No Adults In The Room: An Interview With Lewis Black

by | May 2, 2022 | COMEDY, COMMUNITY

I wasn’t expecting to get a phone call from Lewis Black on 4/20. 

I thought it was a telemarketer and almost didn’t pick up the phone. This though, I quickly reconsidered. It may have been his management calling to make sure I wasn’t dead. The ZOOM interview with Black scheduled for 11am was ready to proceed and it was already a few minutes after 11. I was at the RVA Magazine office drinking coffee in front of a computer awaiting take-off when a call came in, flashing a New York area code. So I answered it.

“This is Lewis Black,” the voice grouched on the other end. I relived the memory of getting an angry call from a former boss who sounded like Lewis Black asking why I hadn’t opened the store yet. An odd sort of déjà vu to have on a Wednesday, before noon, on the stoner New Year.

He was having trouble joining the ZOOM meeting, and Black was pissed off. I looked around the room in pain, mouthing H-E-L-P-M-E while pushing the speaker phone option. He had something else scheduled at 11:45 and this problem was going to fuck it all up. Unfortunately, I wasn’t coming to the rescue for Lewis. I can’t even hook up an old Nintendo, let alone commandeer a ZOOM meeting. 

Knowing this beforehand, RVA Mag President John Reinhold was there to make sure I didn’t crash the computer. He assumed the controls the same way a person would assume the controls had they been on a commercial flight and the pilot had just been shot. Hands moving the pilot’s out of the way to grip the yoke. Everything being said by Reinhold in the soothing tone of a yoga instructor, or a midwife, or someone about to milk a cow. 

I don’t know what either of them were doing. They were kinda talking to each other. I could see Lewis. The look on his face was the same look you see most people have when they’re pissed off at a computer or talking to someone from customer service. But Lewis couldn’t see me. So, I covered my mouth and laughed at the both of them as Black bitched at his computer screen and Reinhold offered guidance to help Black land his plane into the meeting. 

Lewis Black doesn’t really need an introduction, but these days you never know. 

If you’ve turned on the television in the last 26 years, you’ve seen him there. Lewis Black is a household name if you’re a Gen Xer. Known for his angry rants about American cultural trends, religion, and politics during his The Daily Show segment “Back In Black” (which he started in 1996, when the show was still hosted by its original host, Craig Kilborn), Black has also been the star of multiple Comedy Central specials since his first for the network in 1998. In that time period, he released 2006’s Grammy-winning The Carnegie Hall Performance and 13 other painfully funny stand-up albums, the most recent of which, Thanks For Risking Your Life, came out during the pandemic in 2020. 

He’s had small roles in several feature films, like Hannah And Her Sisters, Accepted, and Unaccompanied Minors, and has done voice work for cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants and Adult Swim’s Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. Black even voiced the incarnation of Anger itself in the 2015 Pixar movie, Inside Out. For the last two years, he’s hosted his own podcast, Rantcast, where listeners write in about what’s pissing them off in their day-to-day lives and Black responds with live rants about the chosen topics. 

Even if you haven’t turned on the television in 26 years, you’d recognize the voice of Lewis Black if you heard it. He’ll be appearing at the Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center on May 5th as part of his Off The Rails tour, which will conclude December 11th in Sarasota, Florida. 

Whatever Lewis did on his side of the computer screen worked.

His voice came through the monitor speakers like the sound of 10-plus airplane tires suddenly hitting the runway at 165mph. For me, none of the ZOOM issues were a buzzkill. I didn’t get paranoid; I remembered my former boss was not on the line and there wasn’t a store to open. If anything, it made me happy I’d smoked weed before getting to the office, and thankful Reinhold was there to keep us in the land of the living on this holy day of obligation.

Ryan Kent: I was relistening to some of your stand up, and you once said our two-party system is “a bowl of shit looking in the mirror at itself” and I can’t imagine you think any differently than you did in 2010…

Lewis Black: Actually, that joke’s been in a permanent state of permutation. I mean, I do that joke, pretty much, for every special I do, and it becomes something else. So, it’s been all sorts of, you know, the Democrats say, I have a really good idea and the Republicans say, I can make it shittier. Republicans have a really great idea, and the Democrats say, I can make it shittier. There’s, you know, a whole list of them. So, like, it’s endless. It’s endless. Both sides really have no sense of how to use the English language.

