Wrinkled skin is scary thing. Folds, distorted by pale florescent lights. Sometimes I get a quick shock entering the room because of these things. I’m suddenly afraid I’ve taken on too much, that I’ll freeze up. I’m some kid, and he’s that bitchy old guy from “The Daily Show.” We don’t have anything to talk about. He’s gonna eat me alive. I mean, what do you say to a guy who’s not impressed by anything? I need a cigarette.
Crouched over his lighter, Lewis Black is quiet and unassuming. He’s recently brought his smoking habit out of retirement, saying that he can’t escape the allure of a fresh pack of Camels.
He’s no longer a looming force staring blankly across a table or through a TV screen. He’s not immediately forceful in his speech, but is more than willing to put in his two cents. At the drop of a hat he’ll complain about anything: politics, social taboos and even the weather.
Black’s not outwardly emotional in his criticisms, rather detached as he slowly squelches the last shreds of my youthful optimism. On stage, as in person, he’s brutally honest with his opinions. He’s arguably less melodramatic as he speaks from an outdoor stairwell, under street lamps, but the message is still clear. He wants people to start paying attention to the world around them.
Black, a career playwright gone comedian, has broken out of obscurity in the last few years. Most people don’t know him for the 40-plus plays he’s written, but rather for his involvement with Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.” Black’s segment “Back in Black” allows him to air his sometimes-extremist positions in a national forum. Offering creative spins mixed with bitter honesty, Black relays a unique, and wholly comical, view of events in contemporary America. He doesn’t always get a message across, but one thing is always clear – this guy is really angry.
Hatchet: Why are you so pissed off all the time?
Lewis Black: It should be obvious to people why I’m so angry. It’s pretty simple.
LB: Just wake up, start your day, walk around. If something doesn’t really piss you off within the first three hours of your day you’ve got to be lying. You’ve almost got to be blind not to be angry.
H: Have you always felt like that?
LB: I think it used to be when someone would ask that question, everything was just floating along. At this point though you’ve got to be missing the boat. All you have to do is turn on the news, for starters, and something will get to you.
H: Like what?
LB: I felt bad for the last five years that I didn’t drink enough water every day. Now apparently you don’t have to drink that much water. Come on.
H: So you’re pissed off about water now?
LB: Think about it. Every time they give us information, like two years later they take it back. Like “sorry, we were wrong.” That’s it for starters. We can go though a whole list. You want the whole list?
H: Don’t tell me everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re still youthful, we need our optimism.
LB: I never had it, so .
H: No optimism?
LB: It’s obvious I’m optimistic. I wouldn’t be this angry if I wasn’t optimistic.
H: You wouldn’t be up there. You’d just be bitter in your room?
LB: Yeah, exactly.
H: What do you think the answer is right now, when there aren’t clear solutions? Are people just ignorant?
LB: The thing that I’ve arrived at recently, my current theory, is that people just lack common sense. That’s my only criticism. We haven’t got a clue, and we act like it. It’s extraordinary that people without common sense make up for it with self-confidence.
H: Do you think you have more common sense then most people? Do you really know what’s up?
LB: I don’t think that I have any more common sense than most people. I’m willing to look for someone who will work for us in terms of consulting, to solve the problems.
H: I was being a good journalist, and I read that you work with children in Hell’s Kitchen. How did you get involved with that, and do you ever get mad at the kids?
LB: I’ve worked with kids since I was a kid. They have a summer program around the D.C. beltway for kids. I used to spend the summers doing it. When I got into theater I always worked with children’s theater groups.
H: Do you use that to take time out? Are you still angry?
LB: What I do on stage is who I am. But I don’t teach them that, no.
H: Along that line, do you have a public persona, as an angry guy? Do you feel like you play to that?
LB: I think I play that.
H: You don’t think you’re as pissed as you look on stage?
LB: I think I’m pretty pissed. But I don’t live like that. If I lived like the person I am on stage, I’d be dead. On the other hand it’s pretty much who I was, in a lot of ways, through high school and college.
H: Speaking of college. I heard that you were in a frat for awhile, for about 10 minutes.
LB: The reason I was in a frat was that at the University of North Carolina there were maybe seven men for every woman on campus. Those odds are appalling, especially if you don’t have great confidence with women. I was in the frat for about six months.
H: You just didn’t dig it?
LB: No. I mean, it was interesting. At the time, half of the group was drinking and half was doing drugs and they just kind of watched each other. It was fascinating to watch. It was actually more interesting in terms of atmosphere than I think it is now. People were doing hallucinogenics (sic). It was like being in an insane asylum. What I learned though, is I could go back to these parties, and I didn’t have to be a part of the fraternity.
H: And not have to pay for it all?
LB: Yeah. And I didn’t really like the whole system. I didn’t like the blackballing. Just because someone’s brother was in the frat he gets to be in. Well your brother’s a dick. Now I’m paying money to spend time with this asshole. Plus it’s exclusive. How interesting is that? Plus I was in theater.
H: Yeah, that’s kind of its own thing.
LB: They’re more interesting, more eclectic, though just a little fruitier.
H: And you could still get drunk with the theater kids.
LB: Yeah. I’ve never really hung with one group.
H: I think we’re going to get cut off soon. But before we are, I want you to say the first three deprecating things about me that you can think of.
LB: I don’t mock people. I mock large groups. I mock people who aren’t around. I mock idiots.
H: I wanted you to make me cry. I’m disappointed. So who are some of the groups that you have a big problem with then?
LB: The NRA, the Christian Right just for starters. The left doesn’t help. I don’t really have allegiance to either side anymore, but I kind of like to keep a balance of people I like to listen to.
H: How do you balance your role as a political commentator and a comedian? Do you have a set agenda?
LB: Oh God no. I just want to make people laugh. This is just what I ended up talking about. During times when there’s nothing political to talk about or it’s really difficult to talk about.
H: So you can talk about other stuff?
LB: Like weather. I used to have 25 minutes on weather.
H: Like, “So guys, what’s with this rain thing?”
LB: I used to go on and on. I’d go through like two seasons. Whatever pisses me off. It doesn’t have to be political.
H: What’s your act about then?
LB: What I want people to know. The bottom line is that you’re a lot smarter than you’re treated. That’s the bottom line. We’re being treated like we’re idiots. You shouldn’t allow that to happen.
H: Do you think a lot of people are idiots?
LB: I think they’re being treated as if they’re stupid.
-Magali Armillas-Tiseyra contributed to this report.