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You may know him from his stint as a correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or maybe from his own short-lived Comedy Central program, Lewis Black's Root of All Evil. Or maybe from one of his Grammy Award-winning standup albums (2007's The Carnegie Hall Performance or 2011's Stark Raving Black). But most likely, you know him as the older, quick-to-agitate comic gesticulating wildly with his fingers, shouting at the top of his lungs and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He is Lewis Black, and this is his artform.
Black is an author and a playwright, but when it comes to his comedy, he doesn't write anything down. He is known for his over-the-top, politically charged humor, originating from a place of conviction and the understanding that he is at his funniest when he's really, really angry.
Currently on tour, Black will be making a stop at the Peabody Opera House on Friday, October 4. RFT Music caught him by phone from his bus (somewhere between New York and Wichita), and we talked to him about how he got into standup comedy and why he decided to start yelling.
Kelsey McClure: In a lot of interviews that I've read, you're pegged as "the guy who yells."
Lewis Black: Right.
But when I think "the guy who yells," I think of a crazy person who stands on a corner with a bullhorn. Do you think there is value to just yelling, or does it need to be an articulated mission?
I'm a comic, so basically I'm just there to make people laugh, and the reason I ended up yelling is because I'm funniest when I am angry and frustrated. So that's where I write; that's where my comedy comes from. I don't think in terms of public discourse it makes sense to yell. If you are articulate, be sure to get your point across. You know?
Right. Who's going to listen to you if you don't sound like someone who should be listened to?
Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of people [who] are using yelling to be heard. And I think that it's really helped them.
Your work contains a lot of opinions about political and social issues. Are you trying to be convincing in your comedy? Or are you just trying to get your point across and say it how you see it?
Well, really the major point to my comedy is laughter. I start with a thought and then I have to go through it and find out how to make that funny to people. So that they're not just thinking about it, that they're laughing about it. That's part of the reason my comedy works, is because they made their shit so serious — it's so life and death every day — that it gets people so wound up, so wrapped up, that the only outlook I can give is that you gotta take a step away and look at it for how stupid it is.
The first time you got onstage, was that something you were already thinking about?
Oh no, I wasn't thinking about it. The first time I got onstage, all the stories that I told were stories about my sex life. I was doing this as a lark; I never expected it to go anywhere. I was fascinated by standup comedy, so to me it was more like I never really expected in any shape or form I'd be doing it. And then I kept coming back to it. A lot of comics, it takes them awhile to find their voice, because it's really something that's close to you. To me it was trying to find a way to attract people while I'm yelling. From the time I really started doing it until the time I got my voice was about fifteen years.
Fifteen years, wow.
Well, because I didn't take it seriously. I just kind of had it, but I wanted to be a playwright. This was not really something I was going to do.
So many comics get onstage because that's what they want to do. That's their end game. They see themselves at Carnegie Hall or on Leno. So how was it for you that you kept going back? Was it just entertaining? Was it cathartic at all?
It was horrible. But it was a way in which I could get my writing out there faster than I could get my plays out there. The purpose was to get the writing out. I wasn't working in clubs; I didn't know anybody who was doing it. I was working in theater, finding places where I could get up and do this. When I went into clubs, I didn't really want to deal with any of it. I had a lot of other things I could do in terms of theater and stuff like that was more important to me.
Is there some anxiety when you know you are going to have a break? And how much are you writing between your last set and your next set?
There's a little anxiousness when I go back to it, but then I go through my set going, "Yeah I remember this stuff." And I don't write anything.
You don't write anything?
At this point in time, after a long time, I haven't written anything down. I just get up and talk.
Wow, that's a huge change from using comedy as the avenue to get your writing out. I wouldn't have expected that.
Well, I'm writing onstage. I'm writing in front of people.
Do you feel like doing standup is a courageous act?
Nah, I think it takes an idiot to get up there. You go into a room full of people: "I'm gonna make you laugh!" That's just about as dumb as you get. I don't think it's courageous, you know? Courage is something I save for people who love to put their principles on the line. Military, or things like that.
So you wouldn't say you have any principles on the line by going up and throwing down your rant and telling people how it is?
No, nobody's going to come up and say "I heard what you said, and now we're going to have to kill you." [Laughs]
Speaking of which, do you have to deal with hecklers very much?
Not too often — usually it's just they're drunk. Most people get it. I'm lucky in the sense that I'm in theaters and I have an audience that's pretty smart. They seem to have gone out; they get it. They know they're going to a show; they know who they paid to see. What's sad is you get a lot of really die-hard fans that drink too much.
Yeah, and then they feel like they have something to say...
They get overexcited!
When you were starting out was heckling more of a problem, when you were trying to find that voice?
Yeah. I mean you gotta learn how to deal with them at the time, but it took me shorter than I thought it would because I had this persona of this guy who is just completely nuts. And I was ranting and raving, and it's like, "Are you going to fuck with me? Are you serious?" The thing I learned early on is if somebody heckles you, all you gotta do is just stare at them. And the audience helps you, you know? So you have plenty of time to think of something. Because if you just stare at them and let them keep talking, they out themselves.
But now I just pound 'em. Now it's just OK; I don't even give them a moment.
It does just seems like kind of a futile attempt to yell at the guy who's yelling.
Especially at the guy who's got the mic.