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First Lenny Bruce, then George Carlin and now Lewis Black — America continues to rely on comedians to cut through heaps of steaming bullshit (much of which is spouted from our nation's capital). If a comedian's agenda is truth and they can circumvent the cheap transfer of pop-cult baggage, they might transcend the tag of being simply "stand-up" — they become our societal whistle-blowers, reporters with a gag, calling out the launderers of civilization and catatonic politicos. Wasn't that Shakespeare's bag? So, is it really that sad that 18- to 36-year-old Americans get their TV news from The Daily Show? Real life, in all of its imposing absurdity, provides more than cut-rate punch lines. Sure, a good comic has to have quick wit and real acumen, but a bit of rage helps too … unless you're trying to get laid. So says Lewis Black, the infuriated people's champ of observational comedy who redefined black comedy. He'll be in Detroit to film a special at the Fillmore Detroit in a few weeks, so we tracked him down for his take on our new prez, Congress, ganja, Gitmo and the Motor City.
Metro Times: How much do you miss Dubya these days?
Lewis Black: (laughs) He provided fodder, sure, but it's more fun to be creative. He was never the target — it was more of what was going on around him and his administration's complete disregard for clear thought. I've generally tried to work as a comedian to affect people, not the subject — except for when it's fun to punch 'em out for a while. I just got to tell 'em, "Look, this is what's happening, you fucking idiots!" That's my approach.
MT: Who's the new public enemy No. 1?
Black: Congress! They're unbelievable, I mean their inability to sit down and get things done is just incredible. Henry Reid isn't worth that much and neither is Nancy Pelosi, and the Republican Party is so worried about finding their face that they're not concentrating on the things they should be focused on, like intelligent conservative economics.
MT: How does Congress get under your skin?
Black: You don't raise taxes for people making 100 grand or less, you tax the people who have the big money. But all you get is a big fuck you from the government. Four years ago, my old high school, which is in one of the absolute most-richest counties in Maryland, asked me to come and do a benefit. Really? You can't raise enough money in this filthy-rich school district to run the high school? Really? Then fucking give up and move back to Europe.
MT: What was the last thing that really pissed you off?
Black: It's this argument that after 26 years they're finally saying, "Gee, maybe we should raise the miles-per-gallon." The argument against doing that was that it would make driving more dangerous. What the fuck? This is not based on any sort of facts, and even if it was then just lower the fucking speed limit if you're so afraid. It's like saying, "If we raise the miles-per-gallon on cars you know what will happen? Giant Kodiak bears will rule the earth!" It's absurd and it's fucking offensive if you ask me. How did we get to the moon in my lifetime that now we want to block seeking out alternative energy? Are you stupid? Cell phone technology is like 10 fucking seconds away from teleportation and you're telling me we can't figure out the rest of this? Fuck you, you fucking idiots! Godammit — I'm serious. My generation turned their backs on the basics and passed the world onto a group of other fucking people who don't seem to have any of their fucking neurons in place.
MT: You're pissed and you want change. Will you follow Al Franken's footsteps?
Black: God, no — since he's left I make more money. I lived around Washington, D.C., for a while and I don't like those people. If I liked those people I'd do it, but just imagine me with those people. At some point, I'd hit somebody!
MT: If not brainy pols, who do you hang out with? What does the Lewis Black entourage look like?
Black: They're mostly people I've known for a long time and most work in theatre: actors, writers, comics. They're all basically funny and they're all kind of sharp.
MT: Do you still perform theatre or are those days behind you now?
Black: The last thing that came across my desk was the part of Scrooge on a five-city tour, and I probably would've done it but they were really big theaters and though I can sell a certain amount of tickets, we needed four more names that could help sell tickets. There are a good amount of people that I'm sure would love to see me as Scrooge … but for very perverted reasons.
MT: Going back to the Daily Show segment, Black on Black, and even before that, you've built such a rageaholic public persona that I'm wondering if it's gotten in the way of real interaction?
Black: It did early on, that's why it took so long for my career to take off —we had anger issues. I'd go into an office and I'd say things to people that'd just shock the hell out of them — they wouldn't know how to take me. Now I can control it and I'm comfortable saying what I have to say without feeling like I'm being a complete prick. The only time I screw up now is if I'm with a lady and things are going well then I find myself getting into an argument with them about something and it just ends … badly.
MT: Are there a lot of women on the road for comedians?
Black: We're not rock stars — it's like you're funny, but you're not that funny.
MT: Maybe it doesn't help that you're a cerebral comedian — like if you were Dane Cook shouting mindless shit you might have more luck?
Black: (laughs) You're probably right — that and the fact that I am angry, which is only cute to a point.
MT: What does your doctor say about your rage?
Black: The funny thing is that my blood pressure is perfect — evidently everything else seems to be rotting.
MT: If your blood pressure is cool, does that mean you've trained your body for anger as the status quo emotion?
Black: Yeah, I think all these years of doing it has made me that way. Esquire magazine did a thing a couple years ago where they hooked me up to a blood pressure thing and the guy would get me to yell and scream and I would yell and scream and my blood pressure would rise then the second I stopped it immediately came back down to normal. Weird, right?
MT: What do you think Palin's next move should be?
Black: If she had any fucking brains she's host her own talk show and become a money machine. But I don't think she has any brains.
MT: What's the deal with GM coming out of bankruptcy in 40 days after the whole situation was billed as some unfixable clusterfuck?
