Lewis Black dishes on his new special, the election and staying sane in 2020

Credit: Stark Raving Black Productions

When Lewis Black took the stage in New Buffalo, Michigan, back on March 13, he knew it would be his last show for the foreseeable future, as the country was knocking on the door of a complete lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But what he didn’t know, until after the fact, is that the recording of what remains to be his last show in front of a live crowd would serve as his newest special.

Now, seven months later, Thanks For Risking Your Life is out for the world to see. Dropping earlier this week via TLB Records, Black’s latest batch of both scathing social commentary and witty musings comes at a crucial time for the nation. With so much uncertainty lying ahead as we continue to trudge through the effects of the pandemic, Black is here, once again, to let us know that we are not alone in feeling that it’s all totally fucked.

We caught up with the comedian and social activist to talk about the new hour, how he got through the days of a 10-week lockdown period, and well of course, the president. Check out the chat below.

Jason Greenough: Hi, Lewis. I guess the natural first question would be ‘how are you doing?’

Lewis Black: Just great, Jason. Every day, just better and better, don’t you think? 

The only way is up at this point, right?

Every day, it’s exactly the same day, only with this nuance of ‘which neurosis do I want to enter into today?’

Exactly. These are definitely not great days outside right now.

No, it’s unbelievable.

It really is. I’ve managed to check out your new special a few times, and it’s just so weird to see just how much worse it’s gotten since you recorded the set that night.

It’s gotten worse, but a lot of what I was saying [in the special] applies to what we were going to get hit with, but by accident. The only difference, really, was the virus, which is a big difference, but in essence, with the whole concept of climate change, I would do some of that material, and things would kind of happen, but then it went biblical.

Being only a few weeks out from the election, I can only imagine it’s going to get more biblical between now and then.

Yes, but with two-day free shipping! [laughs]

Ah, yes. The bright spots are important!

It’s apparently the only bright spot we’re being offered in the midst of it all.

We’re starting off on the right foot here. You’ve got your new special, Thanks For Risking Your Life. You’ve done plenty of specials during your career, but what is the overall feeling surrounding theis special that makes it different for you this time around?

What made it different was that it was an accident. We have two cameras running at every show for the Rant Is Due segment of every show, and I’ve recorded pretty much everything I’ve ever done for a long time, to no one’s interest, really. [laughs] There wasn’t a light on the audience, and they weren’t heavily mic’d, so it became kind of an intimate special, even with 1,500 people or more there. When comics have that kind of intimacy with a room that size, it’s not captured, generally in a high-tech special. 

Another thing that was interesting was trying to find someone to put it out there like Netflix or someone, but you’re not up to the standard if you don’t have all the [high-tech] stuff. In terms of what I said on stage, is precisely as good as if I had done the special with all the bells and whistles. I couldn’t be happier with the way in which it came out, and what I ultimately spoke. That was what I was shooting for, so in a sense, you were seeing a great dress rehearsal.

The message itself could be powerful enough to drive the special. It really didn’t need all the bells and whistles.

Thank you, I appreciate that. Parts of it had to be cut, but I’m happy with it and I’m interested to hear what people think about it. I’m just really glad I got it out there, where it really has become a real moment in time.

With this set taking place while we’re on the doormat of a downfall, did that add any additional weight to releasing it and reflecting on that and thinking about what you were up against?

Only in the sense that it was kind of the end of people doing shows. The lockdown began that night. They were even debating about whether to let the show go on that night, but people had already been in the casino, so if they were spreading it, they were already spreading it. If anything, I felt a responsibility to that audience in the sense that it was like putting them in harm’s way. We just didn’t really know at that point.

I don’t think any of us fully realized the scope of what would happen. Well, we did and some of us just didn’t listen.

And the people who should have been giving us the information weren’t giving us the information. [In the federal government], your job is morning announcements. It’s like high school. The principal comes down and tells everyone ‘we aren’t going to be able to eat that Salisbury steak at lunch because it apparently wasn’t refrigerated long enough, and you’d all get food poisoning. 

Now, if memory serves me right, you don’t mention the president by name in the special.

No, I never do. I’ve made a concerted effort to not do it, because it’s a flash point for the audience, so I felt I could take a little off by taking it out. I thought using the word ‘leader’ made more sense. And I also have a joke where I say I don’t say his name, because I know if I do, his ears perk up. Not to mention, his name is out there over and over again, so I just wasn’t willing to do that.

It seems like mentioning him by name at this point would take away from the weight of a certain joke, because the focus would automatically be on the fact that it is about him. Now, going off of your ‘he’s good for comedy the way a stroke is good for a nap’ bit, which I believe we covered the last time we spoke —

Yes! That’s seriously my favorite joke of the whole special. A lot of that feeling is from the fact that he lived in New York, and I lived in New York, and I knew what was coming.

Sure, there’s a lot of ‘material’ about the president to touch on, but was there any point leading up to shooting this accident of a special where you felt it wasn’t worth it to tell a certain joke about him, since there is already so much out there about him already?

