Bernie's been our Cassandra, warning us about things to come, and people weren't listening to him.
“Every day these guys do something more outrageous. I just start yelling about this stuff, and there is my act,” says the comedian.
There is an old southern Italian saying: dobbiamo ridere per mantenere via le rotture (we must laugh to keep away the tears). Comedian Lewis Black not only believes this, but also practices it every day by making people laugh at the absurdity and hypocrisy that dominate modern American politics. As one of America’s foremost social satirists, Black caught the American public’s attention with his volcanic, hands-trembling, ticking-time-bomb-like social “commentaries on everything” in the “Back in Black” segment on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Here’s a sample about the Enron scandal: “You don’t want another Enron? Here’s the law: If you have a company, and you can’t explain, in one sentence, what the fuck it does, it’s illegal!”
Lewis Black was born fifty-six years ago to a middle class Jewish family in Washington, D.C. During the McCarthy Era and the Vietnam War, Black’s mother, father, and grandfather would condemn—loudly and outrageously—the government’s misuse and abuse of power. He told me his dad would say, during Vietnam, “If I knew it was going to be like this, I would have stayed in Russia.”
As a young man, Black first turned his creative sights on theater, namely as a playwright. Influenced by the likes of Beolco’s commedia dell’arte, Moliere, and Nobel Prize-winning satirist Dario Fo, Black would tackle every genre of theater, ultimately writing forty plays. While serving as playwright-in-residence and associate artistic director of the West Bank Cafe Downstairs Theatre Bar in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, Black began performing stand-up as an opening act and master of ceremonies before each play. Black’s theatrical background gave him a unique edge: He cast himself as both prankster and prophet in his own one-act show.
Black has recorded five albums to date, winning a 2007 Grammy for Best Comedy Album for The Carnegie Hall Performance. He is also a bestselling author (Nothing’s Sacred), star of two HBO specials, and an actor appearing in a number of films, from Hannah and Her Sisters to Man of the Year.
Fittingly, I first met Black at an event in New York City honoring Lenny Bruce and free speech. Some of America’s top comedians were slated to perform, including Sarah Silverman. Black was the night’s emcee but did perform a show-ending monologue that brought the packed house to its feet. Afterwards, when I spoke to him, he was not the raving on-stage persona that has caused many to worry for his physical and mental health but a subdued, thoughtful man who graciously offered to meet with me to discuss his work.
Q: You have often said that you don’t consider yourself a political comic but a social satirist. Why?
Lewis Black: The overall theme for me is social satire because my setup is information. I start with the person making a dopey statement like former Senator Rick Santorum saying that gay marriage and homosexuality are a threat to the American family. Then I tell the real story: How is this a threat to the American people? It’s a prejudice to believe that. It’s the same thing as remarks about Jews drinking the blood of Christian babies during Passover.
But the media doesn’t really report on things in a detailed and thoughtful way that allows people to understand what a particular piece of news is really about. For example, Dick Cheney took millions from Halliburton and put it in a trust. The Administration quickly came to Cheney’s defense, explaining that there is nothing really wrong with this and that there is no conflict of interest. The joke here is all set up through the information: The Vice President is the former CEO of Halliburton, a company that is receiving huge defense contracts for the war in Iraq. You either get to be Vice President or you don’t. You either get to keep the money or you don’t. So, by simple observational social satire you explain this to the audience and expose that yes, there is a clear conflict of interest.
Q: You describe yourself as a socialist.
Black: From the time I was kid, I saw the broader context of how we live here in the U.S. When I was twelve, I saw Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame and that was it. It led me to uncover the image versus the reality of how people live. I then learned to pronounce “apartheid” and saw the treatment of blacks here in this country as they struggled for civil rights. It made me question deeply and ask myself: How can people like migrant workers who are helping us eat not have a pot to piss in? I started learning about countries that have a “share-the-wealth” system and I said to myself, “There is nothing wrong with that. This makes sense.”
Capitalism’s problem is that it has nothing to say about how to combat greed. For all the moralizing this country does, people don’t get it: They’re greedy. And it’s gotten worse in my lifetime. You don’t even have to have socialism. I am talking about minimal things. Put money aside to fund playgrounds and high school football teams. Are you kidding me? The Grammy Awards has to make a plea to keep music in schools? I mean, what planet are we on? I guess I am asking another question in my work as well: What happened?
Q: What do you think happened?
Black: The false needs like the third house, the fourth boat, the most expensive hoo-ha. I might do, for me, two or three over-the-top things a year like get on a boat and take a cruise. I do that for a week and that’s enough. And now I have people that help me manage my money and recently my accountant said, “You need to do this to pay less in taxes.” My response was that I have been waiting my whole life to pay taxes. This is how it’s supposed to work. This is how we are able to fund the things that make this country work—like roads and schools.
Q: Your rise to the top of American comedians has coincided with Bush’s time in office. Is there a connection?
Black: Every day these guys do something more outrageous and full of hubris. There is a huge amount of material to pull from. You can’t even get to the joke. It could take weeks. I just start yelling about this stuff and there is my act. Like with this “nonbinding resolution” thing. What does that mean, nonbinding resolution? How did they even come up with that word? For me, it’s like if you went to a doctor for diarrhea and he prescribed Ex-Lax—-now that’s nonbinding.