RK: A lot of people must have told you over the years that you should run for president. You were in the movie Man of the Year with Robin Williams. You haven’t liked a president since before H.W. Bush. I want to know why you would make a bad president, or worse than what we’ve had?

LB: Well, I mean, it’s really only because I would use it for myself. I’d use the plane. I’d come out and say a couple words. Answer a couple questions. And then I’d wave and say, “I’m going” and they’d say, “Where are you going?” and I’d say, “Find me.” [I’d] get on the plane and go somewhere nice, where it’s warmer. Generally, where it’s warmer. Or if it’s hot, where it’s cooler. That would be a lot of what I’d be doing.

A lot of it is just, I don’t know. I’ve tried it. When I was a kid, I tried to be on committees, and I tried to do stuff [throughout] college. I was involved in all sorts of — a variety of basically what would be considered political activities in the 60s, in terms of organizing things and going to demonstrations, and all sorts of things. And that was when I discovered, the side I liked was nuts. So, it was like, “Oh boy.” There’s nobody here. There are no adults in the room. That’s basically what I’ve watched during my life.

When I was a kid, we’re wandering around trying to protest this stuff, and there didn’t seem to be any adults in charge. And I kept going, “Okay, I’m 21. All right, I get it.” But I need somebody. [I’d] take even late 30’s at that point, for guidance. And it’s been like that ever since. I had no interest in being the adult. That’s why I got into comedy. That’s why I didn’t want to be president. That took a long fucking way to get there. If you could edit that, that’d be great [laughs].

RK: Since you’ve had a lot of experience, [RVA Magazine] wanted me to ask you about this, so I figured I’d put my own twist on it. What do you think the “Oscar Slap” was meant to distract the American people from?

LB: Anything that needs to be done in reality. Anything we really need to focus on. On the list of things we have to worry about. Then you divide it up into a variety of things that you can discuss with this. But the fact is, we’re not talking about the issues at hand. When it happened, I was doing a ton of radio interviews and other interviews to announce that it was my tour for the Fall and in the Winter. So, the upcoming tour, which will continue the Off The Rails tour after a Summer hiatus. It happened the day before I started that.

“Well, we got to ask the question.” “Well, we got to…” No, you don’t. “Well, you know, you’re someone who’s been doing this forever and you’re one of the folks who we’d expect to have comment.” I can’t believe I’ve got to talk about this. Then it was also that [only] eight hours had passed since [The Slap] happened. I don’t write funny that well already. I don’t write funny fast. I said, there’s a lot of things I can tell you. But I mean, eventually I got to what I thought it meant for me, which is, of course, where we are in this country now. It’s just whatever the fuck happens. [It’s] “How does it affect me? Fuck we.”

I found out immediately. Chris, who I’ve known – I haven’t seen him in forever, but I know Chris. We went through stuff together. He was breaking in and I was breaking in and all of that. And apparently his ticket sales went through the roof. So then for me it became, who can I get? We’d been doing four hours or five hours of radio a day. After I read that, I wanted to find a celebrity, a big celebrity, to come slap me. Just come to my door. Or I’ll go to them. Whoever. If that’s what it takes to sell the tickets so they pay attention.

Also, it distracts from all the other comics. And then it becomes a question about, “Well, what does that say about comedy today, quack, quack?” What does it say about comedy? What it says about Will Smith is that he protected his family from a bad joke. What fucking — and I’m supposed to make a joke out of what is already a joke? You know, that’s the joke. That’s the level of satire we’re at. Okay. Nobody came out with a machete. It was a bad joke. The flimsiest fucking thing outside of [if he had] thrown a paper airplane. Maybe a little less.

RK: And American people buy it. I mean, I’m guilty of it. In that, I’ve noticed there’s a sickness in Richmond, Virginia that I saw take root, and it’s grown increasingly bad. After the pandemic, it seems to have only gotten worse. With the loss of taste and smell, it seems like the CDC blatantly ignored the loss of the turn signal for some drivers. Has this weird flu turned up in your neighborhood?

