“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2003, in Aspen, Colo.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today has been called America’s foremost commentator on everything — Lewis Black. Now, who exactly called you America’s foremost commentator?
Lewis Black: Somebody who was kind of working as a semi-agent at the time —
Paulson: I see.
Black: — and it stuck.
Paulson: It works, doesn’t it?
Black: I guess so. It’s one of those things that kind of irritates you, you know, when you hear it, ‘cause you go, “Oh, man,” you know. “What kind of ego does that idiot think he has,” but it’s kind of stuck, which is fine. And I do have a tendency to — I’ll talk about anything. It’s really — it’s almost sad.
Paulson: Well, and most people hear your commentary on “The Daily Show.”
Paulson: What a remarkable story “The Daily Show” is. I mean, it’s got a great audience, a great following among young people. A little scary that a lot of them say they get their news from Jon Stewart. And I gather they get their opinions from you.
Black: Apparently. I think they had the opinions. I mean, we were trying to figure it out the other day, what the affinity is to the college audience and myself, and it’s — I think it’s the sense of being somewhat disenfranchised. I think that’s where it is. Or either I’m emotionally stunted. [Laughs] And that show’s been pitched probably for the last 20 years. Ever since “That Was the Week That Was,” anyone who kind of did topical humor and went into an office at any of the major networks, or even at PBS, and said, “Why don’t we do … ” and all I ever heard was, “Politics aren’t funny.”
Paulson: So what makes this work?
Black: “The Daily Show”?
Black: Why does this work? I think the time. I think — what is it, four or five channels of news 24 hours a day? I think that’s the deal. I think that it’s a filter. It works as the filter in the sense that we’re inundated. So, in a sense, we arise out of the fact that, you know, after all of that news, you know, you need, you almost need to step back and have somebody even satirize the content — I mean, or the style.
Paulson: And, of course, you had that classic training ground for comedy your work with the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Black: Wow, you guys did research, huh?
Paulson: How did this happen?
Black: That was a mistake. The Appalachian Regional Commission was, I believe, either started under Kennedy or Johnson. It was a poverty agency — an anti-poverty agency. You never hear those words now, ‘cause we’re — things are going so well. But it really was — and I was living in — I lived outside of DC. I was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. And, you know, it was a civil service job. Nixon was in the White House. I applied for the job, and I was put into this Commission that essentially was there in order to really kind of, you know, awaken the economy of Appalachia. And I’m there with some civil servants who really had been put in — who had arrived earlier on when the Commission was formed and a ton of Nixon appointees. And it was a spectacular year.
Paulson: So you saw government from the inside.
Black: Yeah. I actually did — this actually occurred, where they really didn’t know what to do with me. I mean, I was kind of there as an assistant. And I would kind of get stuff done pretty quickly, so I was always looking around for stuff. And at one point they had assigned me to some guy — and he didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him. And they had me in a room that, it’s — you know, like a little cubbyhole. I moved all of the things that were in this closet to this closet across the way. And it was — and I made people come in, and I’d say, I yelled, “Look at what I just did! What is the matter with you people? Isn’t there something I can — Even if I did windows, it would make more sense.”
Paulson: And it didn’t leave you with a positive impression of the workings of government, I guess.
Black: It did, and it didn’t. It left me — when people talk, when they say — when they talk about, “Well, you know, I don’t want money going to the government.” Government’s people. Government isn’t a thing. It’s human beings, and it provides jobs. And if we don’t provide those jobs, I don’t know what these people think these people are going to do otherwise. I think it was remarkable at that time that there were a group of civil servants whose main energy was directed at trying to help people better themselves. And I thought that was astonishing. And there were all sorts of things that were — they were trying to dismantle this agency at the time. So it was kind of extraordinary in a way. I mean, for every bad, there was a good, but that’s the way it works, you know? It’s — you know, they use the word bureaucrat, but a bureaucrat’s a person. And even if the person is, you know, muddling or mucking up, you know, there’s — what else — what do you want him to do? Do you want — are we supposed to be an economy of Wal-Marts? Are we all supposed to be kind of bringing shoes that are shined to someone who needs them shined? I mean, it’s crazy to me.
Paulson: So having given up your dream of government service, you moved into comedy.
Paulson: How did that happen?
Black: I was in — I started out as a playwright. I started out thinking — well, actually, I started out thinking I was going to be a theater critic. And I thought, “That’s sick.” I thought, “I really should do something” — I wasn’t a very good actor. I didn’t want to direct. That requires actually someone to pay attention and, you know, stay focused for a longer period of time. But I did like to write. In high school we’d worked on a production that I wrote my own character for, and that kind of hooked me on it, and so I started pursuing playwriting and, on the side, began to do stand-up as, like — because you know, how many plays you going to get done in a year, you know? And unless you really have some sort of problem that you should be seeing a shrink five times a week, I don’t see how anyone writes over four or five hours a day, and you’ve got the rest of the day. And also, it was a chance for me to write something and perform it, so I could always get something done that I had written. And I was — but it was like — for a long time, it was — I would rather have — you know, I was always thinking I’d rather have a better actor than me doing it.
