It’s only been two years since New York comic/Daily Show commentator/Grammy-winning Jack of all Rage Lewis Black released his last special, but he’s noted plenty of political hypocrisy, generational ineptitudes and technological missteps in the meantime to keep his blood pressure soaring comfortably. Recorded in Atlantic City, Old Yeller: Live at the Borgata premieres May 2 on Epix.
Black also hosts Big Stars, Big Cure: An Unforgettable Night of Comedy and Music to Fight Cystic Fibrosis on May 5 at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The lineup includes Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Madigan and video pieces featuring Meryl Streep, Robin Williams and Will Ferrell.
See also: Hannibal Buress: “Bombing Can Be Good”
Old Yeller is your third special for Epix and your 11th album overall.
It’s boredom! It’s getting sick of saying the same thing. And I think, too, if I’m going to wander around, people, when they come back, they should see something that they haven’t seen. A lot of it’s the evolution of a joke or a thought. I talked about phones for awhile, and then from phones I went to talking about all of the social media. I find — I hope — better ways to express something and get the point across. Because obviously my points aren’t getting across; nothing has changed! I don’t even care about living in a utopia; I just want to live in a functional society! Unless I move to Tahiti, in which case I’ll just be quiet.
You mentioned social media. In relation to that, comics are now releasing specials via direct download. Why is having a platform on Epix still important to you?
Because I have an audience that’s mixed. I’ve got an audience that goes from, like, 12 to 90, and I can’t expect a certain chunk of my audience to sit and watch me on a computer screen. So that’s really it. There will be some stuff that I’m going to be doing down the road that is probably more direct, but as of now, I’m probably doing it because at my age, I’m at the tail end of that whole era of the George Carlin and the guys who did those specials on television. So it’s partly, “Well, that’s the way I do it!” I’ve spent the last couple years trying to get things together to be able to do it in another fashion, and we’ll see if that comes to be. And if not, hopefully there’s another Epix special.
If you go a more direct route, what would you envision trying to do?
In a best-case scenario, I would probably try to do it through an app. Download a Lewis Black app, and then watch me onstage somewhere in the country, wherever I’m performing that night. If all goes well and we can pull this off.
So a live special?
Or even just 10 minutes of it. It’s one step at a time, but if nothing else, I’ve been doing stuff in this latest incarnation of wandering around of people texting questions to me. And at the end of the act, I answer some of the questions. All of that stuff will eventually see the light of day, because it’s specific, or it’s about stuff that I don’t normally talk about. It’s about an hour’s worth of material that worked, and I can start to get that out.
It’s interesting what you’re saying about the apps and the texting, juxtaposing that with what you said about being the last wave of comedians releasing specials in an old-school way. But you’re also talking about doing stuff that no one else is really doing yet, and it could definitely change the nature of specials.
It really has to do with the guys I work with, who are leading me into it, because otherwise you’d be talking to Mr. Clueless. You’re talking to somebody who still finds it hard to deal with Twitter and Facebook. I’m somebody who really fought Twitter. I’m against the 140-character thing, really, A) I don’t like that fashion. People are great at it. There are people who I follow who are great at it, who can really write short-form, and they’re tremendous, and they sort of created another form. But for me, when they first approached me, it was like, “Fuck you!” You’re taking one of the few things I love, which is language, and you’re undermining it, in a sense.
And then I realized what it was in the end was an advertising platform. But it’s an advertising platform in a lot of ways for people to advertise themselves, or what they think, or what they want, or points they want to get across.
I just did a talk at the National Press Club in Washington… I was asked about a quote from Rush Limbaugh about [how] Stephen Colbert taking over the Letterman position was an attack on family values, which was his take on it. Halfway through the paragraph I felt like I was going to have a stroke. So I responded to it, in a fashion in which I said that Rush Limbaugh was a prick and I talked about Stephen, and then Rush Limbaugh responded to this! I saw it on the Twitter-fuck thing! And it was like, “Now I’m supposed to…what? Because we’re going to get in a debate about this, but then part of me just goes, “You know, fuck you!” To think that I’m that important; that people are watching the National Press Conference and paying attention to your name. But there is more I would have said; I also would have said this and I would have said that and I would have said this, but if I’ve got 140 characters on Twitter to put it on, do I put it on my Facebook page? What?
Or your Tumblr.
Or my Tumblr. But it’s like, “No! I’ll take it, and I’ll put it in my act, and fuck you! I’ll save it for myself!”
It’s funny; I’m actually distantly related to Rush Limbaugh. But he never came to family reunions or anything like that. Never met the dude.
Well what I said was he’s talking about undermining family values; Stephen has a family, he has five kids, he was the last of the Catholics that kind of held in there during the nonsense period. He held onto his faith. I said, “What do you want from this guy? You in the end think this is the guy who’s going out to undermine family values?” I was really lit. I could understand if he said I might be undermining family values, but don’t talk about my friend!
I guess you are pretty thrilled about the Colbert move, then?
Part of me selfishly thinks “I might be able to get on the show!” But I think he’s a tremendous choice. What he did on television is in the realm of…there’s not a lot of people who can create that kind of a breakthrough. He’s literally in the category of Sid Caesar or Ernie Kovacs in terms of breaking open the mold. What Ernie Kovacs did was remarkable; what Stephen did was to create a consistent character and bring that character to bear on a news/informational show. It’s beyond belief!
It’s interesting to see how the nature of the that Comedy Central programming — The Daily Show and Colbert — how it’s really taken hold. You can’t really imagine the TV landscape without them.
Right! I think what Jon did also with that show is in that category, but Stephen — in terms of acting — is totally unique. He’s someone I’m hoping takes the late-night show and flips it on its head. Because as much as I know about the tragedy of white men doing this — it’s all white guys doing these shows, except for Arsenio [Hall] — is it’s the same fucking “show” show. It’s 20 minutes of funny, and the other 20 is somebody selling shit.
What changes would you like to see him make?
I’d like to see him make fun of that bullshit. It’s the fifth interview with George Clooney; it’s the third interview with Sandra Bullock. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Are you kidding?” But they can tell you what appearances will make a difference in how many people they deliver, and it’s crazy. So I hope he tweaks it a little so there’s not a sense that I’m watching, you know, “…and here’s a clip!”
“And here’s a funny story about making the movie!”
“And boy, he was really great to work with!” I mean, I just did it a few times in my life as an actor, and George Clooney is astonishing at it, just astonishing. I watch him almost insistently, because I’ve never seen anybody work it and seem to give a great energy to it. To me, it was like I was in some sort of North Korean prison camp: “I don’t like the movie, I don’t like myself, I don’t like anyone! I’m sorry we made the movie! If I’d known this is what we were going to do when the movie was over, I’d shoot myself!”
And that doesn’t play well, huh?
You mentioned acting. With people who are already famous, TV and movie stars, taking parts on Broadway, is it now harder to make it as a New York Theater artist?
I think there’s definitely been a shift in terms of…it’s like we’re going to take a property that we own — Paramount, MGM, whatever — and try to turn it into a musical, because we own the property. There’s that stuff… the Rent phenomenon or Hair is much rarer. The people who are appearing on Broadway, it’s certainly easier to get something up that’s star-driven so they can put an eight- to ten- to twelve-week thing on so that they sell the tickets. So that makes it tough.
But I think what makes it harder for the young theater artists in New York is the fact that they’ve been driven out by rents. It’s tough to live in Bushwick with the rent they’re charging if you come out of college!
I’m telling you, it’s the off-off-off Broadway where you’re going to still — and we always found — where the young theater artist is going to arise from. I don’t think that’s going to die anytime soon.