Black Tuesday: Lewis Black on Throwing Chairs at Open Mic, Politics, and Other Laughing Matters
Black on Sarah Palin: "It’s like watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Only Jimmy Stewart is more qualified, and Jimmy Stewart’s dead." photo by Jill Greenberg.
America’s premiere political comic, Lewis Black, is awfully busy these days. Aside from touring, Black has a new comedy album, Anticipation; a new book, Me of Little Faith; and he continues his hosting duties on the Comedy Central show, "Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil." Black's tour hits The Town Hall for five nights on October 10-11, 13-15.
VV: You still live in New York, right?
LB: Yes. I live on a tour bus most of the time.
What was it like coming up as a comic in New York City? I came up in an odd fashion in terms of comedy. During what was essentially the boom time of comedy, 1979-80, I thought I was going to be a playwright, which is like thinking, financially, along the lines of “I'm going to be a crack whore.”
So, I really thought I'd be in theater. I had a play that was produced at the Ensemble Theater in their one-act festival. I had a play produced at the Magic Theater in Los Angeles, which is where Sam Shepherd's work had been done. I was doing stand-up on the side for fun, because that way I could write something and do it. I was doing my stand-up, I ran a club in the West Village. I would do stand up there, and if your theater was dark on a Sunday night or Monday night I would go in and, once or twice a year, do a show in a theater. I would just find a space and people would come in, I didn't do it for money I just did it for fun.
Eventually I ran the West Bank Cafe Downstairs Theater Bar with two friends. I introduced every show there and that's where my stand-up started to really evolve. I would introduce everything. I got to be very relaxed on stage and my persona started to develop. And then the folks at Catch a Rising Star saw me and invited me over there to do some stuff. That was in the late 1980s, when I really entered the comedy clubs, and that was where I really learned. I kind of developed material, but that's where I got my chops.
And the people I performed with, the show would be the one that I would remember the most, was Denis Leary, Kevin Meaney, Mario Cantone and me. That was -- fuckin' -- that was a good show.
That’s a pretty solid lineup.
That’s a great lineup. And I'll never forget the first show we did I was watching Denis Leary do his cigarette bit. I had a cigarette bit, and by the end of his cigarette bit I dropped my cigarette bit forever. I said, "My cigarette bit's a piece of shit." I really learned. And that was where it began to take off.
Has the process of coming up as a comedian changed at all? Is it easier now? Harder?
I think it still boils down to putting in your time. It used to be you'd have to stand in line, which is why I didn't do it. I thought, "I'm not going to stand in line to do stand-up if I'm not going to really do it. That's crazy." The first few times I did it in the city I'd go to a club, I went to Catch, and if you were one of the first 15 you got to work the show. It's an open mic. I thought I was being auditioned. This was early on, I had just arrived in New York. And I finished, and I said, "Who do I talk to?" And the guy who was the host of the show said, "Well, you've got to be one of the first five to be seen."
And this is a true story. So, I'm in Catch a Rising Star, and I picked up a chair, I was so fucking angry. I had no money, my friends had come. I brought my friends, they were broke. It cost like $100, which to me at that time was worth like thousands. And I did a good set, I thought, and there was only like 12 people in the room. And I picked up the chair and I threw it across the room. And I said, “I didn't hear you.” And he said, “You have to be in the first five, you should know that.” So I picked up a chair and said nobody told me. By the third chair I was out, and I didn't go back until they asked me to come back.
I think now it's the same thing. It's tough. To get stage time on a regular basis it's a lot of the bring-the-audience things. If you bring ten people you'll get seven minutes of stage time. And that's tough. But you basically scrap for stage time anyway you can. There's always a room in New York. There's always a room, there are thousands of them.
Are the audiences in New York tougher to break-in in front of than they might be in other places?
It depends. Sometimes it's a tourist mix and then you're still out in the country anyway. I think [the New York audience] is faster on the trigger. If they smell blood, they're very quick to be sharky. That's the deal.
Can you recall a particularly bad New York audience you had to perform in front of?
For me, the toughest audience in New York is when you're doing a corporate or a benefit. A lot of the times with a corporate you've got to clean it up to the point where your act, what you do for a living, is non-existent. I was at a benefit in Long Island, it was B'nai B'rith. A good cause. And the guy before me told a long story about escaping the Holocaust. And I had to follow it. It didn’t work, really. There was no way out. When it's like that it’s basically like watching a magic act and you've been put in a sealed tube. Will you get out or will you suffocate? I suffocated.
What do you think of the job Mike Bloomberg has done as mayor?
The thing that I thought was the most impressive was… well, first, he doesn't have much of a personality. After a while, I thought, "That's great." He doesn’t bother me, he's not in my face. And I thought what was most impressive is that I've lived here 30 years, and he came out one day and put in all of the newspapers a plan for transportation, for the next 20, 30 years. That's unbelievable and unheard of. That really impressed me.
