The Rant Returns to Erie
Lewis Black Discusses his New Tour, Working with Pixar, Global Warming, and Ferguson
During a recent appearance on Meet The Press, Lewis Black described himself as a "social satirist." Once you get him talking politics, it's easy to see how he fits the mold: He's sharp – both intelligent and clever, which he demonstrates in his ability to discuss politics and football in the same breath to make an analogy for how he sees the arenas of both through a thoughtful, comedic lens.
The Grammy Award-winning comedian is also self-aware, having recognized the angry reflection in the mirror and learning to not just trust it but to capitalize on it. A D.C. guy who got his start in theater as a playwright, Black, 66, found fame as "that angry guy," with his touring stand-up routine and appearances on Comedy Central with his Lewis Black's Root Of All Evil, and on The Daily Show with his "Back In Black" segments.
In fact, Black's mastered the 'angry guy' thing so well that he's starring in Pixar's upcoming Inside Out as character actually named Anger.
And he's still angry. About Ferguson. About the health care debacle. About politics in general and the fate of the world.
But at heart, he's an optimist because he rants. And he rants because he cares, because he hopes other people out there care, too.
We talked about all that and more – like whether he'll campaign for president – and what audiences can expect when his current tour, The Rant Is Due: Part Deux, comes to Erie Friday, Jan. 9.
Ben Speggen: The last time you were in Erie, it was Jan. 11, 2013. Do you have a thing for Erie in January? July's pretty nice here – lots of sun, warm temps, great opportunity to hit the beaches.
Lewis Black: [Laughs] It's part of my agents trying to see if they can kill me. To be honest, though, we roll through in January or February because when July comes, nobody in Erie wants to be indoors. You guys are like 'Oh, hey, the sun's out! F--- being inside!'
BS: [Laughs] You know us all too well! You're no stranger to voice acting – having worked on shows from Duck Dodgers to Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law. You're back at it in Pixar's Inside Out due to hit theaters in 2015. What draws you to voice acting?
LB: They asked me to do it, I like it, and it's fun. I don't get movies. I did three movies, and for some reason, I didn't get any more movies, so this is a way that I can act. And I think I have a voice for it, and they seem to think so, too. There's another one coming up, but I can't talk about that yet because they're still putzing around with it, but it's another big, animated featured. But I'm really excited about the [Pixar] movie and this experience.
BS: It really seems like Pixar can't miss. What was it like working with that studio?
LB: It's phenomenal. They approached me five years ago and said they wanted to do this, and they sent me the initial drawings of what they saw as my character; then, they came and saw me when I was out performing and said, 'Oh we went and saw you and this is great!' so after that, they really tried to base my character and the animated figure around that. The first year-and-a-half, really nothing happened and then I started going there every six months to work on it.
It's the one place I've been where you don't see the entirety of the creative process at once, where instead you watch the whole of a creative process. You don't get that anywhere else, because there you're watching the people do the voices, watching the studio create the characters, and seeing them write the story, so that you get to see them create the background and see every step of the way and see why they make certain choices.
BS: Given your brand, it seems like a natural fit, but how did you feel about being a character whose actual name is "Anger"?
LB: It was funny. You create your own destiny, really.
BS: After listing your occupations, Wikipedia's first bit of information about you is that you're known for your 'angry face'. Do you feel like the industry's typecasting?
LB: [Laughs] You basically typecast yourself. I certainly can't complain about it, you know? What I can complain about the industry, though, is the whole idea that you come up with the one thing they'll be looking for – like especially early on when I was touring clubs. They're thinking 'We need to find an established character that we can put into a sitcom!' and they didn't know where to put me. They had no idea! [Laughs].
I did one or two different pilots a year and people were writing things for me for fifteen years, and a couple of them got done but most of them didn't – they were like 'Nah, we're not interested'. So I had established this character, but I think I'm more versatile, and there are other things I can do – I mean, I can be a prick, I don't have to yell to be a prick [Laughs]. I've found things outside of that mold, but that's the mold and it's made me a very good living.
