Grammy Award-winning comedian Lewis Black is well known for his sarcastic stand-up routines and his short-form rants on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Now he finally has a show of his own: Root of All Evil, premiering Wednesday on Comedy Central, in which he judges comedians’ arguments about which of two things they think is more evil. Mother Jones chatted with Black last week about his show—and the housing crisis, feeling like a whore, and why Santa should be president.
Mother Jones: What’s going to make your show more like South Park or The Daily Show and less like [the canceled] Showbiz Show with David Spade or Too Late With Adam Carolla?
Lewis Black: The comics and the concept. It’s unique in the sense that you’ve actually stumbled on a way to present comics in another light. You’re not watching them do their stand-up: You’re watching them be funny about something else. Essentially they’re creating a stand-up routine about one subject…You really learn on the job and so it evolves. And if we come back, [the show] will be better. You know, we’re not curing cancer, but we’re certainly funny.
MJ: Do you see yourself as sort of a Judge Judy character?
LB: I’m much more attractive than Judge Judy, and more sensitive. Well, I am the judge. I judge not only on the basis of my own prejudices but also what I think about the comics.
MJ: In addition to your television career and your stand-up, you’ve also done a few movies. Is that something you want to continue?
LB: I did three in a row, and that seemed to be my career in movies, but I really liked it, I enjoyed it. Everything you do feeds back on itself, like acting in movies. I did three in a row at the same time I was working on my “Red White and Screwed” HBO special, and in the end it really helped my performance. So when you’re working in another fashion it feeds your writing and it feeds your performance, hopefully.
MJ: You’re a Yale drama school grad. Is there a character in a play or a movie that you’ve always wanted to play but haven’t gotten a chance?
LB: The guy, and I can’t think of his name right now, in A Thousand Clowns. When I was a kid and I saw that play—that guy’s like my role model. He’s a guy caught between commerce and art, and he was a frustrated, angry guy and at the age of like 15 I went and I said “Wow, that’s just like me.” Or [someone] I could see myself becoming…and now that I’m that guy’s age, I would like to try and do that part.
MJ: So you do see yourself torn between your job as a business and your job as an artist, creating?
LB: I don’t sit around saying, “I’ve got to do art today,” but I do like it to be the best that I can do. I don’t like to pander if I can afford not to pander. I like to push it a little.
MJ: Along that line: You seem angry a lot in your stand-up. Is there one thing that enrages you more than anything else?
LB: Stupidity really gets me going, when it’s just plain stupid, obvious stupidity. And I think that’s the reason my act has become more political. I’ve become somewhat more of a political comic because these guys—the level of stupidity I’ve watched over the past several years is staggering. I mean it is really like the mother lode. It got to the point where I’d be on stage and I’d go, “I can’t keep up anymore, I’m sorry. I know you people want me to talk about something that happened today but there are 16 things that happened in the past three days and I can’t keep up.” And I knew for months that the housing market is absurd. How do I know that? As much as I’d like to see everybody own a home, if you can’t afford to own a home—you can’t give people mortgages who can’t afford to pay for the mortgage! You’re giving people mortgages at the same time that the housing market is exploding. What planet are these people on?
The other thing that really gets me going is the complete inability to educate children anymore. I don’t have children, and I really don’t understand why if you can’t do it, why are they having children? What’s the driving concept if you’re not going to pay attention to them, if you’re not going to worry about their education? In the course of my lifetime, my generation has allowed its educational system to march into the shitter. And then people are allowed to say, “Well, I’m not going to pay for my property taxes because I don’t have children.” Are you an insane person?
MJ: Do you have the anger that you have in your stand-up in everyday life, too?
LB: Yes, especially when…Where I really flip out is when I call something where you can either press 1 or 2 or say yes or no. When they have that automated fucker to talk to, that really drives me around the bend. And I just start yelling. I start yelling, “Give me a person, give me a person!” Because at the end of the line they give you a person. So why are we doing this? Really. Play some music, say “Here’s a download you might like to hear!” As long as we don’t have radio anymore, play some music! You might say, “Here’s a new artist on the rise.” I hate that computer.
MJ: I know you went to UNC. Are you a college basketball fan? Do you have a prediction for the tournament?
LB: Well, you have to, it’s like part of the thing. I watched it for years. When you’ve got a team and the team’s good, you start watching. I like college football, but I’m a huge college basketball fan. I could sit and watch every game of March Madness and be happy. That could be a vacation.