And even though they might not be as successful as others might want them to be in terms of schools, at least he's tried to focus peoples' attention on a public high school. You may not agree with who he's picked or how he wants to do it or whatever, but he's the first guy whose tried to really deal with the problem and put it on the agenda.
I'd assume you’d compare him favorably to his predecessor?
Oh, God. [Rudy Giuliani] really angered me. I lived in a shitty apartment on a block, it was ludicrous. Like a trannie block. And he kept screaming about what he was doing for New York, and how much he did, and what he did. It was all about him. You know, if I don't stay on this block, if the people don't stay where they’re living, then you have cleaned up nothing. His ego outraged me.
What did you think of his run for president?
I just thought that was an extension of it. Really? You’re going to be the president? 'Cause you pick those people around you so well. It's that American Idol thing. He was running on the basis of what he did on 9/11. And what he did for New York, which he wouldn't have been able to do without Dinkins getting the cops on the street. You know, Dinkins is the one who got the cops. [Giuliani] ends up with the cops. And so, "Look at what I did!" I think he did execute some things well, but it's way out of bounds in terms of what he thinks. I think he would have been great as Nero. And then to watch him talk about Sarah Palin… just shut your mouth, OK? Don't do that to me, because then you've lost all credibility.
As long as we're there, what are your thoughts on Sarah Palin?
It's like watching a fictional movie, and the closest one is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Only Jimmy Stewart is more qualified, and Jimmy Stewart's dead.
Do you think that some of the air could have been sucked out of the Palin phenomenon if Obama had just picked Hillary Clinton as his vice president?
Oh yeah. But that’s right, the Democrats like to lose. How do you not pick Hillary? How do you not do it? Now, I don’t know if she decided not to do it. But, whatever. You want to win, it’s so fucking important, this is such an important time in history, that you can’t just deal with it? McCain’s ready to swallow Palin. He’s like, “What’s going to get me there?” Having known him a bit, I think he agrees with about 40 percent of what she brings to the table. And you’ve got these two, that actually maybe disagree on about five percent, and they can’t get together. It’s disgusting. I’ve been watching the Democrats not want to take over for years now. Clinton wasn’t really a Democrat, so he doesn’t count.
Well, he’s a different Democrat.
He’s a dopey Democrat. And the thing is, it’s so irritating when they talk about the Clinton legacy. He did some great stuff, and he’s the one who begot Bush, you idiots. Without Clinton there’s no Bush. Bush can’t come on to the scene.
We have a new poll that says McCain is only five points behind Obama in New York.
Did people die in New York? Has there been an epidemic? That’s lunacy.
Well, the race does feel like it’s gotten tighter. This seemed like it was in Obama’s hand a few months ago.
We’ll see, because it’s still two more months, and we’ve moved American Idol over to politics.
Hey, here she is America! You haven’t seen her, but we think you’re gonna love her. You’ve never heard her sing but, son of a bitch, here she comes. And so she had her first song, and her first song went well, and now we watch to see if she can do other songs. And then she’s got her big, big thing when she debates Biden. That’s the big night. It’s American Idol.
How would you handicap the race at this point? Do you think Obama will hold on?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m totally at a loss to figure this out. This is fiction. I refuse to deal with it like it’s reality. The whole thing. I got a person running for the president who really doesn’t have the qualifications, and I got a person running for vice president that doesn’t have the qualifications. And you’re telling me this is a good thing.
So you think Obama’s qualifications for the presidency are less than appropriate?
They’re not less than appropriate. Look, after Bush anything’s appropriate. That’s how come Sarah Palin [is taken seriously]. “Look, she’s the governor of a state!” Of alcoholics. I’ve been there. And they’re my people. Bush, basically, opened the door to anybody to be president. If you can elect somebody like him, why not elect anybody? What [Obama] lacks in experience he makes up in terms of, I believe that he’s actually trying to get through, finding some sort of middle ground. And I think that’s vital. I think that, maybe in the end, Hillary lost because she felt entitled, and that didn’t help her. And I think that many Democrats felt she was polarizing.
Can the American Idol system be fixed?
I think it’ll work itself out. I think if they win, one good dose of it will do it. The Republicans, they leapt back into, it’s like a cultural war again. “By god, we’re gonna live in 1958 whether you fuckers like it or not!” Maybe 1962.
No. This is not the time. We need a real third party. This has got to stop. Somebody’s got to step up. I wish McCain had done it in 2000. I wish somebody would do it. It seems to be the only way out.
I don’t think those guys are the ones. I wanted to see Biden and [Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck] Hagel run together. Or I would tie up Obama and McCain like Sidney Potier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones. Chain them together, and then they would have to come up with some answers.
Do you think Bloomberg could have been the guy?
I was hoping that he was going to step in. But, once again, (laughing) America’s ready for a black man or a woman but are they ready for a Jew?
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