Black: I was on the bus with my longtime opening act John Bowman when we got the news and I turned to him and said, "What the fuck? Seriously, how the fuck did that just happen?"
MT: Are we getting the wool pulled over our eyes all the time?
Black: I have no idea. You know what I think? I think they have no fucking idea what's going on either! You know who I think is pulling the wool over eyes? It's the fuckers who jerked us around in the economic infrastructure so they could make money. Now they're covering their tracks. I heard this morning that Goldman Sachs is poised to make insanely large second quarter profits — insanely large. It's all a gamble on whether the dollar will be strong or weak. Can we not get back to basics already? It's like you can't just make money, you have to make tons more than the year before or else you're a piece of shit? Really? So Target ends up fucking itself because Target comes up with a credit card for people who are buying shit at Target because they can't afford a credit card in the fucking first place! How fucking dumb?
MT: I keep hearing about how people want more political parties in America, but then nobody votes for them.
Black: You go to Europe or Canada and there are four, five, six political parties. I'd rather see a handful of intelligent parties than two lumbering bowls of shit.
MT: Long overdue.
Black: Right! I mean in the entire fucking country, only one socialist (Bernie Sanders) from Vermont can get elected? The thing is that there's no sense from either party on the common good.
MT: Is revolution even an option anymore?
Black: The one thing we do in America is we react the day after the catastrophe. There are things about 9/11 that still get to me, like the fact they took all the air marshals off planes to save money. They do that shit constantly. What about working on infrastructure? Nah. Then a bridge comes down in Minneapolis and the very next day every state across the country sent people out to inspect their bridges. What, that just happened to be the day you were reminded you had bridges in your fucking state too? When the flush is complete and our heads are right in the fucking sewer is when we go, "Oh, fuck, maybe we should've done something about this. …"
MT: But Obama's supposed to save us all, right?
Black: For the last eight years, the entire country had a fucking stroke and fell into a fucking coma, and now Obama's that doctor who comes in and goes, "OK, today we're going to work on you wiggling your fingers. Can you do that for me? Oh, good, come back tomorrow and we'll work on the whole hand."
MT: There's no way he won't get two terms, right?
Black: Who knows? This country, the way they went from Bush to Obama, is so fucking psychotic. We went from one of the dumbest white men ever to one of the smartest black men ever — completely insane! The right wing spends their time painting Obama as a dangerous socialist who's going to take away the pot you shit in! They're rabid fucking dogs. It looks as if the Republicans are out, but I've been through this shit before.
MT: What could Obama do to break your heart?
Black: Well he's already done it with this shit about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I mean, really, you can't fucking get that done? Disgusting. They're firing people who they need, soldiers who speak Arabic, because they're gay? Madness.
MT: California and Michigan are both in the tank and California's seriously considering full-on legalization and taxation of marijuana to get out of debt. Michigan decriminalized medical marijuana last year and I wish they'd consider the same thing.
Black: Look, my generation has no palpable legacy whatsoever. The one thing we should've done, and we should've done it a long fucking time ago, is legalize marijuana. It's totally and completely stupid that it's not legal. It certainly might fuck up the education of our youth, but the good news is that we could generate enough income to pay for their education.
MT: There's this talk of moving Gitmo to Michigan — they're calling it Mitmo. Some people see job creation and others don't want these incarcerated guys anywhere near them.
Black: But you have these fucking criminals running the auto industry, so what's the fucking difference?
MT: So you're taping a special here in Detroit. There's a lot to be said about the city.
Black: There absolutely is. I wanted to shoot in a place that just going there would generate some money for the local economy — at least for a night — plus every third person I know is from fuckin' Michigan. Is there a baby factory up there where you just produce 'em and just ship 'em out? My brother went to U of M, one of my closest friends was born in Ann Arbor, I spent my summers as a youth in the U.P., and my opening act, John Bowman, is from Howard City. And, being from Maryland, I have no decent baseball team, so I always paid attention to the Tigers, and the Washington Wizards are horrible so I always followed the Pistons — but at least your football team makes me feel better about my Redskins and Ravens.
MT: Detroit's always in the news, hardly for good reason. What's your outsider's take on the city?
Black: The way I feel is anytime you can fuckin' mention Detroit it's like, hello! Every time I go back to Detroit, I'm more disturbed. I don't think people get it. It really started to hit me during the Super Bowl a few years ago when we were doing some coverage for HBO's Inside the NFL. Bower was writing material and we had a car drive us around and we shot the ways the municipality was masking the way the city really looks like so out-of-towners couldn't really see it. Each time I go back I get out and walk around because that's the only way to really get it. People think Detroit is kind of like Cleveland or kind of like Baltimore — no, you fucking morons! There's nothing there — it's astonishing. I don't understand how Detroit can be ignored.
MT: Got any kind words for Detroiters?
Black: There comes a point when people are pressed — especially when Americans are pressed to the max — that something good comes out of it. Something's going to come along, some people, the right people, are going to come along and make this shit right again. I look at Detroit and I see a place that people can afford. I think we have to stop ignoring Detroit.
MT: That sounds something like Obama's message of hope.
Black: I don't believe in hope — no, what I'm saying is maybe they'll get Scope ... you know, the mouthwash. I don't believe in hope, I believe in possibility. Detroit is the end of the 20th century city, but I think it could be the first 21st century city. I hope so at least. Wait! No, I don't believe in hope, I'm sick of hope. I'm too old for hope — Obama lactates hope.
Lewis Black performs and films his new comedy special at the Fillmore Detroit, Sunday, August 2 at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m..
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.