Lewis Black: Bringing the Rant Back to Erie
Black is back and he brought the rant. Vaillancourt talks to angry comedy legend Lewis Black in this issue's cover story.
My regular column, Upfront, has been appearing in the Erie Reader for almost 2 years now; after writing so many of them, I've found that there are some good ones, and some bad ones.
According to Reader reader response, the most popular are those in which I stick to a certain format, and a certain voice. That format – pointing out the obvious, making fun of it, and twisting it to the bleeding edge of bizarre – is something that comes natural to many people. That voice, however, comes from a different place.
We all talk a certain way, and sing a certain way, and laugh a certain way, and shout a certain way; we are all but products of our experience, oftentimes, without even realizing it. We are all influenced subconsciously by bits and pieces of the infinite daily minutiae that constantly stream past our head-holes – remembered without recognition, retained without realization, and recalled without resolution.
That voice is the sum total of every single occurrence we've been exposed to, amalgamated into a unique, original product, just as bricks become a building. The bricks in my building have names like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Mitch Hedberg, Andy Kaufman, and Steven Wright; but there was always that one brick whose origins were not quite discernible to me. That one brick, it stood out; it was odd, yet it made perfect sense. It was strange, yet it was familiar. It was loud, and solid; I recently learned that it was Black.
On Friday, Jan. 11, comedian Lewis Black will return to Erie's Warner Theater in conjunction with his "The Rant is Due" tour. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Black, who was gracious, affable, and but a shadow of the ranting madman you might think he is. But seeing as how this was no ordinary interview for me, I tried to find out more about the Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs behind the curtain, rather than recite what you all know about the booming boisterous Oz-like head spouting smoke and flame from the stage.
Cory Vaillancourt: It may be naïve of me to think this, but growing up in the Washington, D.C. area during the 1950s must have been idyllic, optimistic, and exhilarating compared to the D.C. of today. Agree?
Lewis Black: It was great. If you're going to be born and raised somewhere, that was a great place. You had all these people rolling in with the same purpose, and they were building out from Washington, so we moved into suburban Maryland and all of these houses were being built for people who were producing 2.2 children and it was really quite nice.
Instead of pandering to every child's individual needs, we had places to go to play baseball and do all sorts of stuff. Even during the summer they had… from 8 to 5 they had a recreational program a walkable half-mile from my house, and you go down there at 8 o'clock and you come home at 6… It was phenomenal. I can't imagine – I mean, we don't even try to do that anymore. Every kid has, you know, "They need to do this," or "They need to do that." Nobody was developing me to become a soccer legend. But I was playing softball and all sorts of stuff down there. It was pretty remarkable. I wish they could do it now.
CV: After graduating near the top of your high school class and attending the University of Maryland for a year, you switched to the University of North Carolina. What drew you to that school?
LB: They had what I thought at the time was a good theater program, but most of all, I wanted playwriting courses, and there I could actually graduate with a theater degree, which I was leaning toward, which nobody had anywhere, except maybe Northwestern. I chose to go to North Carolina because it was cheaper.
CV: And what was your experience like down there?
LB: I worked with a group of people there. We did a play that I wrote that became hugely successful, and then we found a theater in Colorado that was for sale, in Colorado Springs, and we actually went out there, and it was cheap – for a lot of reasons we didn't realize at the time [laughs] – so we literally bought this theater and a year later moved to Colorado Springs. I worked there for a year. I worked in the high schools, teaching theater; we had a theater group and we got to work at a high school and we did shows at the military base and at the college that was there, and we basically just kinda survived.
CV: What was it that motivated you to become involved in theater by writing plays?
LB: In retrospect, I have no idea. At the time, I liked being in the theater. I couldn't act, really, initially, or do anything else. You know, it's like doing a highfalutin math problem. There was something about that, something about the problem-solving aspect of it. But what's stupid about it is, in playwriting, you create a problem, and then you try to solve it. How f--ing… who does that? What kind of a moron puts themselves in that position of creating a problem, and then, in order to make it interesting, you make a problem that's f---in' practically impossible. I mean, playwriting is the equivalent of doing a puzzle and it's a thousand pieces, and it's all blue sky.
CV: Let's talk about that Master of Fine Arts degree you earned from one of America's most prestigious institutions of higher learning. What did you take away from the Yale School of Drama?
LB: What did I take away from that? If I was ever going to teach theater, I wasn't going to teach it the way those pricks were teaching it.
CV: Obviously a sore subject. Let's move on. The West Bank Café Downstairs Theater Bar [in New York City] during the early 1980s – can you paint a mental picture of that place for me?
LB: It still exists. There was a restaurant upstairs, downstairs it was a bar; the space sat about a hundred people at tables, and a really small little stage. It was mostly used for music – jazz and stuff. Then we came in and started doing plays, and the idea was that you could bring a play in – don't worry about the set or the costumes – bring in something simple that you can put up in here, and we did two new one-act plays a week for over 10 years.
CV: One-act plays have been described as the toilet paper of theater – you need them, yet you use them only once and then you throw them away. Do you agree?
LB: You do 'em, and you hope someone does them eventually, but very few people get their one-act plays done. They usually get done once by somebody, and then that's it.