LB: It’s funny, because I do that thing, The Rant Is Due, after every show, and I read what the major complaints are in the area. So, I’m coming to Richmond. The folks who really want to get something off their chest, send me the thing. Don’t go on for decades, explaining. Don’t say, I will talk about this, which is the funny idea, and then talk about the dumb idea. I mean, I’m not going to say dumb. The one that’s not funny, which has happened a few times.

What I’ve found is that people — the two major things that seem to unify the United States are potholes [and] every town, the roads suck. There’s too much road construction. “When are they going to fix my roads? They’ve been doing this stretch of highway and been working on it for…” — everywhere, doesn’t matter. Urban, rural, wherever. Everything about the roads is shitty, and nobody knows how to drive. The middle lane, you know, it’s a three-lane thing. Nobody knows which lane. People have yelled about the left lane and the right lane and the middle lane. They’ve yelled about all the lanes. And then the turn signal. And rotaries, which I don’t know if Richmond has rotaries, you know, the circular…

RK: Oh yeah, the roundabouts. They’ve put a lot of those in The Fan to slow people down.

LB: Yeah, exactly. I guarantee people will be writing me about the rotaries because that’s another thing that just drives people nuts. And that makes that turn signal virus thing explode. 

RK: It does that. Yeah. They don’t use them. They drive over the rotaries. It’s probably like that everywhere. Well, you were born in Washington, DC. You’re 73 now, and a Baltimore Orioles fan. And as much as we’ve listened to people from the Beltway complain about not having a team in the Nation’s Capital, you’ve remained steadfast in your loyalty to Peter Angelos and his pitch. I don’t know if you know that a group of orioles is called a pitch. I just learned that. 

LB: [laughing] Very good. That’s research. 

RK: That’s being stoned in the morning on 4/20 and looking at the Internet, man. 

LB: Well, I am! Then bringing in this Washington team. “Well, how come you aren’t a Nationals fan?” You can’t take a team out of a city twice. You can’t do that. And then bring in a third team and then switch the league like we won’t remember that there were two other teams. Minnesota is the Washington team. The Texas Rangers is the Washington team. And who’s next? Then they fucking did it again! They brought in this team and [started] fucking selling tickets, and they were one of the highest priced tickets in the league. Immediately! That’s what I read somewhere. It could be a lie. Who the fuck knows? You never know anymore. Every time you read something, now you got to do research. I haven’t got time to research, but that’s really what I kind of heard. They’re all possible. 

RK: Were there alternative facts?

LB: [laughing] Yeah. And then meanwhile Baltimore, they don’t spend a dime. You know, it’s cheaper for a family of four — here’s another fact! It’s cheaper for a family of four to come down, spend the night in a hotel and go to see an Orioles game than it is to get four seats at Yankee Stadium, sometimes. Folks go down to Baltimore. 

RK: Camden Yards is a beautiful stadium. My first ballgame was at Memorial Park. My father is an Orioles fan. And being a dumb eight-year-old, my favorite ballplayer was Jose Canseco. The drive up to this ball game, my father is telling me that Jose Canseco is a bum, and I should like Cal Ripken, Jr. instead. Ripken’s this and Ripken’s that. But my father was right about Ripken.

So, the game was the Orioles vs the Oakland Athletics and Bob Welch was pitching for the Athletics. The Orioles are up by a point or two. Bottom of the 9th and who comes to bat but Jose Canseco, and he hits a home run. The look on my father’s face, it was… I don’t really have anything to equate it to. After that, it became this baseball rivalry between us. We just had Opening Day in Richmond for our Double-A team. It used to be the Richmond Braves, which was the Atlanta Braves affiliate, and now it’s the Flying Squirrels, which is the Giants affiliate. Opening Day we had Will Clark come down and that was great for the fans and the city. What’s your relationship with Richmond? Have you visited much?

LB: Well, I’ve performed there a ton. I perform there pretty much every couple of years. My first recollection of Richmond was — a friend of mine got married in Richmond early on, like ‘71 or ’72. After we got out of school, so maybe ‘70. [It’s] the marriage thing that people still do, which I always find it astonishing, you know. We were going through college, and now we’re gonna get married. They got married at the Jefferson, which at that point had not been redone. So we were in there and there was the water stain on the walls and still, you know, it was really impressive. So I generally stay there, I think 98% of the time. I can’t remember another place that we stayed. I always get a kick out of that.

