The most common byproduct of politics is high blood pressure, and no one experiences that kind of pre-stroke madness like standup comedian Lewis Black. With his shaky hands, bulging eyes and unbuttoned suit, Black often appears as an out-of-work schmuck who writes angry letters to the White House and TMZ. Thankfully, he has his regular "Back in Black" segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, along with a constant cycle of standup gigs and comedy specials, to keep his kettle from truly boiling over, saving us all from the wrath of his neck-bulging madness. Black will be delivering a set of his characteristic rants at the Ellie at the Denver Performing Arts Complex on Friday, January 18, and we recently caught up with him to discuss his views on the fiscal cliff, topical comedy and when being too angry on stage freaks people out.
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Westword: How's your day going? Lewis Black: [With thick sarcasm] Oh, great, spectacular, each day is better than the last. Because we're really moving along as a nation, really putting our mind and energy together to move toward a better tomorrow.
Absolutely. Did you hear about the NRA's new iPhone app for kids? It has assault-rifle simulators, listed as "for ages four and up!" It was released on the one-month anniversary of the Newtown shooting.
[Note: This interview was conducted the morning of January 15, and in light of heavy criticism, the NRA has changed the rating of their app to "12 and up."]
I didn't. But that's good.
Were you surprised to see the gun-control debate resurrected?
It's never died, really; it's been around for my entire lifetime. There have been groups in this country that have raised funds in order to push for gun-control legislation, like the Brady Group, which I've worked for. The assault weapons ban happened because of them. The debate won't go away, it keeps coming back. You've got 270 million guns in this country; I mean really, at what point do you stop and think about that?
Why do you think fear of gun-control is such an affective campaign strategy for conservatives?
The two biggest paranoid fantasies of my generation were that vaccines caused autism, and that the government is coming for your guns. Nobody's coming for your guns -- no one! There's no upside for Obama to talk about it, you just get a torrent of abuse. All we're saying is, you can keep your gun, but now can we set up a system where crazy people can't get a gun? How nuts are you? I mean, 75 percent of the NRA wants background checks [for weapons purchased at gun shows].
With the Republicans backing down and Democrats seemingly getting what they wanted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, do you think we're entering a new era of Republican timidity, with the Dems becoming more aggressive?
No. I think the Republicans are going to take the debt ceiling and go psychotic. They had to back off the fiscal cliff thing because even they knew that there was too much traction against them. I think it's reprehensible that they couldn't get the work done before Christmas. We don't have time for this; we don't have time for these people.
And the Democrats are always going to be the Democrats: They're like a giant turtle stuck on his back that can't flip over.
You've always actively identified yourself as a socialist; what do you make of the GOP's use of terms like "class warfare" and "don't punish success"?
I find it appalling, beyond belief. Part of the problem is, and always has been, that the Democrats allow the Republicans to control the discussion. The Republicans start calling it class warfare and the Democrats scramble for language, and they don't have the language, they can't seem to find it.
I didn't pay taxes, really pay taxes, until I was forty. I was a broke playwright. So the first time I paid taxes I was thrilled to be able to help. I know that some of the money I send to the government is going to get pissed away; but I also know that government money can stimulate the economy. We need financial responsibility, and the Republicans are the ones I look to for that, and they've wrapped themselves up in a whole bunch of other things that don't help.
They make stuff up, like "raising taxes on those making over $400,000 will hurt small businesses." Only 3 percent of small businesses were affected by that! And the fact that I have to spend time explaining this to people is ridiculous. Over the last twelve years the rich have soaked up all the money, and you'd think it would be patriotic for them to pay some of it back in taxes.
These people got rich because they have an inside track. And I know this because I've been wealthy; I had a whole slew of ways to hide cash. I looked at my accountant and I was like, "Are you sure this shit is legal?"
Speaking of how you got wealthy, in your standup performances you walk a fine line between funny-angry and unsettling-angry. What are the parameters of that? What is going too far as an angry performer?
The one thing I learned from working in theater is that you "act" angry. That way people will understand the anger but not be upset by it. I'm most funny when I'm angry, but when I'm really angry on stage -- which happens about once a night -- you cross a line and it freaks people out.
And then I imagine if you recognize it and can take it back a few notches, then that moment of them being freaked out and you being out of control will seem funny in hindsight.
Exactly. So long as they know that you're in control. So much about being a comic is about being in control. If they think you're out of control, you've got a problem. Sometimes I have to get angry in order to figure out how to make something funny.
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|Back in Black - Lance Armstrong, Butt Chugging & Farm Animal Sex|
Being that you're a topical comedian, commenting on politics and pop culture, all your material is so time-sensitive. I imagine you can't recycle jokes the way someone like Eddie Izzard, who does bits on ancient history and being a transvestite, can. Is it harder to only come up with material on current events?
I don't think it's harder. What Eddie and Seinfeld and Louis C.K. have to do is hard. What's hard for me is this: I was doing a special for HBO, and I was eager to shoot it as soon as possible, but then it took another year for it to be released. So a lot of its potency gets lost.
But I don't care, I'll still tell a joke about Sarah Palin. People still make jokes about the Flintstones, and the Flintstones have been off the air a lot longer than Sarah Palin has not been vice president.
And people say: Why don't you just release stuff instantly online, like Louis C.K.? Well, not everyone can do that; a portion of my audience isn't going to watch me on the Internet.
Do you think there's a fundamental difference between your audience and Louis C.K.'s?
No, it's just that Louis's got a TV show, so he has a much larger audience to draw from. So enough of his audience will go online for his stuff. Outside of appearing on The Daily Show, I'm just wandering around the country. I've developed a fan base, but part of that fan base is older.
How long have you been doing the "Back In Black" segment on The Daily Show?
I've been doing it since the beginning [in 1996]. I'm the last original member standing. It's been somewhere between chaos and necessity. They wanted to keep me on the show, but sometimes I'm busy or they're busy, but whenever there's a confluence of circumstance we're able to get together and put one on the air. It's Jon's show, so it's really up to them what they want to do.
Being that stress is such a part of your on-stage persona, do you feel that stress is a necessary or helpful aspect of life, or is this just a character you've created?
It's just a character. I don't think stress is helpful -- what I think is helpful is yelling. A lot of the time people ask: Where do you get the energy for all that anger? Well, it's not always something in the news that's making me angry, sometimes it's a computer glitch or a check that got screwed up in the mail. It can be any number of things. And you put all that together and go on stage, and I'll yell about what's in the news, but I'm really yelling about something else.
Is it possible for a comedian to be funny while being positive?
I think if you take positivity to its logical conclusion, you end up being so positive you look like an idiot, then it can be funny. But a comic isn't up there to look at the bright side -- that's a minister's job.
Lewis Black will be performing this Friday at 8 p.m. at the Ellie in the Denver Performing Arts Complex; tickets are $45 to $65. For more information visit www.denvercenter.org
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