Paulson: You know, reading reviews of your work or interviews with you, every journalist, every reviewer — they have these adjectives they like to attach to you. And a lot of references to angry, enraged, frustrated, vitriolic. I mean, they paint a very, very angry man. And if you — as you know from your performances, you can get that impression.
Paulson: Is that — where is that persona from? Is that really you?
Black: That’s a part of me. I think anyone with any intelligence at all who works in the entertainment industry and hasn’t gone through a period of anger is an idiot. This profession, I think, as much as any other, is so frustrating, you know in the sense that you deal with people — you go into offices, and you deal with people that are just — you go, “This is unbelievable,” and that you’re sitting here, and the fate of your life is in the hands of a complete moron, and you — and the thing that just — the kicker is not so much, “How did he get that job, or she?” It’s like, “How did you end up sitting here?” you know, “You could have that job, moron.” That’s the job where they, when you go out of town, they put you up — this guy gets put at the Ritz Carlton, and I’m down at, like, you know, the Motel 6. And, and so I think it’s — that’s always, you know, kind of been a part of it. And also, it started when I was young. I mean, I always had some sort of a problem with authority. And it came — my family. My mother was pretty angry about stuff. She was in, like, the women’s strike for peace and all of that. And she was always — you know, literally, the TV would be on while we ate dinner, and she would be screaming at it. And my father worked for the government, but anything that came up government-wise, he would actually read the stuff. And nobody does that. And when I was 12, 13, he was sitting in a chair reading a book, and he was laughing. And I said, “Well, what book is that?” and he goes, Catch-22,” and I said, “You like the book?” He goes, “Yeah, it’s terrific.” I said, “Should I read it?” He said, “Oh, yeah, you should read it, because it’ll tell you everything you ever need to know about working when you have to — in terms of a job.” And when the Vietnam War came about, my father read the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and he read all of the Geneva accords. No one that I know of — I don’t know if you’ve ever even seen them. It was a little book, about 150 pages of single-spaced. It was just — I mean, I looked at it and was like, “What are you doing?” And he finished it and said, “We’re not there legally.”
Black: It just — you know. So that was kind of the base.
Paulson: And so this notion of civic involvement has always been a part of your life?
Black: Yeah. I mean, you know. Yeah, I think it’s always been a — it’s been there.
Paulson: That one voice can make a difference, one opinion can make a difference?
Black: Or one opinion can — one person can yell loud enough so that they can sleep better at night.
Paulson: When you do “The Daily Show,” for example, are there limits on what you can say? There don’t appear to be, actually. Is anybody saying that, “This is something we don’t want to hear now,” or —
Black: Rarely. I mean, really rarely. I have been extremely fortunate to be able to pretty much say what I want to say on television. They are — profanity aside, you know, that’s, you know — but even then, then we bleep it. So — but you don’t really — I mean, some of the stuff that, you know, we’ve been able to say is, to me, astonishing.
Paulson: Take us through the preparation for one of your editorials, for example, on “The Jon Stewart Show.” Do you get your material from that day’s newspapers? How does this develop?
Black: I don’t do as much writing on it as I used to. It really mostly is the performance. Six years ago when the show began, I was brought in by Lizz Winstead to do an editorial once every two weeks. And it was a two-minute editorial. It was essentially — the idea was if John Chancellor were alive and on acid. And that was what I would do. And that was — really literally, I would sit at a desk and just — I’d have four or five bullet points and not really even a script and just rant and rave. And then that became — then I began to write it out. I began to work with a guy — my first producer, Hank Gallo — and he and I would — I would write it, hand it to him. He would rewrite it, hand it back to me. I’d rewrite it, hand it to him. And that was really it. And it would be whatever was really on my mind. ‘Cause the show, at that point was just finding itself, and it was eclectic. And then I networked, something I had never really ever done. I am not good at networking. It is a word I abhor. You know, it’s — I don’t know why. I mean, it’s like a skill I never managed at all, you know what I mean? It’s like, I have to go talk to somebody I don’t want to talk to, but I should talk to them because it’ll mean a better life for me. It’s just — you know. But that somehow that person, to me, was like, you know, the rock, you know, and I’d have to climb the mountain, and the rock always would fall back down on me. ‘Cause usually by — before — literally before I’d be networked, I’d be screaming at the person about something that had bothered me for weeks. But I talked to the guys — the folks who were running the show after a couple of years — and wanted to do more of kind of a review-ish type of thing. And what I wanted to do was a weekly kind of, like — just take the week and put it into two minutes and comment. And they saw it as an opportunity to take — we have a ton of footage that we get, and they saw it as — I became, like, the recycler, so whatever they had, they dumped on me. And then I would sit around with two writers and Hank, and we would watch this. And it was a guy named J.R. Havlan and Paul Mercurio. And for, like, two or three years, that would be — we’d go in, watch it, da-da-da-da, and we would just pick out what we were going to take and come up with a theme, and I would take it away, write — you know, from their punch lines, you know, my point of view, da-da-da, and then we’d all put it together, and I would come out yelling and screaming. And from that, when Jon took over, he really put his stamp on the show. So he really tried to find a single voice for the show. I began to — I had been working as a barony unto myself, and they put me under the umbrella. And once they did that, it really became more about making it part of the show. And once it became more a part of the show, the writers really took over the writing of it, and they sit and watch these things. And I’ll call in. I’ll say, “I’ve seen this. I’ll do this. What about this?” I put the input in that way, or I’ll have stuff — if they come up with something, if there’s stuff that I have, I’ll throw it into the mix. But what’s happened is the writers know my voice. It’s become a distinctive voice. So in a lot of ways, it’s great, because it allows me the freedom to kind of travel around and do other things.
