Interview: Lewis Black on the state of today’s political satire, where Bill Maher went wrong on Islam and more

Lewis Black
Lewis Black performs at Riverside Casino this Friday and Saturday, May 29-30. — illustration by Ben Mackey

Lewis Black Stand up

Riverside Casino — Friday and Saturday, May 29-30 at 8 p.m.

With his bulging eyes, gritted teeth and skin quaking with so much tension that the blood literally seems to be boiling beneath it, comedian Lewis Black’s ability to illustrate his rage has an almost iconic status. However, his longevity in comedy seems to have less to do with how animated his rage can be and more to do with how honest it is. Rather than safely pandering to the political center for laughs, Black openly declares himself an anti-corporate democratic socialist and reserves some of his sharpest comedic barbs for the issues he’s most passionate about, such as poverty and health care. Before finding success in comedy, most notably in his segments for The Daily Show, Black worked as a playwright honing his satiric sensibility on dark, absurdist comedies. He’s recently returned to playwriting while continuing to perform as comedian. On May 29 and 30, Black will perform stand-up comedy at the Riverside Casino in Riverside, Iowa.

The presidential campaigning for 2016 is starting up in Iowa. Is there anything that you’re even remotely optimistic about with regard to this election?

I would be much more optimistic if they weren’t starting now. They continue to push the campaigning earlier and earlier. This is like extreme sports. It’s extreme politics. No one stops running for office. They don’t do anything but run for office.

Do you have any optimism about Bernie Sanders entering the presidential race?  He’s a candidate you’ve talked about favorably and one who you identify with politically.

I happen to like Bernie Sanders. He’s a democratic socialist and so am I. There is almost no existing democratic socialist party in the country now. There are like 10 of us. Socialist is a word today that is worse than any swear word.

Anyone I’ve ever said, “oh boy, that’d be great if he won or she won” has lost. So I better keep my mouth shut about Sanders. It is not my job really to publicly talk about it. But I have to say, people might want to take interest in a candidate who is not funded by corporations.

You’ve described socialism as being rooted in America’s Christian history. Can you elaborate on that?

Socialism is enforced Christianity. The idea of charity is great and the idea of tithing is great and all that, but obviously not enough is being done and this is a way to do it. I don’t think it works in this country at all, but that’s because I don’t think we like each other enough to do things that need to happen. I’m just talking about sitting in meetings.

Do you think we’ve become too polarized as a country. Is it a lack of concern for each other that’s grown over time?

I don’t think we’ve become less concerned. I think we, the people, are concerned. They, the leaders, have no idea of how to govern anymore. The leadership doesn’t know how to lead. And it’s leadership that lets people vote against their own self-interest.

Are there any influences that led toward making social and political satire the focus of your comedy?


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Paul Krassner wrote a magazine called The Realist which was a really extraordinary, unbelievable satire for its era. Reading really good satire can be like taking a drug. It rearranges the way you look at things.

Is there satire today that you’re particularly impressed by?

I think Colbert did great stuff on his run. I thought it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen on television. To play that character—it’s counter, I believe, in many ways to what Stephen’s thoughts are. I thought that was extraordinary. I think Jon Stewart did some great work. Many of The Daily Show correspondents who’d been there since the beginning did some great pieces.

Comedians like Will Durst and John Fugelsang are really good. My friend Kathleen Madigan, who wouldn’t consider herself a social satirist at all I think, has done some stuff that is extraordinarily funny along those lines.

Larry Wilmore’s new show will grow into something, if Comedy Central keeps its nose out of it. There is a lot of it around. The Onion. Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker. Bill Maher has had his moments.

Do you have any thoughts on Bill Maher’s criticism of Islam? It’s put him at odds with some of his fans, but do you think he’s making a point as a social critic?

I just think he’s wrong. I don’t agree with him. I came to this with my own thinking about ISIS (always a great way to spend an afternoon). This has nothing to do with religion. All religions reach a certain point where the people, become so upset that they lose their minds. And every religion has shown a sign of that. Every one.

The ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel are batty in terms of a lot of things. You call yourself a Christian, and you protest the death of a soldier because they’re allowing gays in the military. It goes across the board. It’s not religion. These aren’t religious acts. They’re acts of people who have lost their minds. You end up calling someone an Islamic terrorist. They’re not. They’re a terrorist. They’re not connected to anything.

On stage, does your anger ever interfere with what you want to do comedically?

Yeah. Essentially my act is having to be more crazy than the environment around me. That’s my job. And then sometimes I’m pushed. Now they’re pushing me way too far, and I’ll find myself really enraged. But I’ll just point it out to the audience. If you point it out to the audience to let them see you’ve gone there—even though you are conscious of it—they trust you. So I’ll make fun of myself. But they kind of get a kick out of that anger. Nobody else really does it.

Turning back to the presidential election, are there any candidates in particular who’ve really gotten on your nerves?

Marco Rubio. He announces he’s going to run for president, and he immediately goes after Hillary Clinton. And I don’t really like Hillary Clinton. But he is saying she’s the past. We need someone who is going to take us to the future. And he’s the one who is going to take us to the future. And I’m sitting there thinking he doesn’t get it.

Not only do we need to get back to yesterday, we need to get to the day before yesterday. That’s how far behind we are. Don’t tell me about the future. What are you going to do? Magically make racial tensions disappear, Marco? The future is to go back and pick up the strands that have been staring you in the face and start working on them. Asshole.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 177.

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