observed. “The deeper problem with Hillary is that she never went away. As Shakespeare put it, familiarity breeds contempt. It was him or somebody else. It’s been too long.”
Still, the bespectacled, highly political comic has no idea who he’ll pull the lever for in November—only that the candidate’s name with not be Donald J. Trump.
“I’m being pushed by Trump to vote for anyone else, maybe someone of another species,” he said, dejected. “If push comes to shove, yeah, I could see voting for her. But I’m certainly not going to be happy about it … But once he said Mexicans were raping, and pillaging, and stealing our avocados, the ballgame was already over for me.”
For now, Black maintains that there is roughly an equal chance of him voting for Clinton as there is of him writing-in “Pillsbury Doughboy.”
“That’s a candidate I can get behind,” he said. “There’ll be biscuits, and chocolate chip cookies, at least palpable things I can hold on to. Until the rest of the country fixes itself, at least I’ll have a snack.”