BS: Do you feel like you're mellowing out as you get farther into your career, or is the world just aggravating you even more now than ever?
LB: It gets worse [Laughs]. Part of it is really trying to get the anger focused. But I have to let the audience in on the fact that I'm angry, but I'm not angry at them – I mean, I play it, and I have to find ways to respond – in a way that still makes sense – to the things that I see. And the things that I see are getting more and more appalling.
BS: I think it'd be easier for people to peg you as a pessimist given the nature of your delivery, but I sense optimism in your tone and in the fact that you're still ranting – possibly hoping that people are paying attention and that things will change. Would you agree?
LB: I do. I think that I'm optimistic. You can't be angry if you believe that something better is out there, and I believe it's out there. I believe that – at least in a half-way – that there's a basic goodness in the American people, and I know that, because every time a catastrophe occurs, without the government asking, without anyone saying anything, a whole bunch of people get in their goddamn cars and drive across country to people they don't know to help them out. It's unbelievable.
BS: Like I'm sure many of your fans did, I came to be familiar with your work and style because of The Daily Show. Your knack for taking political and social issues and churning out such concise, rage-fueled commentary was really refreshing. I can't help but ask you for your thoughts on Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland.
LB: It is unbelievable that we've been working under a Grand Jury System. Most people – hell, I didn't know how exactly a Grand Jury works – I don't think most Americans know that. And the fact that the legal profession and leadership allowed this to go on? How do you that? It's unbelievable. To think that this hadn't happened before? That it takes this to bring it to our attention?
BS: Your current tour makes stops in those cities. Do you talk about Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland?
LB: To be honest, I haven't been able to. The key word here is 'timing'. I haven't had the time to take the thought and make it funny.
BS: That reminds me of the clip on The Daily Show after the Staten Island non-conviction in which Jon Stewart said that if comedy is tragedy plus time, he 'needs more f---ing time'. How do you know when enough time's been enough time with something like this?
LB: It's when I can process the thought and make it funny to the audience – and that's something I just don't know here. When I know something's funny, I go out and say it immediately, but I'm slow here. I have to get the thought first and then think: 'How can I get people to see this in a funny light?'.
BS: Do you think we'll ever come to see any of this in a funny light in terms of your style of political satire?
LB: There's nothing funny in and of itself, but once you remove it from its context, you can make light of how stupid we are. Not about the deaths. Not about the police. But just how stupid we are in terms of how we operate.
BS: On to a cheery topic – you recently compared President Obama to Washington quarterback RGIII.
LB: [Laughs] Yeah, I did!
BS: Do you think we were excited in Obama's campaign the same way scouts were excited in RGIII's college career, and now that they've hit the big leagues, do you think they were busted picks, aren't living up to their potential, or are just in the wrong systems?
LB: I think, in regards to RGIII, he's mobile, so he needs to learn how to play ball that way. He needs to decide what kind of quarterback he wants to be. But I think Obama needed – in the same fashion... Okay, here's part of the problem: The Republicans punched him and ran at him immediately, saying from the very beginning that they weren't going to allow him to do anything. That was their game plan. But what he needs to do is to figure out how to do a rollout, how to drop back for a Hail Mary. That's the way it works with what they're doing. You have to work against a scheme like that.
You can't work with the majority of congress – you made that choice; you went with health care and that's what you're going to get because you're working in extremes. Finally, we have some shitty package of health care stuff that hopefully some day will evolve into a good package of health care stuff.
BS: Do you think the changes to America's health care will be seen as Obama's greatest accomplishment while in office or seen as his greatest bumbling?
LB: I think the accomplishment is big – whether it'll be seen that way, I don't know. I think he blew off a lot of stuff by doing that, but we needed to get that done at some point. Everybody else has it – I'm serious! When the rest of the world is looking at you, going 'are you kidding me?', you know?! If the United States was a person sitting in a classroom surrounded by so many other people going 'What the f---'s a matter with you?!' That person has to take a moment to self-reflect.
