This interview with Lewis Black ran in the Oct. 2010 issue of HIGH TIMES.
In the classic film Network (1976), news anchorman Howard Beale screams to his TV audience: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The line instantly became a national catchphrase expressing our deep dissatisfaction with our government, our leaders and, sometimes, our lives.
Comedian Lewis Black has taken Beale’s sentiment and elevated it to an art form. No standup performing today has connected to his audience in quite the same way; Black’s anger and frustration illuminates our own. In the end, he makes us laugh at ourselves—at our maddening inability, or even unwillingness, to alter our condition. Ergo, the expression: “So funny it hurts.”
Lewis Black feels your rage. In June, he released a new DVD, Stark Raving Black, and in November his new book, I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas (Penguin Publishing), will be on the shelves. Which just goes to show that Black humor is now in vogue.
HT: Your mother was a teacher. What did she impart to you about education?
LB: Her thing was that you have to stay on top of these kids: “You go in there, you got to stay on top.” She was really funny. I think the thing that was interesting about my mother was that she started teaching in a district when it was still a segregated school system. She was teaching in a black school; she taught math. How she’d teach was, basically, they’d pretend to have $100, and she said, “I want you to spend the hundred dollars,” so they would see the practical side. Her whole thing with education was, in the end, it has to be practical. Connect to the person.
You were in college during the era of antiwar activism in the ‘60s. How do you view modern college life?
As far as activism, everybody is kind of like, “How come they’re not doing this or that?” The thing I think people miss: There is a huge difference fighting a war with a volunteer army, when you have done everything you can to separate the mainstream of the country from the war itself. It’s a buzz in the background. Most people don’t know somebody in the military. I mean, I didn’t—not until I did the USO Tours. I had friends who were in Vietnam, but I didn’t have a friend who became a military person. So to expect them to rise up like college students in the ‘60s…
On a practical level, they went out and got Obama elected. They were the whole drive behind that. They seem to have more of a sense of what needs to be done in the community—I think. I am hoping. They are fairly bright—I know from the questions they ask me, they are very insightful. I’m just hoping they do a better job than we did.
You’re huge on college campuses. What’s your take on modern college life?
I was in a fraternity for a year, and I went back and wanted to see what had changed—and nothing changed. When I was there, it seemed that half the frat was doing drugs and the other half was getting drunk, and we would watch each other. Weird!
It’s the same thing now: guys walking around with a gut, with four Budweisers hanging from the plastic thing, walking around sashaying it as if it was a purse. It’s the same group.
But they seem to be smarter than we are. I hope so—I really do.
Do you believe the US is on a downward spiral?
I think we’re like a Slinky—it makes a lot of noise, and it’s always kind of the same. My mother said it, talking about the racism we see in the Tea Party. She said, “I don’t know why you people are shocked—it’s not like these people went away. They’re still there!”
People want big, sweeping changes like the civil-rights laws, but you’re not going to have big, sweeping change. For every step we take forward, we take two steps back. We don’t get much brighter. It’s just appalling. Most of it is exhausting to watch.
If you were God or president, what would you do first?
If I were president, I would make education a priority. Everything follows—they still don’t get that. As God, the first thing I would do would be to put my finger in the hole in the Gulf. Then I would strike dumb Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. If they didn’t talk for a while, it would be really good. I don’t want to kill them—I just don’t want them to have words coming out of their mouths.
How do you perceive the government’s war on pot?
One of the attractions of pot is that I can smoke it and be an outlaw—in my basement! I don’t know if it’s the superego of an entire culture stepping in—“Whoa! These people are having fun! We have to step in!”—but it’s out of control. It got crazy, to no effect. You got these guys racing in over the border bringing in bags of weed. They’re running around shooting it out in the streets in Kingston, Jamaica, because of our fear of drugs.
You wonder, if pot were legal, would meth labs have risen? If pot had been legal, would there have been crack cocaine? You got a really perfect drug—coca leaves—that you can chew and get a buzz. It’s perfect. No! Then you grind it up into this stinky little powder that gives you an anxiety attack. It’s crazy!
You’re not a pot smoker anymore. Tell us about your marijuana history.
