Submitted by Glenn McDonald — Correspondent
A 30-year veteran of stage and screen, Lewis Black has carved out a particular niche in the world of comedy. His dispatches on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart have won Black a huge and loyal following, and at age 65, hes still one of the hardest-working guys in show business.
Black who graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1970 tours constantly and, by his own estimate, does between 150 and 200 shows a year. He won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2007 for The Carnegie Hall Performances, has authored three books, and has had several guest roles in TV and film over the years.
Blacks stage persona, as the perpetually angry and hyper-articulate outraged citizen, is so singular that it could be copyrighted. But in real life hes a mellower soul, casually friendly and given to gentler versions of his trademark curmudgeonly rants. Speaking from the road in Kansas, Black talked about North Carolina politics, his current stage show and the enduring comedy of court-martialing chimpanzees.
Q: So youre in Witchita?
A: Beautiful Witchita.
Q: You studied at UNC and still have a home in Chapel Hill, too, right?
A: Well, more of an apartment than a home. But yeah, I have for about four or five years. I spend most of my time on a tour bus, but I spend five or six weeks down there.
Q: Is there a particular theme or format to the show youre touring now?
A: Basically, the theme is swinging somewhere between When did stupidity become popular? and Watching dinosaurs leave the Earth. Thats referring to people my age who just never seemed to get it. They seem to be wanting to hold on to the way it was, but it was never really what they thought it was, anyway. The whole thing its just time to move on. Time to let somebody else do stuff. We were miserable at it, my generation.
Q: What are your feelings on our current federal government gridlock?
A: Its gone from bad to worse to fiction. I mean, this is fiction, what were seeing. You know, they used to write books about What If? Well, this situation were in is a What If. What if you just elected a group of seriously defective people, who have no idea how to lead, and theyre all there at the same time? Along with a president who doesnt get what a president is supposed to do?
Q: Do you get involved much on the local level, when youre down in North Carolina?
A: Well, I just did Charlotte and really, if I had any brains, Id leave the road now and just do comedy in North Carolina. Id be set, with what these people are doing. Actually, Im working with the ACLU right now on voting rights stuff. I hate saying the ACLU, because people get psychotic around that word.
What North Carolina did with voting rights is really. I mean, Ill talk about it when I get there. But, you know, really? In a country where its hard enough to get people to vote, youre going to make it more difficult? Thats not the idea. That was never the idea behind voting. What theyre doing, its really criminal.
Another thing thats going on there in North Carolina: The fact that a classroom can have up to 60 students, thats ridiculous. I think you only get to pass that bill if youre willing to go into that class twice a week and teach. Its crazy.
Q: Youve written three books. Is there a big difference for you, crafting material to be read on a page as opposed to performed?
A: Oh, yeah. Well, for one thing, I dont write anything down for what Im performing. I generate the material on stage. What happens is I work on it and work on it onstage, and after about a week, it comes around.
If I have an idea, I work it out, then come back the next day, find two sentences that work, drop the rest, come back the next day with three sentences. The way I keep notes is I just write down the key words. Ill switch up the sequence and fool around onstage. Eventually things fall into place, and that becomes the bit.
Q: Is that the same way you work out bits for The Daily Show?
A: No, The Daily Show is written, I work with the writers there. Generally, the idea of whatever Im going to be talking about comes from the folks at The Daily Show.
Q: You recently hosted a History Channel special on the history of the joke. Are you much of a comedy scholar?
A: I kind of did all that as a kid. I watched a lot of comedy. I didnt think Id end up doing it, I just liked it a lot. I watched all the guys come through The Ed Sullivan Show. I had Bob Newharts albums, Shelly Berman. All of them. Jackie Vernon. Name a comic, I knew them all. Myron Cohen.
I watched stuff like Amos n Andy. This is probably not politically correct, but personally, as a kid, I never saw that as a racial thing, a racist thing. That show was on at the same time as Sgt. Bilko, and to me, they were the same thing. You had the guys that were conniving, and the dopey people they were conniving over. They were all working-class people, and they were able to create that comedy within four or five characters. It was all seriously well written.
The greatest TV episode ever made, in my mind, was on Bilko when they inducted a chimpanzee into the Army. This monkey gets accidentally inducted. Because of all the rules, they couldnt get him out. They had to court-martial the monkey. Spectacular. It affected the way I look at authority.