CV: Perhaps that's for the best. So what kind of person makes that their life's work?
LB: We worked with writers like Aaron Sorkin ["West Wing," "A Few Good Men"] and Allan Ball, who wrote "True Blood" and "American Beauty" and "Six Feet Under." We essentially worked with anybody who became anybody, because if you were new in New York or only there a few years, there was nowhere to work, and we provided a space where people could work.
CV: Which playwrights influenced your playwriting?
LB: Chekhov, Beckett, Sam Sheppard, Clifford Odets. Those were the guys who really kind of got to me.
CV: Do you find them influencing your work today?
LB: Not on a big level, but probably on a storytelling level. Hopefully on a storytelling level.
CV: What about common themes in your plays – were there any? Perhaps that fairy-tale 1950s D.C. childhood?
LB: Not really. It was kind of like, you start writing something and then you just follow it out.
CV: Please explain.
LB: You know, one was, I had two characters, and they're up on a floor that's so high it has no view at all. It's two guys who are basically making a deal, and you never know what the deal is about, and it just gets sicker and sicker, what they're asking each other, and it ends up that the two of them are basically squeezing each other's nuts and screaming, "It's a deal!" Stuff like that. I wrote kind of dark, surreal comedies, at least initially.
CV: After discovering that your emcee work at the West Bank Café Downstairs Theater Bar was just as popular as your plays, you hit the road doing standup and then wound up on "The Daily Show." How did you luck into that gig?
LB: It originally came about because they needed people with material, and I had a lot of material and nobody really knew me. So they hired me to come in, essentially once every week or every two weeks initially – I don't remember – to talk about whatever I wanted to. And that was where it started, and that evolved into Back in Black [his recurring segment on "The Daily Show"], and it's continued to evolve.
CV: Many people forget that you've been on the show longer than Jon Stewart [Craig Kilborn hosted from 1996-1998]. How was working with Craig different that working with Jon?
LB: Jon is much more of a manager and producer and executive producer. He really is the final arbiter of what goes on the show and what the show should be. Craig was not as interested in that end of it.
CV: In addition to TV, you've done theater, standup, film, voice work, and authored several books – it's almost like you've done it all entertainment-wise. What's left? What would you like to do that you haven't done before?
LB: I'd like to write a piece of fiction – like write a novel, if I can. And then maybe write a couple more plays, and continue to tour until I feel like I'm not really learning anything, any more, and I'm not funny.
CV: What's funny is that here in Pennsylvania, we went for Obama despite notable republicans like Tom Ridge and Rick Santorum; Dems also made significant gains in our state legislature. What do you make of all this?
LB: I just think the pendulum swings back and forth. Democrats with Obama initially thought they had a mandate so they rushed out with their mandate and managed to push the Republicans further right, so the Republicans responded with their thing, and they won Congress and they started thinking they were the ones who the American people were looking towards. Then they pushed it too far, which both sides have a tendency to do, so now, that's the response. How many times can you listen to Rick Santorum tell you that he doesn't believe in evolution? That's fine, and that's a great thing to have if that's your religion, but that's got nothing to do with science.
CV: Speaking of ignoring science, Karl Rove was in town a few weeks ago, and I asked him if Republicans planned on moderating their archaic social agenda – gays, God, guns, weed. He basically said no. What's up with Rove's pendulum?
LB: Sometimes it doesn't swing back. Basically, you're going to be watching dinosaurs die. To me, it's like watching dinosaurs go extinct.
You've got a lot of white men who are my age, who should know f---ing better, who were taught these lessons when they were kids, and if they didn't get it when they were kids, certainly by the time they got into college, shoulda known that you can think certain things, but you don't say them aloud. And they continue to want women to be in a certain position in society; they continue to trot out these things that, when I was a kid, that was the beginning of the end of that nonsense, of all of that madness. It's not gonna happen.
The white man is going bye-bye. That's the deal. They'd be better off, seriously, refrigerating their sperm and having people buy it, so that white men can continue on the Earth. You wanna refrigerate the sperm and the ova, then you might have a case for yourselves. The ballgame is over in that sense.
We are a country that is diverse, and gets more diverse every minute, and it's called tough shit. And just because you want to lay down a certain amount of rules to ensure that people act like white people, I don't know what they're thinking, to be honest. But a lot of that social agenda is nonsense. A lot of it's based on religion. You can certainly – at your place of worship – talk about it all you want, but you live in the world, okay? You go to church on Sunday, and you live in the world.
CV: And what a horrible world it is; can we ever go back? Can we ever go back to that time when being an American was more idyllic, optimistic, and exhilarating?
LB: Yeah. I think we're smarter than that. Where you see it now the most is when there's a catastrophe. I don't know of any other people on the planet [that] when there's a catastrophe, everybody responds to it. And at some point, I believe that instinct will hold true. They can't seem to get rid of that instinct – that people do want to care for each other. As much as rich people want to get richer, there's a whole bunch of people that want to care about each other, and I think that will win out. Because as we've been told time and time again, you can't take it with you.
Lewis Black performs at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11 at the Warner Theater, 811 State St., in Erie. As of press time, a limited number of tickets remained. To order, visit www.ErieEvents.com.