I remember the first time I smoked, I think, was with my friend Stanley, who has since passed away. I didn’t really smoke until my freshman year of college. But we had all done this research. We were doing all of this research in chem class for papers that we never did. We were just preparing.
I smoked up and through graduate school. I actually stopped for a while my first year of graduate school—I was writing a play. I got to a point where things were going so well, I decided to just have faith that everything would work out: “Stop the going nuts; you’re getting some kind of message. Just pay attention to what’s in front of you and you’ll be fine.” It worked. It really worked. I couldn’t smoke. That lasted eight or nine months, but I went back to pot.
Then I had a traumatic marriage and divorce and got really depressed—and really upset. I was going to Yale Drama School at that point in time, and the words “emotional wasteland” don’t even begin to describe it… I came out of the divorce and went into the dean of students’ office and said, “Since none of you have any comprehension of where I am, I want nobody bothering me for the next year. If anybody gets in my face about anything, I am holding you responsible. I just got out of this divorce, and none of you know how to deal with it!”
I was really troubled, and I didn’t really know what depression was—I had never really been depressed. I was sleeping and smoking in bed; I would wake up and there would be holes in the bed. I had no interest in anything. It was a total depression. So I came up with what I called “dope therapy”: if I could just stay high, I could find interest in the things around me. I had to figure it out like a puzzle… so if I stayed stoned all the time, it would allow me to interact better. I would have to stay on my game, act like I was normal. So I would wake up in the morning and roll like six or seven jays. Most people who do that become slackers—the guy who doesn’t come out of the basement. My idea was the opposite: “You’re going to go out there, you’re going to be involved with people, and you’re going to be stoned to the tits!”
I would be with my friends and say, “I got to go smoke some dope before my next class.” I didn’t burn the bed anymore. I kind of became fascinated with stuff—it kept me in the game, kept me involved. Eventually, “dope therapy” worked, but it killed my taste for pot.
The intriguing part of the story is what happened after I quit. I was back in the game, my brain had clicked in I spoke my mind better. The same dean of students that I told to stay away brought me in. He told me, “A lot of the teachers think you’re stoned.” I said, “Are you kidding me?”
That was when I knew it was bullshit—as far as the state of mind pot puts you in, they hadn’t a clue. I had been ripped to the tits and nobody said a word. Then I get straight and they think I’m crazy!
I saw you years back at the West Bank Café in New York city. As a comic, you were a bit more jovial than you are now.
I introduced the acts, so I was always a little more charming. But I was doing my act one night, and this comic, Dan Ballard, came up to me and said: “You know, you’re really angry, and you’re not yelling. You got to go out onstage and start yelling. I’m yelling all the time, and I got nothing to really yell about. The next joke, I just want you to yell it!”
So I went onstage and started yelling. It was really that simple: Fucking idiot! It was real stupid, because when I was sitting around with my friends and go off and get pissed, it was funny. But it never connected with me.
Are you aware of your wild hand gestures and pointing fingers?
It’s not really conscious. Maybe a little bit—like about 10 percent. But I remember playing the Trop in Atlantic City years ago, and I was coming up the escalator and people were going down, and they were pointing at me—the finger stuff—and I was like, “What the fuck is that?” I was told, “They’re doing you onstage.” And I went, “I don’t do that!” And literally, the next time I was onstage, I was like, “Fuck, I really do do that!”
The only thing I really choreograph is working out where I’ll go when I’m telling a story, where I’ll walk. But physically, I haven’t a clue.
Too mad to pay attention to the ladies?
Peter Gent wrote in North Dallas Forty that being a pro football player was like being a standup or an ad executive: You fail in front of crowds of people—or your clients. Can you relate to that?
Now that I know I’m a pro football player, this interview is over! As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’m earning enough money—and my knees are starting to go.
I never heard that before. I think it’s a pretty good analogy—the risk, in terms of that; it’s how you learn. It also relates to football: With standup, you learn when you fail. It’s the same in theater. What kind of a horrible fucking life I that, when you have to fuck up in order to learn?
I always felt that the analogy is really like boxing—learning to box with your hands tied, and the audience is just pummeling you. After the fight, or the set, you’re like, “If I had lifted my right hand up there, they wouldn’t have hit me in the face.” The big lesson for me was that you have to have confidence. There is no way out of it—you just have to fake it, even if you don’t have it.
