With capacity crowds along his incessant series of international comedy tours, a 2011 Grammy for best comedy album, and the abiding respect of his peers in the world of comedy, what does Lewis Black have to be angry about?
Black’s comedy — the logical heir to the mantle of righteous disgust and anger that reaches back to the late Bill Hicks, Howard Beale’s “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech in the 1976 film Network, H.L. Mencken and the rougher aspects of Voltaire — holds within it the roiling seeds of drama and theater.
Writing hundreds of plays throughout the depths of the Reagan ’80s — fertile times for both indignation and theatricality — Black has developed his craft to such a honed finesse that he has become somewhat of a living laser of anger. A longtime alumnus of various Comedy Central programs – dating back to 1998, when the entirety of programming on that channel was seemingly devoted to stand-up comedy — he appeared most recently on an episode of Paul Provenza’s exemplary Showtime series about comics discussing comedy, The Green Room. Black spoke recently about the state of things today, as well as his natural state, and it’s not what you might think, even after all the vituperative shouting and caustic prophecy.
Is being angry your natural state?
I couldn’t be like that all the time. I need to take a nap in order to get that angry. I’m not always “on.” I wake up in the morning and look at the paper and get angry, then I calm down, and then somebody says something that’s just incredibly stupid and I’ll get angry, but most of the time I’m pretty calm.
You still get the news from the newspaper?
I get it from the newspaper and I get it from magazines, I get it from friends. I don’t spend a lot of time looking things up on the Web — I don’t like looking at things on a screen. I read a thing called The Week, which is a really excellent compendium of what’s happened over the last week. That helps catch me up.
Would you call yourself a principled person?
I wish. If I were really principled, I’d be doing something that actually would help! (Laughs.)
You don’t think comedy helps?
I know. People believe that. It’s tough to believe, when you’re a comic and you’re getting paid to run around and yell and scream about stuff, and I think it helps like insulation. It helps people let off steam; it helps people step back from what’s paining them in one way or another, be it real pain or just the pain of having to deal with daily life that’s becoming more and more difficult to deal with. But I look around at my world and I think there’s a lot of stuff . . . I don’t know what it is that I should be doing, but I feel like I wish I knew what it was that we all should be doing that would make us all a bit more principled.
Is comedy a calling?
Oh, yeah, we can call it a calling. I did it only because theater didn’t work out. I wanted to be a playwright. I was doing one-acts and full-lengths and went to drama school, majored in drama.
They say that comedy’s supposed to be much harder than drama.
I don’t believe that. Drama’s a bitch. Writing a play is so much harder than stand-up. It’s just beyond belief. There’s no comparing them.
So what are your principles? What do you stand for?
My belief is that there is something that we can call “the common good.” I think that it’s important that the group be given a little bit more than the individual, because I think that the individual needs their liberties and their freedoms protected, but what mainly is important is that as many people — look, it’s a really rich, wealthy country, and as many should be allowed, as humanly possible, to enjoy the fruits of that. You should worry about the less fortunate before you worry about the fortunate. There are simple rules, most of them are Jewish, most of them are basically Christian: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It’s all really simple to me. And greed should be pointed out and shamed.
Does comedy contribute to the greater good?
I think it helps in its own way, yeah.
Is there something that helps you keep from going completely cynical and into the depths of despair?
My friends, and the fact that I basically have faith that if you actually explain things to the American people, that they will respond. There’s an instinct in this country that is tapped into when it has to do with catastrophe. What Americans do when the shit hits the fan is beyond belief — and I believe that that instinct is never properly focused when there are long-term issues to deal with. They’re just as important. They [the government] just created a catastrophe.
The debt ceiling debate — the way in which they handled that completely undermined the economy. This really did it.
They took a fucking weak economy and kicked it in the nuts. Both sides should be ashamed — when they should have been focusing on the 9.1 percent who are unemployed. What they did is shameful. You’ve got 9.1 percent who have been unemployed for a long, long time, and both sides say they have a solution. Neither side has done shit.
Lewis Black will perform on Sunday, Aug. 21, 8 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For tickets and more information, call 449-2775 or visit www.toaks.org.