I walk that neighborhood a lot. And from the time I’ve been coming there, there was no stand-up club that I worked at [in Richmond]. Not from lack of trying. But once I started working — you’ve got to realize I went to UNC, so I would drive by Richmond. The Richmond/Petersburg run was always, like, indelibly in my head. I-95 and that train station as you pass along. They’re just these images of Richmond [that are] indelible. The stairs that come down to the Jefferson, and Arthur Ashe and his statue, and then Lee, I guess. I don’t know if he’s gone now? 

RK: Yeah, those are gone on Monument Ave. 

LB: And VCU is there. I started to notice — this was my major thing with Richmond. I came back one year when I had been gone. I generally play Richmond every two years. Usually, that’s the cycle. I think I came back two years later. I was saying, “What happened?” VCU had built all of these apartments down there, and that really gave Richmond a kick in the ass, in a good way. Hopefully not overly urban renewal-ized. So then, all of a sudden, I leave the Jefferson and go up a couple of blocks, take a right, and there’s all these fucking places to eat now. Like, goddamnit, this is a really good breakfast. So, I was watching Richmond grow into, really becoming… the word I rarely use, but: cosmopolitan.

RK: Yes. I moved here at the tail end of 2003, and it’s funny how much can happen in less than 20 years.

LB: It is kind of amazing. And it was the same thing I saw in other areas. Could also be for NYU, downtown in New York, where [the university] just basically goes through and buys everything. All of a sudden, these people have nowhere to live. That’s a different story. But from what I’m seeing from the outside, I thought, “Wow, Richmond is a different place.” But it was still like… I mean, I literally would come there and wander around the Jefferson and just, you know, stare at stuff. And then one time I got a room that I could go out on top of where I was. It kind of had a deck. It’s just been interesting to go there. And the whole history of Maryland, Virginia, and the war and all that stuff.

RK:  The Jefferson is one of those things that if you have a day [at the hotel] and it’s raining, it is a really cool place to just walk around the halls, like you said. I’ve stayed there once, and it would’ve only been cooler if it wasn’t in my own town.

LB: Yes! Exactly. It’s one of those things that has a history. Those steps, it’s Gone With The Wind. And so there’s, “Oh, it’s a really great movie,” and “Oh, it’s a” – you know. It’s a great movie with a bad history, and all of that stuff. Great movie/bad history. Then you’re stuck between both worlds — okay, bad history.

I didn’t watch Gone With The Wind and go, “Oh boy, that’s the story of the Civil War.” I’m not a fucking idiot. I’d already learned enough about the Civil War, which is why when they talk about – you don’t want kids to learn about the Civil War? Fuck you! I didn’t come out traumatized. What do you mean? What? What child do you have, that you think your child is going to read about slavery and then will take slavery on, and feel guilty? What? What are you, nuts? It’s really, it’s beyond this. It’s just beyond any comprehension. Having lived through it, having been taught it really made me want to go deeper into it. And there was no deeper to go. It was tough enough trying to find out about sex education when I was a kid, let alone the Civil War.

RK: Growing up in Virginia, I think a large portion of the curriculum in history class was the Civil War. I mean, I remember when my parents got a dial-up modem. I’d have a report to write on something about the Civil War and I’d look up stuff on the Internet, which was this brand-new thing, instead of having to use an Encyclopedia. Now, everybody has a cell phone, and people are raised by that. It’s like a burner babysitter. So, in a hypothetical sense, if there’s an eventual downfall to humanity, what do you think it’s going to be? Do you think it’s going to be the cell phone, or politics, or religion, or something like that?

LB: I think social media. My brother worked in — he did a lot of computer stuff. From the very beginning when the Internet came up, and a friend of mine kind of was in the initial group of folks who came up with that, called The Well, I guess, out in San Francisco. From the beginning, I thought, this is a whole other realm. This is like a TV set, you know? Radio was created, and then they came up with some rules. Okay, some of the rules were stupid. TV was created, [and] we still have stupid rules. Like, apparently, you can say “fuck” after 12 o’clock, and nobody panics. Ludicrous. But [The Well] came up with rules. They came up with the fact that you can’t go on and do nonsense. You can’t go on and name call. You can’t go on and be racist, be this or be that. There were rules.