MJ: Do you think that UNC has a good chance this year?
LB: No, we’re going to get screwed again. This is all called “sucker you in.” “Oh boy, we got a real shot!” and then right in the face. I don’t think we got the defense for it, to be honest. We’ve been playing too many games where we’ve been allowing teams that shouldn’t be scoring as much against us to score like crazy, and then we’ve lost a couple of guys who apparently seem to be vital.
MJ: Okay, so that’s the headline: “Lewis Black worried about UNC’s tournament chances.”
LB: I did an interview with college students where they asked me who was my inspiration and I said “I hope you print that Jesus is my inspiration, and I’d like that to be the headline.” So the kid, and he doesn’t even go back to it, just at the beginning says “Lewis Black says Jesus is his inspiration.”
MJ: So you went on a USO trip in December. How was that? They don’t make you tone down the language for USO, do they?
LB: No, no. The only thing is you don’t really go about bashing the commander in chief. That’s just called common sense, that they don’t want you to do it. And they don’t make a big deal about it. And I talked about how I thought the Republicans and the Democrats were failing, and I did a bit around Christmas that Santa should be president.
MJ: And why should Santa be president?
LB: Because he’s the only one…. No one running, especially back then and even now, can bring this country together. They are all carrying their crap around, and all they’re trying to do is get in each other’s face again. And as much as Obama may be talking, if he wins they’re going to get in his face. And Santa’s above it all. Everyone likes Santa, even Jews, even we Jews.
MJ: Do you have a joke that you think is really bad? I guess there are a billion unfunny jokes.
LB: There are. And I can pretty much guarantee that if I do a show in a comedy club, there will be someone who will come out of the audience and tell me the worst joke ever. It’s just a guarantee. What’s worse is when you’ve just finished your act and they come up and tell you the most racist joke you’ve ever heard. It’s like, “What did I do onstage that inspired you?”
MJ: So you famously said that doing the Congressional Correspondents’ dinner made you feel like a whore. Do you think that’s part of the job description for that kind of event?
LB: I do. It’s tough, because they’re inviting you to do it and then they’re telling you not to be you. You’ve got to do it within their parameters. And if you’re going to do it, you have to do it. You’re there to entertain them. I don’t feel you’re there to insult them. They’ve asked you to entertain them and that’s the job. You accept the parameters and you feel bad about it, but you have to do it because it’s an honor, and you have to do it because you say as a comic, Well, that would be interesting. And I’ve done it and I don’t really want to do it again.
MJ: You mentioned Obama earlier. He seems like an odd choice for a cynic. Do you have a horse in the primary race or a horse in politics in general?
LB: Not really. I can’t really latch on to anybody until I walk into the booth because on a real personal level, they all really bother me. They always have, for a long time, and this time even worse because of the length of this primary. I thought there’s an underlying, there’s something very, very cynical about starting those campaigns that early while you have major, major, major problems that have to be dealt with and you’re running around telling me what you’re going to do when? I just think we were in a period, and still are, of things that have to be dealt with that are not being dealt with by these people who say they want to lead us. And if the Democrats really had someone who was really great, really great, than during what was for many people a leadership void, they would have been the voice of their party a whole lot fucking earlier. I feel they would have been the spokesman for their party. And they weren’t. The Democrats screwed themselves when they didn’t stand up. You’re the loyal opposition. All you gotta do is put up a fight. Your job is to go “Wait, wait a minute, let’s look at this.” And once they fell asleep at the switch, that’s what we’ve been watching. Eight years of it. Whatever they want to steamroll through. If there’s someone there, I think we should have been able to hear the voice. And I don’t think it’s the media’s problem; I think it’s their problem. Pretty funny stuff, huh?
MJ: Yeah, hilarious. Do you think there’s something deeply wrong with people who want to be politicians?
LB: No, I think some of them are really great. But I think that the ones who are really great are the ones who their professional persona and their personal persona, if you put them up on computer cards, they’d be very, very close. When the person walks offstage their personality doesn’t change.
MJ: Do you have hope long-term for the country, or are we just totally screwed?
LB: I wouldn’t be this angry if I didn’t have hope. I think inevitably over the course of my lifetime there’s been an underestimation of the American people, and I believe they are really the ones that give me hope. There’s so much of “they don’t know this, and they don’t know that,” and they’re always denigrating. The core of the American public, their hearts and their minds are in the right place. And that gives me hope.