Q: What do you see as the main problem of this Administration?
Black: As much as the problem is the Iraq War, there is a bigger problem: There are unqualified, incompetent people within the government bureaucracy. There are people who spend their entire lives working within government and are experienced and know how to run FEMA, the FDA, the EPA. You can find these people and they will do their jobs well. It’s the Administration’s job to find them and put them in these positions. This is what is called maintenance. What fell apart is maintenance. I lived around the government when I was a kid and I know it’s got many problems but you don’t elect people who don’t like government because that’s what they’re in charge of.
Q: I know that Dick Cheney shooting someone in the face while quail hunting was your favorite moment in 2006. What are some other highlights?
Black: The Mark Foley scandal—that is a joke that tells itself. A Congressman who is on the committee to protect children from sexual predators is himself a sexual predator. The flag burning amendment last summer was really absurd. We have five million other things to worry about and this is what Congress is going to spend their time on? Ridiculous. I mean, were people running out of briquettes for barbeques and began using flags? Then there’s the proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border but they don’t vote on the money to build the wall. And if we can’t build levees and homes anymore for people who have been displaced by Katrina, what’s our ability to build a wall? And of course the natural, obvious joke is, they are going to use illegal immigrants to build the wall. Well, wouldn’t you know that a company down there got busted for really using illegal immigrants to build the wall? It just goes on and on and on.
Q: How do you respond to those politicians who trot out the excuse for Iraq: “If we knew then what we know now”?
Black: Oh boy. Really seems to be a standard line of the Democrats who voted for war, like Hillary. It just screams of incompetence. It’s cowardly. What did they need to know? But beyond that, what was the reason to attack him at that point in time anyway? There was no reason, none at all. They could have spent a year working on it. They could’ve trained people to actually speak the language.
Q: What is your take on Hillary’s Presidential bid?
Black: I can’t do it. The first time around they did a basically decent job of running government and keeping a stable atmosphere in the country. But they created a psychotic whirlwind around themselves, and I’m not ready to go back to that psychotic whirlwind. And people may have forgotten, but Hillary destroyed any possibility of a government-run health care program. She should go away for a little bit. Even Nixon went away for a little bit. You don’t get things the first go around. You have to work for it. And granted, living with Bill is working for it, but it’s not enough.
Q: And Obama?
Black: Would a few more years’ experience hurt? I mean, he beat Alan Keyes, for God’s sake. A Doberman could’ve beaten Keyes. Now, I think Obama’s very good and very smart and may bring something fresh, but I am not comfortable with anyone that age taking office in this current political climate. Ultimately, what I would really like to see is a Republican and a Democrat crossing over lines and running together and saying, “Fuck you!” to the status quo.
Q: Who would you seeing doing this?
Black: I put Senator Chuck Hagel, who I think really gets it, along with, I don’t know, pick one. They’re all barking the same tune. The thing that’s great about Hillary and Obama—a woman and a black man—is that we can save face a bit with the rest of the world. But is the country ready for a black President? Are you kidding me? I’m in Greenville, South Carolina, and I haven’t seen a black face yet. I don’t know where they are—I think they killed them.
Q: Speaking about South Carolina, what about McCain?
Black: He gave up the ghost. He had his shot but Bush beat him senseless in South Carolina and now he has put his tongue so far up Bush’s ass it’s incredible. I can’t trust someone like that. If you want the Presidency that much, you don’t get it. On top of that, this kowtowing has allowed him to lose all of those things that made him interesting to both sides.
Black: You got to be fucking kidding me! He was my mayor and that was enough. Trust me. His arrogance as mayor was awful. “It’s me, it’s me, look at me.” I’m sick of it.
Q: How do you develop your manic on-stage persona?
Black: I think out my routine and it’s exhausting. I only have seventy-five minutes or so to get it out so I go all the way and just go nuts. It’s like a workout for me. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what I’m thinking when I’m on stage because I’m jumping up and down, yelling like a lunatic. I keep saying to people that the next time if I come back as a comedian I’m going to do it from a gurney with an IV drip.
Q: Many people are finding real news through fake news with shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Why do you think that is?
Black: I call this news by default. It starts with things like when The New York Times had to apologize for the lack of research they did reporting on the Iraq War. Whether anyone likes it or not, they are the paper of record and it was their responsibility to pay attention, and the reality is that they didn’t. And now it’s started again as they start quoting these “sources” in regards to Iran’s weapons. They report, “unnamed military sources.” I can’t believe they are doing this again. The New York Times said, and this is extraordinary, this is a much better presentation this time around.
Q: Finally, you are often criticized, just as Richard Pryor was, more for your use of profanity than the content of your work. Pryor’s response to this criticism was, “A lie is profanity. . . . A lie is the worst thing in the world. Art is the ability to tell the truth.”
Black: In the end, I don’t set out to do this. What makes me funny is my anger. I find many things every day that set me off. I really don’t search for the lies because nowadays you don’t have to look hard.
Antonino D’Ambrosio is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is the author of “Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer,” soon to be a documentary produced by Tim Robbins and Amnesty International. He is also the author of the upcoming “Politics in the Drums: A People’s History of Political Popular Culture.” And he is the founder of La Lutta NMC (www.lalutta.org), a nonprofit documentary production group.