Then [social media] shows up, and now we’ve got the internet and no rules. It’s just like, “Okay. Anything goes.” And then it’s an extension of our fucking nervous system. Okay, that’s the way I look at it. When I was a kid, it was like, you don’t really want to do acid. All right, I get why, but then, you know, you’re putting rules on the goddamn drug. This is a drug, you fucking schmucks! They ignored that. Then they kind of just started dropping stuff into the drug, like, Facebook and MySpace, and Snapchat and dog fuck, and booboo, and Mimi, and all of that stuff that allows this kind of madness.

My friend Kathleen Madigan is really great on Twitter. She’s great. There’s a lot of people I know, phenomenal. I just, from the very beginning, it disturbed me to… well, you know – “That’s a really good thing to learn, to be able to write 120 characters or whatever.” No, it’s not. Who came up with that? How is that a good thing? I can’t even write a joke to begin with, let alone one that doesn’t take 3,000 characters before I even get to my setup. So, it’s like the punch line. There’s a level of which it’s a form of advertising, the way I see it.

The problems with it really showed up when we were kind of driven into our homes. [Then] all of a sudden, this became where we spoke to each other and therefore, you didn’t have to be there. So, the person that you were working with in your office, who rooted for the Baltimore team, or the Richmond team [and] both of you just went to the game that night and you talked about that. Now, you may have completely different political views, but you basically crossed over there. You wouldn’t walk up to the water cooler and go, “Hey, you cocksucking fuck.” You wouldn’t do that. And so [now], all of that has been unleashed. And now it’s trying to put that genie back in the bottle and they can’t figure out how to do it. Because once again, no adults in the room.

RK: This isolation has kept everybody secluded so that they can be on their phones, and they can talk shit about each other, just stay inside. You mentioned it in [Thanks For Risking Your Life] about 2-Day Free Shipping. 

LB: It’s freakish. There’s a guy who just wrote an article. I can’t think of the name – Why We Become More Stupid or Why the Last 10 Years Were Really Stupid in the Atlantic [Why the Past 10 years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid, by Jonathan Haidt, April 11th, 2022, The Atlantic]. 

RK Yes! With the burning Facebook symbol. I read half of that.

LB: Yeah. That article was worth taking a look at. It just came out. That’ll make you feel even worse [laughing].

RK: Yes, it’s just evolved into, like you said, a Pandora’s box of all this shit, and we’re just trying to catch it. We don’t even know what we’re trying to catch, you know?

LB: Well, the other thing about Facebook, too, is it was the only thing that we joined and there’s no rules. There was nothing. You just opened it up and started pressing buttons. There was no guidance. None. Do A or do B or do C. This is Facebook. This is what this can do. So, I wrote about it. I talked about it four or five times, four or five specials ago. I would say somebody would show up and want to be my friend. [I’d] make him my friend and make him my friend and make him my friend. I don’t know who these people are. I realized. I put myself on there in part to try to see who is out there that I know that are friends and that they might find me. They didn’t show up. No. But thousands of people I never met in my life couldn’t wait to be my friend. And I had no idea what that meant, and then all of a sudden, they started sending me stuff and was like – are you shitting me? I didn’t expect you to start communicating with me [laughing].

RK: [laughing] I thought it was just to collect people.

LB: Well, you know, I didn’t want them to feel bad that they didn’t have a friend [laughing].

Lewis Black will bring his Off The Rails tour to the Carpenter Theatre at the Dominion Energy Center in Richmond on May 5. Tickets are $39.50 – $65, and are available from Dominion Energy Center’s website.

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent is the author of the collections, Poems For Dead People, This Is Why I Am Insane, Hit Me When I'm Pretty, and Everything Is On Fire: Selected Poems 2014-2021. He has also co-authored the poetry collections, Tomorrow Ruined Today, and Some Of Us Love You (both with Brett Lloyd). His spoken word record, Dying Comes With Age, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2022. Ryan is a staff writer for RVA Magazine and maintains a pack a day habit. (photo by D. Randall Blythe)

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