Lewis Black on Bernie Sanders, Voting Rights and The Root of All Evil

Lewis Black headlines the Bellco Theatre March 19.
Lewis Black headlines the Bellco Theatre March 19.
Courtesy of The Emperor's New Clothes Tour

Lewis Black is a thoroughly astute political satirist. Assuaging righteous outrage with laughter is every comedian's noble goal, but Black rises above the majority of his peers (at least those without their own eponymous television programs) with his keen analysis of social ills. Star and co-creator of Comedy Central's dearly missed debate series The Root of All Evil, Black is never better than when he has a point to prove and a fire in his belly — so it's fitting that his most high-profile film role to date was as the unmistakable voice of Anger in Pixar’s Inside Out. Black has settled into his role as the elder statesman of The Daily Show, where his "Back in Black" segments have outlasted the tenures of former hosts Craig Kilborn and Jon Stewart and have been a highlight of the still-young Trevor Noah era; he's also published three best-selling books beloved by fellow atheists, including Nothing SacredMe of Little Faith and Black Christmas. But he hasn't given up standup, and he'll be back in Colorado this weekend on the Emperor's New Clothes tour, with a fiery new hour of jokes. In advance of those shows, we caught up with Black to discuss the fate of The Root of All Evil, the absurdity of the 2016 elections, and why he's supporting Bernie Sanders. 

Westword: You’ve been closing your shows with a sort of multimedia Q&A session during the Emperor’s New Clothes tour. What sort of questions do people ask you?

Lewis Black: Everything that I talk about in the act. Hillary — a bunch of it is political. What do I think of Hillary, what do I think of Ted Cruz, and then I yell about Donald Trump. Why is it so insane?

Is there a challenge in writing jokes about an election that’s already so absurd?

It’s not a challenge. It’s not even a job anymore.

The jokes write themselves?

They don’t even write themselves. It’s all already written. You don’t have to do anything; you can just repeat what they said. The classic example: I’m looking at CNN right now, and there’s Sarah Palin with Donald Trump in the background. That’s what I’m looking at; they’re on the news. How am I supposed to make that funnier than when she opens her mouth? To prove my point, on SNL, they don't even have to write things for Tina Fey to say in character as Sarah Palin, she just repeats what Sarah Palin already said. That's it. Ballgame's over. 

Do you think political comedy can influence discourse? 

I really don't know. I think what it can do is allow people to step back for a second and realize, "This too shall pass." 

You take a lot of direct political action. You’re a voting-rights ambassador for the ACLU. Does doing that sort of work alleviate the existential crisis that comes from watching all this mania unfold?

No, it doesn't alleviate anything, other than helping me. Look, at some point you've gotta draw a line in the sand. You don't screw with people's right to vote; you just don't do it. I lived through the period when they restricted people — then and now, it's just a step too far. 

It's more dire than a lot of people realize, I think. The Voting Rights Act was overturned by the Supreme Court, and there are all these new voter-ID laws.

It's hard enough to get people to vote in the first place, and now you're going to try and prevent them from voting? Really? The amount of voter fraud in this country doesn't begin to justify what is essentially class warfare.

They make it really hard to vote in the primaries. 

Apparently not for Republicans. They're coming out in droves. They can't get to the polls fast enough. They've never been happier in their whole lives. 

The voter-ID laws do generally benefit Republicans. They're passed in gerrymandered districts. Fewer working-class people showing up to the polls generally helps their candidates.

It helps whoever's in power. The Democrats are no saints when it comes to gerrymandering; I mean, it's horrific. After voting rights, gerrymandering and Citizens United are the issues that make me wonder, "Can they really get away with this?"

It would be comical if it weren't so sad. I wanted to ask about The Daily Show. You've made over 300 appearances, outlasting each host so far. Was there ever any question as to whether you’d continue doing the "Back in Black" segments into the Trevor Noah era?

Yeah, but they wanted me, and I wanted to keep doing them. It's not like I have another TV show. And, you know, I like doing it. I wish I could do more of them, but I'm always traveling, and they're busy doing the show. So it's tough for us sometimes; it's like shooting a rocket and trying to hit an asteroid. I was on this past week — I've been on twice since he started — and I expect to be on once every few months. It's different, but it's been fun. 

How involved are you in the writing process?

I'd say more now, so that's been good. They still pick what the subject will be, but I contribute much more now than I did before.

Like during the Kilborn era? 

No, in the middle of the Stewart era. I'd basically just perform what the writers had prepared for me. There was an executive producer at the time who just a complete asshole. So it wasn't worth it for me to try and come up with stuff because he was going to cut it, anyway. He never got the fact that my attitude is part of what makes me funny. 

Seems like he's missing the whole point of the "Back in Black" segment.

It really is.

What about Root of All Evil? What happened to that show? It seems like that debate format has been repurposed into all these live shows because there are so many ways to spin humor out of it. And you had great guests; it was disappointing you only got two seasons.