Paulson: So when you get a script, have you ever said, “No, this is too cruel; this is too distasteful; I can’t go there”?
Paulson: I had a hunch that was the case.
Black: No, I have never — no. We had a thing — this is the worst thing we ever came up with, and I hate to say it, but I just — I’ve wanted to get it on television for a long time. There was a guy — we were watching a guy speaking. He was from mainland China, and he was being really distinct in his accent and really trying to be very clear about the words that he was saying in Chinese. And he is Chinese. And the thing that we said was, “That’s the Chinese-iest guy we’ve ever seen.” And that, they said, was too much. That was over the line. But — and even we knew it was kind of over the line. But, really, there isn’t a lot that I think is over the line.
Paulson: Well, you’ve seen a tremendous evolution in, in what is acceptable and what is funny. I mean, there was a time “Saturday Night Live” was as cutting-edge as you could possibly be —
Paulson: — and now it’s as mainstream as comedy can be.
Paulson: And so the barriers have fallen. Generation on — in college there that you go and talk to, their standards are different. They’re looking for, I guess, less structured comedy —
Paulson: — higher tolerance and expectation of profanity. Was this “your time had come,” that your style had kicked in, or do you have to tailor some of this to the new generation?
Black: Nothing’s been tailored. Nothing’s tailored for — occasionally there’ll be — you know, if I’m playing a new city or new club, or a new — there are things that any comic who has been doing it awhile will put in at the beginning. The reaction of the audience will tell you how far you can go. But it is — really, for the past ten years, I’d go from one place to another doing what I did.
Paulson: In addition to college audiences, you’re out there playing comedy clubs.
Paulson: Do you find a regional difference, that you can work certain states but not welcome in others?
Black: Rarely. One of the great things about this — you know, television, in the sense, was the — people really do have access, and so unless you go to a place without a satellite dish, everybody gets it, you know?
Paulson: Nobody’s walking in going, “Who is this guy” and sort of startled by you.
Black: Well, there are people still startled. There was — you know, you get — people bring people, or people come in. Even if you play a club, you know, someone — “You know, well, we should go see this guy,” and then they’ll show up, and they go, “Wow, you know, he shakes so much. I think he has Parkinson’s,” and there’s stuff like that. Every so often, there’ll be someone who — and you can feel it in the audience too, you know. If you talk about — I used to scream about Clinton, and you could feel Democrats who just love the economy side of the thing, you know, and the fact that it was a Democrat, you know, get nuts with me. And they wouldn’t yell, but they — you could feel the audience — you can really feel the audience when they’re with you and when they’re tightening. And now, with our new president, I scream about him, and you can sense, you know. The — I was in Atlanta was the last time that somebody really, you know — I was yelling about Dick Cheney. This was really early on in the administration, and I was really talking — and I do set it up. What’s nuts to me is, I set it up with the fact that here was a man who was in government service for years and years, and that’s to his credit, but here’s what happened. And I talk about him going to Halliburton and getting this huge amount of money from the government, and there — it leads into this joke. And this guy goes, “Well, what do you do for the country?” Screaming at the top of his lungs. It was like somebody pushing a button, you know. It was like — I went into, like, a red rage. I mean, ‘cause it’s like the thing — it goes all the way back to the ‘60s. It’s like — you know, it’s like, “Oh, man, nothing has changed,” and I went berserk inside, and then all I did was stop, and I realized — I said, “This is what I do, you idiot.” I said, “Would you like me to be in the military?” [Laughs] So, yeah, you know, there’s — but most of the time, I think people — if you take people through it, they’ll go with you.
Paulson: It’d be fascinating to watch you go from being sort of mock angry to being really angry. It’s like levels of terrorist alert, isn’t it?