BS: Okay, let's cut to the chase: You're smart, politically savvy, an optimist, outspoken – what are the chances we see the Lewis Black campaign to fix the mess in Washington?
LB: Nope. I don't want to sit around with those people. I don't want to talk to those people. I have no interest in that. When I was a kid, I wanted to do it. But I ended up on this route. But when I was a kid, these folks actually worked together, you know? And both sides had the same picture of America – and that made it work.
BS: Growing up in D.C. and witnessing that collaboration, when do you think that change occurred?
LB: I really can't place it in time since it slowly evolved – or devolved – to this. In part, it's because of the very genuine anger of the American people feeling disenfranchised. There's more and more and more disconnect in my lifetime between the people and the people who represent them. These people who live in Washington live in a bubble. They've always kind of lived in a bubble – they sat there when I was kid and looked out on Washington and saw the worst slums in the United States and didn't lift a finger. Nothing. So they've always been kind of disconnected, but now it's just astonishing.
I know about disconnected. I'm on a tour bus. I go to a place, they drop me at my place, I get out of the tour bus, go into a hotel. Then they're gonna pick me up in a car and take me to a theater and then I get back on the tour bus and go back to the hotel. And then in the morning, I'll do the same thing again. Over and over again. Then eventually I'll get into a car that'll take me to a plane that'll fly me home, and I'll get in another car and eventually start again. That's a f---ing bubble, and those people live in that goddamn bubble and they need to get out of that f---ing bubble. And I find that that has to be the thing that I have to do.
BS: How do you get out of that bubble then?
LB: I live in New York, so the bubble gets burst [Laughs]. If I'm not stuck for time – and I try not to be stuck for time – and as long as it's not cold as tits outside, I go take the subway or get on the bus.
BS: The media – CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, etc. – get a fair share of blame. How are they affecting the bubble? Are they inflating it, popping it, ignoring it?
LB: I don't think they're helping. Do those media help? No. I'm tired of them. I need a channel that gives me a fact. I'd like to have a channel that during one day just repeats one fact and that's what they do for 24 hours. Here's a fact!
BS: [Laughs] I think you should start that channel.
LB: These stations now can then do their opinion of that fact, and they can base that on a different set of facts, like CNN can bring up three guys who tell us what the facts are and they'll all be completely different. This is the problem, though. Your interpretation of the fact can be different – like, Global Warming is either real or it isn't real – and we know the answer here. If 96 percent of the world's scientists are telling you one thing, chances are it's true – a fact!
Another thing is, just pay the f--- attention! If you've been on the planet, you see it. If you really believe in the Bible, God gave you a garden you're supposed to attend to, you f---ing moron! There's a reason that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a great fairytale, because it's true!
BS: [Laughs] Okay, seems we could go on for hours, but I don't want to hold you up. You're back with The Rant Is Due: Part Deux, the follow-up to your very successful The Rant Is Due tour. What's new this time around, and what can people in Erie expect from the show?
LB: There are different topics, like mental health, for instance. I took a trip to Europe, so I got to travel a lot this year, so I talk about that and how it allows me to get away from this other nonsense. I can be funny without being angry, per se. But I'm really trying to put the rest of this stuff into context.
The other things that we're doing, though, is that the last fifteen minutes the audience can ask questions or comment by sending them in, and I address them at the end of the show.
BS: Where can people get their questions and comments to you?
LB: TheRantIsDue.com. And they'll be told before the show. And we'll be streaming this out, so you can get it on your phone, your laptop, and more. It's high-quality.
BS: Mr. Black, thank you for your time. We can't wait to see you in Erie.
LB: You're welcome. It's going to be a delight; I really can't wait to get frostbite in 2015.
Lewis Black will perform The Rant Is Due: Part Deux at the Warner Theatre, located at 811 State St., Friday, Jan. 9. For more information about the tour and tickets, visit The RantIsDue.com and ErieEvents.com.