Well, that was just the brilliance of Comedy Central at that point. They put us on in the summer and the numbers went down. They blamed us for that, when the problem at that point was that people don't watch TV during the summer. A chunk of our audience was college students watching in their dorm rooms, and we kinda knew that. So when they said, "What happened with the ratings?" we were like, "It's summer." 
One thing that I did learn from that experience is that the problem with doing any new show is that it takes time to get comfortable with how the show will evolve each week. And we had evolved to the point to where I thought the next season could've been our best. We were finally there. The writers knew the comics, the comics knew the writers, and the whole thing had started to mix very well. Everybody had their places. We got over all the initial humps and I knew what I wanted to do. And then they wanted me to come in and pitch the show again. 

Really?

I have problems with authority, so that was the end of that. I was not going to go in and pitch a show that had been on for two seasons. 

Why pitch the show when it already exists? Couldn't they refer back to an episode that had already aired?

Yeah, I wasn't going to go in there and talk to them about it; I thought it was insulting. I put in a lot of time and did a lot of press for that show. If nothing else, you had this really strong roster of comics. Patton Oswalt, Greg Giraldo, Kathleen Madigan, Andy Kindler, Paul F. Tompkins and Andy — what's his name? He's got his own show now, the redheaded guy? Damn it, his name escapes me.

Andrew Daly?

Andy Daly! Thank you. I mean, who's kidding who? That was a tremendous group. If Comedy Central had come in with another idea, that would have been nice. If they wanted to talk about revamping, I would have gone in and listened to their ideas. But to say that I gotta come in and describe it for you? Fuck you. What they're saying is, "We never really saw the show." 

It's pretty discouraging that network executives wouldn't even watch their own network

It sure is.

You spend over half your year working the road now. Do you find that touring means more freedom and fewer insults?

In terms of working in this business, it's the ultimate freedom, in a sense. If you don't get the TV show, if you don't want the TV show, you can walk away. There's always standup. You always have someplace to go. 

Do you think your touring schedule has changed your relationship with your fans? Like, they're coming to see you because they thought you were funny last time rather than just a guy they recognize from television?

Yeah, I think that's changed. I mean, I've been crisscrossing the country for over 25 years, hopefully that's changed. I've had people come up to me after shows who tell me they've seen me eight times. They've followed me from the clubs to where I am now. 

Do you travel with a feature act?

Yeah, a guy named John Bowman. He's been with me since the beginning — since we started doing theaters. 

Have you had to work with random openers and not enjoyed it?

No, it's not that so much. He and I just get along really well. We've been friends for a long time. He was a writer on Root of All Evil. When I first went on the road, he was the one who took me. He was the headliner and I was the middle. He's also a really fine actor. We started working together back when I was running the West Bank Cafe. So I've known him forever.

It's funny that the roles have switched back and forth over they years. 

Like I said, he could be a headliner if he wanted to. I'm just glad he's not ambitious. 

As an avowed socialist, are you supporting Bernie Sanders this election?

Yeah, but it's mostly just because I'm thrilled that he's running, that I've got a socialist running for president. I don't agree with some of what he's pushing for, but his critics are morons. They're saying that it's unrealistic to try and get free education, but it's a negotiating stance, you fucking morons. If Ted Cruz can say, "We're just going to get rid of Obamacare" — like they haven't been trying for years — then Bernie Sanders can say he wants free education.

If the past eight years have showed us anything, it's that the opposition is going to hit back against middling compromised positions just as hard as legitimately progressive ones. 

Republicans won't even mention Bernie Sanders's name. They literally spit the word "socialist" out as if they were chewing bad meat. But it's like I finally have a candidate. Do I think he's gonna win? No! But I'm not upset about it, because this is the first time in my life that I've had a candidate. And what, now all of a sudden he's going to win? But somebody in the party has to say that this is absurd, you know? If the Republicans are going to believe that changing the tax structure is going to somehow create jobs, we need an opponent to point out how the gap between them and reality is insane! It's like a Marie Antoinette gap!

At least they had some noblesse oblige back then. They made pretty things.

They made some very pretty things and they wore nice clothes. 

Anything else you want to mention before we wrap up? 

Well, I'm going to be doing the new Woody Allen TV show for Amazon.

What's that called?

Um, the Woody Allen TV show for Amazon? I don't know what the title is, but I'm excited about doing it. And when I finish the tour I'll be doing Mondays on Broadway before the election in the fall. I'm working on that now, but the audiences in Denver will be seeing a chunk of that. 

Are you going to try and release this hour as a special?

Yeah, that's the next step, if somebody will pick it up. We'll see. It's never good to think something is definitely going to happen. I've lost two specials so far in my life, and I'm tired of it. So we'll see if this one happens.

You'd think they'd want to release it soon, because it's so time-sensitive, with the election theme. 

I know, but you're not running these networks. Get a grip, please. Don't bring logic to the table!

Lewis Black is performing at the Breckenridge Riverwalk Center  on Friday, March 18, at the Bellco Theatre on Saturday, March 19 (doors open at 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show), and at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins on Sunday, March 20.  Admission prices range from $45 to $75 plus fees, depending upon seating section; tickets are available from AXS.

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