Black: Yeah. And there is a point where I do. It’s a really fine line, and that was the hardest thing in terms of me performing, ‘cause I’m not — it was not a natural — I wasn’t a natural performer. And so finding that line where you really — ‘cause what I did for years was not, you know, let it out, so I was — you were watching somebody who was seething, you know, and a seething comic isn’t funny. So for years, I couldn’t figure out — people — my friends would go, “You know, it’s really funny stuff. I don’t know what the problem is,” and then a guy said, “Start yelling,” and then — there are times now where I just will — finally something gets me to the point where I’m really enraged, truly enraged, and I’m really angry, and I have to stop and make fun of myself. ‘Cause you can’t take people there. Ultimately, it’s entertainment.
Paulson: You referred to your red rage, and you said, “— and things never change.” And it’s — you know, it was Jane Fonda being called a subversive —
Paulson: — actress, and today, it’s Martin Sheen or someone else in the spotlight. American history has these cycles that are just fascinating. And it seems like when we’re in periods of great stress, whether it’s the war on terrorism or talking about invading another country, the nation seems to lose some perspective about freedom of speech. What’s your take on that?
Black: This — When you go to war, I think people who are behind the war — war isn’t an easy thing to do. I think the people who — you know, who really get behind it or have children who are fighting it really need everybody to be in line. They don’t want to hear the other side. How can you hear the other side when your son is there? And that, I think, is more than understandable. It becomes that fine line. You see it in terms of comedy. It’s — you know, at what point — you know, after 9/11, at what point do you talk about this, and how far can you go with it? And I think it’s sad, you know, but I think, really, the people, you know, whose sons and daughters are there are the ones who have that right. Anyone who doesn’t really have a child there and is behind the war better keep their sense of humor, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, that’s the deal. And they lose it. They lose it because — one thing that’s always important in this country — this country loves its rules, and there’s a lot of people who love rules. And part of the rules is, you know, when we decide to do — when supposedly the majority decides to do something, you better step in line. And that’s — it’s idiotic. It’s high school. It’s literally — you know, like, I used to say in my act when I first started working, “The real world is just like high school, only there are more places to eat.”
Paulson: You mentioned not long ago you were talking in an interview about political correctness, and you’re quoted in the National Review, actually, as saying, “These days, it takes guts to make fun of anybody or anything.” How did we come to this point?
Black: I don’t know. I think it’s sad. I mean, ‘cause it’s a throwback. I think it has to do with 9/11. I think it has to do with a really antiquated form of thinking. We literally have gone back to attitudes that were really prevalent in the ‘50s and then even into the ‘60s, and it’s just, it’s amazing.
Paulson: Of course, before Sept. 11, we had speech codes on college campuses, this real fear of being offended. I mean, political correctness, if you look at it, is a great impulse. It’s about “Respect other people. Give them dignity. Don’t demean them unnecessarily.”
Paulson: That’s fine, but then, for some reason, American people more and more often want to say, “Well, you can’t offend anybody.”
Black: College campuses are a great place to discuss political correctness. It’s in, to act on it, in a lot of ways, is mind-boggling to me. I think it’s really interesting to have the discussion. I think it’s a really good place for — it did not exist when I was in school. It’s a really great arena that I think is important. It has nothing to do with humor. I do a joke where I make a reference to say that there’s a Starbucks across from a Starbucks in Houston, Texas. Now, apparently, there are more of them where these situations exist, and I call it the end of the universe — when you have a Starbucks across from a Starbucks. If you stand in the center, that’s precisely where the universe has ended. And — but I said, “Why would you need this? Who would use this?” and I say, “It’s people with Alzheimer’s.” So that’s the only group that I think that would need it. And you literally — and it’s not just at colleges, but mostly at colleges. You can hear them. It’s “Oh, oh, oh. Oh, you’re making fun of people with Alzheimer’s,” and then I have to walk them through it: “It’s not a joke about people with Alzheimer’s. I’m using people with Alzheimer’s to make a point about the idiots who built a Starbucks across from a Starbucks.” A joke is a joke. A joke is “We’re going on vacation, and you can either go, or you can stay.” And as soon as I say Alzheimer’s, they panic and go, you know, “I’m not going with you.” Jokes, as we grow older, I believe — we see more — what happens is, as we grow older, we see more and more and more. We see more crap, if you will. And you need a — and the jokes, as a result, have to be sicker, which means that we need a more kind of a different kind of a shovel each year to dig the crap that’s in our head and get it out. And that’s what a joke is. All it does is, it takes this stuff, and it gives you a release for it. Otherwise, you know — otherwise, you know — with political correctness, the only joke that works is a knock-knock joke.
Paulson: Thank you so much for being on “Speaking Freely.”
Black: It was really fun.
Paulson: Great conversation.
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