How often does that Zen thing occur onstage, when the audience is completely on your wavelength and you’re able to create new material on the spot?
It doesn’t happen enough.
Bob Saget told us he’s never really sure what he’s going to say onstage.
He’s a liar! He’s always been a compulsive liar! In fact, I’m gonna call him—I am going to send him a fucking note and tell him he lied to you!
But he probably does. Most of us don’t. I’d say 80 percent of my act, I know what I’m going to say, and the other 20 percent I wing.
How does that moment of discovery feel?
It’s the heroin of it—it’s what keeps you addicted. What’s really stupid is how long it takes to learn it. But in the midst of it, you get the buzz—like the heroin addict who doesn’t really know where the vein is, then all of a sudden they hit the vein and they’re like, Ohhh! As you progress, you start to hit it more. Then it becomes more than the laugh—it becomes more about the discovery onstage. You get totally at one with the audience. You’re their voice. That happens, if you’re lucky, once a year.
What was your reaction when Joe Rogan slammed Carlos Mencia for stealing material?
Here was my response: Joe had a legitimate case—it was his stuff. A lot of comics have talked about Carlos in that respect. Joe was pissed about it, and he had a right to get that angry. I barely remember my own act, let alone somebody else’s to notice if they stole something. One of my friends over at The Daily Show called me up and asked if Carlos ever stole from me. I said I didn’t think so. The next week, he opened up his show with a bit of mine. Apparently, he didn’t even take the best part of it.
How does that make you feel?
I don’t like it.
But your style can’t really be imitated.
That’s the thing, but sometimes there’s only so much stuff you can talk about. You cross over. My friend Greg Geraldo was doing some stuff recently, and I was going on after him, and I went, “Wow, we’re talking about the same thing.” But he took a different point of view.
I went into Catch a Rising Star, and my friend John Hayman was onstage. I used to do a thing about the stealth bomber. Now, we had not seen each other in 10 years, but he did the joke exactly how I did: “If you’re going to have an invisible bomber, just tell people you built it—why waste the money?” Word for word!
Who really makes you laugh?
Gandhi has always been a buzz for me.
I think my opener, John Bowman, is a funny man. Give him an hour, he has got no conscience—he will go off on whatever he is thinking of. Joy Behar is really funny. We broke in at the same time. I don’t even know how she does it—she takes the talent on her show and turns a corner with it. She had the head of the Tea Party on. How do you even do this? I’d like to know. She’s funny with them. I get too angry.
I like Dave Attell, Louis CK… I was on a plane and Don Rickles was sitting in front of me, and he just tore me! There’s a list of about 50 of them. I like Carlin and Pryor, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart—all those guys. I should mention Larry Reeb; he’s out of the Midwest—fucking brilliant! He just stays doing clubs and says, “Fuck it.” He has a real audience and continues to come up with new stuff.
So what’s on your mind now?
I have these new ideas for the country. One of them is just split the country in half and we’ll have a contest and see which side wins. The left can practice all their stuff, and the right can practice their stuff, and let’s see which side does better. The other idea—Rand Paul [the GOP senatorial candidate in Kentucky heavily supported by the Tea Party] questions the Civil Rights Act and says maybe we should reexamine some of the provisions for the handicapped. A lot of people still want it to be 1956. I think we can take two or three states and call it 1956, and they can all go there. There probably won’t be many blacks or Mexicans, so they can have their white society just the way it was—only no cell-phone towers, none of the technology that we’ve had since then… it’s 1956!
You’re someone who thinks deeply about things. How would you describe what we’re experiencing here on earth?
We’re experiencing hell, and when we go, we go to heaven. It could be…
The best thing I’ve heard to describe things–because I don’t think there is a way to describe what we’re going through—was said by the late newspaper columnist Art Buchwald. He went into the hospice to die, and he wouldn’t die. He said, “People always ask, ‘Where are you going to go? What’s out there?’” And he said, “I never really wondered what’s out there; I have always wondered why we’re here.”
I think we’re supposed to be here to have a nice time. There is enough here, there is enough for everyone to have—except for a nice room like this. But whatever it is, I don’t think we’re doing it. We’re doing it ass-backwards.