You think going back to school is tough for your kids. Lewis Black isn’t happy about it, either.
“School’s starting and you’re already behind. I hate this time of year,” Black said on the phone Wednesday with The Comic’s Comic. Even now? Even still? “It’s totally present and I’m 66. I have a pit in my stomach just thinking about it.”
Truth be told, Black maintains a healthy cynicism toward it all — the changing of the seasons, the state of our world, and of course, politics. Even when he’s not in a full-on rant that thrills audiences, his calm demeanor still breathes cool sarcasm into the air. “Everything is really working out the way God intended. I think everything is moving toward that realization of the Renaissance of the human spirit. It’s just around the corner. We’re just two blocks away,” he said. “And there’s a rainbow fucking everywhere.”
When we spoke earlier this week, Joan Rivers was still in a coma, ISIS had just beheaded another kidnapped American journalist, and hackers had stolen and shared hundreds of nude photos of female celebrities.
“I put my nudes out and nobody paid attention. I did it on my own. I didn’t even let it get to the Cloud. Here’s my nudes. There was one Like,” Black said.
Black’s current stand-up tour, “The Rant is Due,” makes stops this weekend across New England (tonight in Portsmouth, NH; Saturday at Foxwoods; Sunday in Ridgefield), then next week crosses the border into Ontario, Canada.
If you’re online, you already could be treated with the unusual sight of Black in a webseries. He appeared in episode two of “Teacher’s Lounge” with Ted Alexandro and Hollis James.
Are you open to performing in more webseries, or was this a one-time-only favor for Ted?
“First, I had to make sure I put enough money into Kickstarter to get it on the air,” Black said, adding that he did donate to the webseries Kickstarter campaign. “I like Ted’s work a lot. I’ve worked with him a lot. When I’m in a situation where I can get work to him, I do. He’s a terrific new voice. Now he’s old. Fucking unbelievable! I was a new voice at 50. But, I thought the scripts were well-written. Jim (Gaffigan), Dave Attell, that’s some good company to be in.”
What happens now if other people ask you to do their webseries?
“Lord knows people have,” Black said. “People I don’t even know. But if it’s someone whose work I know and like, I may do it. But if it’s (someone randomly) on Twitter, the odds are slim.”
Speaking of Twitter, Patton Oswalt took a public sabbatical from the social network. I know you were very public about resisting the urge to join it in the first place. So is a sabbatical in your future? Or have you come around to liking Twitter?
“A, we’re losing any sense of language anyway. So let’s cut it down to 140 characters, whatever the fuck it is,” Black said. “All I know is it goes 39,38,37. I don’t know. Part of it is that being, of, it really forces you to be concise. Well, fuck you! It would be nice, a lot of the time you need more than concise. Most of the fucking time, in a world that’s complicated. You know when Twitter would have been great, when I was exercising English in the ninth grade. That would have gotten me to be concise. But I also…how do I put this…part of my backlash — by 140 characters, I’m not even close to the set-up.”
“The people who write great set-ups and punchlines,” Twitter is made for them, he said. “When I have one, I’m always really excited. Oh, I got one today! It only takes, once every six months. You can talk about it in terms of reaching your audience. In another sense, it’s advertising. A lot of people advertising. People advertising things when they don’t have anything to advertise.”
Black is no different, often turning to Twitter to remind fans when and where his tour stops next. Not that that information gets to all of his fanbase. Even traditional marketing fails to reach some of them.
“I walk into a town and there will be 25 people in the city, like near the theater, who work downtown, and say, what are you doing here? Meanwhile, I’ve been on Facebook, Twitter, in the newspaper, on 12 different stations,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to focus at this point.”
One thing Black started this summer that does provide a sharpened focus for his fans: Interactive Rants that let fans speak out and suggest topics for him to talk about onstage, while he’s onstage. He started it with a weekend livestreaming event for members of his fan club in mid-July.
“They’ve been fun,” Black told The Comic’s Comic. “What’s really fun is you realize how an audience can come and see someone who shares a sense of humor, and start mocking each other. ‘Would you tell that schmuck in the second row to take off his Falcons hat?’ ‘That guy’s an asshole!’ They start going after each other.”
And after him, too. Even pre-heckling. “‘Why aren’t you onstage yet? Like I’ve handed the tools to people to tell me to fuck myself…Like I’m taking a bubble bath before I go out to see them.”
Still, the process has been illuminating already.
“You give people the opportunity to help shape your comedy, to find out what they’re thinking, and see if what I’m talking about is what they’re thinking, and a lot of times it is. It’s good to know we’re on track. A lot of people think they’re doing the work for me. Fuck you! I still have to come up with something that’s funny. I have to do the work! And it’s in the instant. It’s not prepped. There may be one or two things that come out and I know, I know what the answer’s going to be. I go through and get questions out and take them. Weeding them out.”
“The thing is I do an act, and 20 percent or 10 percent is off the top of my head. If in the audience, if there’s a fuck-up, nothing gives the audience more joy than a fuck-up. You can work two years, the tremendous craftsmanship in terms of their joke writing. But I can guarantee the audience will go away and say, ‘Can you believe when the guy stood up in the audience and said that thing?’ The complete accident. Where the complete artifice is gone. Audiences love that. That’s in part why I’m doing that. And they still bitch about it.”
Have you changed the format or structure of your interactive rants since starting them?
“Not really. I keep seeing what’s going on,” he said. “This summer we shot two streaming things. It was as much about seeing how that worked as a show. But it was also about how it played out. Did the system work? And it did.”
For being a reluctant member of social media, you’re also ahead of the curve compared to just about all other stand-up comedians in terms of using technology to sell yourself and your tickets. Your most recent stand-up special was a live pay-per-view event before going to EPIX months later. And now you have these live-streaming interactive shows. How do you explain that?
“A lot of my comedy is immediate, and a lot of is finding ways to make it so. I may be able to work from, impart the Louis C.K. model of just getting it out there. Part of the difficulty is my audience, I’d have to wait six years for a lot of them to get to the site. As much as I’m resistant, they’re resistant. Because as much as the computer is a wonderful instrument, people my age look at it and see my own mortality.”
So what’s next for you?
“I’m thinking of retiring and opening a gun shop. Because that’s where the money seems to be.
There’s not an adult left in the room,” Black said, only joking in the first half of that statement.
That sounds like it should be the title of your next special. There’s Not An Adult Left In The Room.
“That’s pretty close,” Black said. “Pretty close to what I’m talking about onstage. How can I be the mature one?!?!”
Definitely on the horizon for Black and his fans:
- Inside Out, a Pixar animated film coming out June 19, 2015. “I play the voice of anger inside of a 11-year-old girl’s head.”
- “Working on my next book, hopefully, if I get the time.”
- “And then I have my play (“One Slight Hitch”), is getting done around the country, in cities I’ve never heard of, but that’s getting productions.”
- “And then we’re gong to expand on what this app does. I have a lot of stuff I’ve filmed already around the country the last six months…Once we figure out the best approach, it may end up on my website or another site, but I’d say I have an hour of stuff, and a lot of it is material I don’t talk about onstage. My sex life. I don’t talk bout. So, hey Ted Cruz, and hey look at my cock!”
- “The Daily Show four or five or six more times.”
“And the tour never ends,” Black said.
Here’s his appearance for his recurring “Back in Black” segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart back in May, talking about the latest advances in science. Weird science! Roll it.
The tour really doesn’t end. Check Lewis Black’s tour page for updates on where and when he’s performing in a city near you.
Above: Lewis Black photographed during one of the galas at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, July 2014.