When Lewis Black called MidWeek editor Dana Herra last week for a phone interview about his upcoming show at the Egyptian Theatre, he got caught in an automated phone system. When the two connected, the first thing he did was complain.
"Your phone system is a real (expletive deleted) treat," he said. "I can't believe I'm actually talking to an honest-to-God person."
It's that kind of irritated, says-what's-on-his-mind style that has won millions of fans for Black, 64. The man who began his career as a playwright who did comedy "on the side" has recorded nine comedy albums, been nominated for five Grammy Awards and won two. One of his two HBO comedy specials was nominated for an Emmy. He also has a Sports Emmy for a regular feature that aired for two seasons on Inside the NFL, and won Best Male Stand-Up at the American Comedy Awards in 2001.
Black has made numerous television appearances, both as an actor and performing as himself. He is the author of three bestselling books, has appeared in 14 films and is the author of more than 40 plays. He is active with a number of charities, including Autism Speaks, The 52nd Street Project and the Children's Health Fund. He is also active with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and has performed for U.S. troops overseas in three USO tours.
Black, known for his ranting comedic style, will perform at The Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. in DeKalb, at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2.
"Lewis' live performances provide a cathartic release of anger and disillusionment for his audience," the publicity material reads. "Lewis yells so they don't have to."
Last week, Black talked about comedy and what really makes him mad.
MidWeek: You've been described as a comedian, author, playwright, actor and social critic. How do you describe yourself?
Lewis Black: I usually say comic. But if I'm in a position where I'm at a book signing, for example, I'm an author. Generally I say comic, because that's mostly what I've done for the past 20 years.
Before that, I was a playwright. I was doing stand-up on the side because it was a way to write something and get it heard, as opposed to waiting around to do a play, which takes forever. Even now, I've got a play and it's been pretty well received, and there are all these places around the country that might do it, but it takes forever.
So I just kept doing stand-up, and I got better and better at it. Then people said, "We'll pay you for this," and I said, "Wow, that would be interesting," because I was broke. I was outright broke until I was 40.
MW: What do you find funny?
LB: Stupidity. When something's really dumb, it's funny to me. Like the guy who goes to rob the bank and writes the note on his own deposit slip. Stuff like that is spectacular.
MW: Do you prefer live performances or TV?
LB: Live. TV is OK. I like it. But the nice thing about live... There's a relationship that comes through that's missing when you can get up and get popcorn in the middle of it.
MW: Was your comedy always in that angry, ranting style, or did that evolve?
LB: It was every type of thing. I was trying to find what I was, where I was funny. And the stupid thing is, it was right in front of me the whole time; it always is. Being funny is being who you are and blowing it up a little. I'm funny when I'm mad.
MW: Do things really make you that angry, or is some of it an act?
LB: You can't be that mad all the time or you'd be dead. But it's like I get up in the morning and Nancy Pelosi is being quoted. I can't remember what the quote was. They were talking about if Congress was going to make these budget cuts, shouldn't they look at cutting their own compensation, and the quote was something really profoundly stupid about lowering the dignity of the office. I just spun out on that for about 15 minutes. This is where I get it. ...It's beyond belief. There is no rule of justification for what they're doing. None. Maybe if they put their own finances on the line they would have gotten something done sooner.
MW: Do comedy or comedians have a social role to play in getting people thinking and talking about political issues?
LB: I don't really know. I think we act as insulation. That's really the heart of what we do. We give people a way to step back and get out of the midst of it. It allows people to step away from their lives and step away from nonsense, and that's what politics has turned into. The thing I keep trying to put into my act is that there are no adults left in the room. None. Even more disturbing is that my generation won't step forward and be the adults. A lot of these people are my age, and that is offensive to me. They wouldn't have tolerated this nonsense when they were 30, but now they're putting up with it after they're supposed to have accumulated years of wisdom?
MW: Do you go onstage with a set of material, or do you improvise?
LB: I don't really write anything down. I write notes. I work a lot, so I've got the notes in my head. I've got notes to talk about adults or Nancy Pelosi. So I put it in and try it, then I try it another way, then I try it another way until I stumble upon the right way to do it.
MW: Are there topics you won't touch?
LB: Abortion is really hard. It's too much of a flashpoint. I did a thing in my act once where I just said the word. I didn't make a joke, I just said the word, and I said this in my act, you could actually hear the tension in the room rise. Just from the word. If you want a reason we can't have a legitimate discussion about it, it's that. People are on the edge of their seats.
The same is true, and shouldn't be, in terms of gun violence. I'm starting to talk about that in my act. The first time I talked about it, I didn't make a joke. I wasted two minutes of stage time to get people to realize I'm not going to go on a diatribe about taking their guns. The first time was in Colorado, and before I said anything, a man got up and walked out of the room. Before I said anything. Anything. Appalling. He didn't even get to hear the jokes.
MW: A few years ago, you did a couple of shows for the History Channel that were a sort of comedy/documentary hybrid ("History of the Joke" in 2008 and "Surviving Christmas with Lewis Black" in 2009). Where did that come from?
LB: They talked to me about doing it. It went well the first time. The second time, they took something that was funny and made it less funny. It's not like it was psychotically edgy; I wasn't saying blasphemous things. But it was funny, and they gutted it.
I realized I can't do anything unless I have the final say. The first one ("History of the Joke") was great, though. The Christmas show should have been much funnier. ...They hired me and they didn't trust me. I just don't have time for that. I got into this too late for that.
That's why I prefer comedy. With comedy, it's just me and the audience. If I screw it up, I screw it up. And I know what to say to the audience after I screw it up.