In a departure from past years, Montreal's Just For Laughs actually is getting two major State of the Industry dressing-downs from comedians. That's because Lewis Black just delivered a blistering critique of the comedy industry, and particularly TV network executives, in his keynote address today to officially kick off JFL's Comedy Conference.
Black opened with a bit of misdirect, claiming he was the wrong person for the gig, not only because he thought "it should be someone who knows what the fuck a keynote address is," but also because in giving a speech versus stand-up in front of the industry that has screwed him over for four decades, "I'm just too tired to give a shit" about using his opportunity to gain retribution against said industry." He disproved that theory, however, within seconds and held court for the following forty or so minutes.
Black first took issue with the fact that the comedians need to seek the approval of industry people who "haven't worked on sketches or five minutes of stand-up." When he tagged that by saying, "even better, they know how to fail up the ladder," he paused. "The lack of a laugh there fails and disturbs me. You've got to be shitting me….how does a room, half of whom are comdeians, miss the goddamn joke?!?"
Black cited one TV project rejected "because it was too funny for their network. How can something be too funny? Is that even possible? Can it be so funny that it depresses you?"
Another time: "I once did a pilot where I was playing myself in a reality show. It got rejected because I wasn't yelling enough. Not yelling enough. Who did they want, Hitler!?!?"
He also recounted the story he has told before — and written about in his best-selling memoirs — of when he auditioned for a sitcom part written specifically for him, with dialogue largely taken from his act, and rehearsing for it by pretending to be him, and yet CBS cast someone else to be him. "Unbeknownst to me, there was a better me out there." It happened to him again in this pilot season, this time with NBC, in a show David Kelley developed and wrote with Black in the lead role. It's Kindreds. "I tend to trust the creative teams. They're the ones who actually do the work." Black noted that the very fact that Kelley, who has had several critical and popular TV hits (including Black's mother's favorite show, Boston Legal), was the kind of outrageously good fortune that he figures is the kind of news that one pays an agent to feed you as a ego-puffing lie. But Black noted that Jay Leno's failure at 10 p.m. meant NBC was looking for shows. ""How is it possible that Jeffrey Zucker still has a job??? People say the Illuminati doesn't exist…it can be the only explanation for why this man still has that job." Black has reason to distrust Zucker, because NBC refused to give Kelley the clout and respect he deserved, and forced Black to audition for his part. Black cracked that Kelley should have just entered a network office and "club them like baby seals," then figured that baby seals would do a better job of programming than network programmers. "Whatever they arfed at would make it on the air." That led to Black acknowledging that only Animal Channel has been smart enough to give Andy Kindler — the stand-up who for years (and again tomorrow) has been coveted by the industry to deliver the State of the Industry in Montreal — a show on the air. In the end, Black said he missed out on his NBC drama, in part because he tried to negotiate a salary he thought he deserved. "I was the center of that script. The script wouldn't exist without me. So we negotiated, and say, even if they gave me what I wanted, I wouldn't have gotten the part, because they wanted a star. So this midseason, Kathy Bates (applause, laughs). Yeah. She'll be playing me. I always knew I had a feminine side."
Black shifted gears to turn his attention to the nature of shows that do get on the air, drifting into a mantra over "Jersey Shore" and being flabbergasted that a show such as "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" could have more than a few episodes. "I'm a guy, and at least twice a month, I think I'm pregnant!" he cracked. "You have to wonder, how does one write satire anymore?"
For those of you looking for life lessons, Black also had a few of them.
On him getting famous later in life: "The lesson is that comedy is ageless." He recalled being in his late 30s, and a friend getting a show, only to have the network saying it skewed too old for the network's demographic. "My comedy idol when I was 11 was Groucho Marx, and not only was he old, he was dead!"
"The best sitcom was ever written was Waiting For Godot," Black said, "and it should be put on every evening until you network fuckers understand it."
Until then, he joked about getting out of comedy and into producing, and putting on TV a bowl of shit. Real shit. Rotating around in a circle. Steaming. "I am competing with shit. How can my shit not work?!"
To those working the festival, Black said: "Knock 'em dead. Have a good time. If nobody comes up to you with a deal, don't worry about it. Don't panic." To those on the other side of the festival work, he said: "Pay attention…Open your eyes and your ears and your minds. And remember, those 12 million YouTube hits may just be wrong."
"All I know is you get up and you do it. And you do it again. And you do it again. Until someone in the business says, 'Oh, I remember him. He's funny.' And let's hope you're not too funny."