I don’t think I talked about it in this set, but early on, I would talk about how I felt that television networks shouldn’t be analyzing his tweets because that’s my job. Their job is to deal with what he is doing, what his political stances might be, what he’s thinking. I can’t remember the word I used, but my job is talking about what might be considered to be his problems. If he’s yelling about John McCain, it’s not the job of networks to put that out there and read off his tweets. Their job is to get footage of him saying it. My job is to take the tweet. That’s my gig.

It seems like you and I only connect during election years. This time, as we’re in the closing weeks before the presidential election, what are your hopes for the hour, in terms of offering comedy to help people to think, like you have for all these years, but also helping people decompress from the onslaught of insanity that they’re seeing unfold in the outside world every day?

I’m really hoping it gives people a release. That’s what you really hope for. I think certain sections of the show help with that where they’re kind of ‘stupid funny’. I never set out to make people think like that. 

Having had all of this time away from the stage since that last show, what have you been doing to stay sane in all of this?

Well, I’ve done nothing to improve myself. Apparently, 66 percent of American people felt that they were better people because of the lockdown, and I felt like they must’ve asked three people, where two of them must’ve said yes, and I went ‘nah!’

I’ve been luckier than most, I feel guilty, and I used to think that was because I’m jewish, but it’s also because of social responsibility. I’m in that high-risk group, so I was in lockdown for ten weeks, completely alone. It was like solitary confinement in a much nicer setup than a lot of people who were put through worse. I got to see some friends of mine after the lockdown ended, which really helped. Nothing helped more than being with people. Now, this is really stupid, but playing golf also helped. It’s a sad commentary on how small my life really is, but it got me to focus [on something else], because my brain was running a track of neurosis, neurosis, anxiety, depression, ‘go fuck yourself,’ ‘you’re a piece of shit,’ ‘you’re guilty’. When you’re by yourself, and it’s just you and your brain, your brain really likes to fuck with you. So golf allowed me, even before all of this, to have a place where I can get away. Where else, instead of worrying about what I need to do and where I need to go in the next three weeks, can I stand there going ‘I must remember to breathe through my ass before I hit the ball’? So that definitely helped.

I’ve also been working on Lewis Black’s Rantcast, which is a compilation of a lot of the 2019 tour where fans wrote rants for the end of the show. So, I’ve been working on that, and mainly trying to do the intros, which is like learning a new skill. It’s not something I’m used to, because I’m used to being in front of an audience, and now I’m just sitting there. People have told me they think I’d be good at doing a podcast, but I don’t think so because that’s not my strongest skill. 

Something else I did that may eventually come out is a few podcasts I did with Kathleen Madigan about cities that we toured when we were starting out, so we did about half of the ones we wanted to get done, and when we have the chance, we’ll finish them up. That also kind of helped me.

I don’t know about anyone else, but my attention and focus are really kind of shot, so in terms of reading, it hasn’t been strong. I’ve been trying to find ways to get things out on social media, and I’m not as comfortable with social media as other comics are, because I don’t write jokes. I’ve said this before, but I need to get in front of an audience in order to find the joke, moreso than a lot of comics, I think. Like, Dave Attell writes great jokes, Kathleen writes great jokes, Ted Alexandro writes a really great joke, as does Jim Gaffigan, but he’s also said that he needed the audience to help him find his way. I do my writing in front of an audience and I really miss being able to do that, so that’s been tough. 

I’m kind of just muddling through. I just haven’t started yoga yet. Now, I’m not a nature person at all, but getting out there on hikes  and wandering through the woods really helped me because I could get away from everything. I’m not nature boy by any fucking stretch, but it was big for me, because it got my focus off the bullshit and off of myself. For so many weeks, there was no instruction, simultaneously going with the message of ‘you’re going to die,’ and I think that really took a toll on myself and a number of other people, so once I started getting away from the city, it was a big help.

Maybe this question is overdone at this point, but are there any thoughts on the upcoming election that you’d like to share?

To be honest, I haven’t been asked that question very much as of late. 

I’m kind of a voting rights representative for the ACLU. When I got involved with that, I told them that I wasn’t going to get locked up in some of the stuff they do, and while I’m glad that they do what they do, I didn’t really agree with everything they were going to court over, but I agree with their right to do so. But there is a bunch that they do [that I agree with], and the nearest to my heart was voting. 

In a country where you can’t get people to get out and vote anyway, to try and take away the right for people to vote is, to me, it’s gotta be a sin on some level, because it’s disgusting. People don’t even want to vote, so when he’s sitting there going ‘oh boy, there’s going to be corruption,’ no there’s not. People can’t even get off their ass to vote, fuckhead. So just stop it. You should be doing everything possible along with the republicans and democrats, as opposed to just getting out their vote, to make it as easy and simple and as clear a path for a human being who fits all the qualifications, to be able to go and vote. It’s absurd. 

So, that’s my main thing. I tweeted out a few days ago that there are only so many days left until the election, and the thing I added to it is to vote like your life depended on it. Why? Because it does. It always does.

It really seems to be a problem with my age group, where a lot of younger people just don’t feel like voting matters.

By saying this, I’m not telling you that Biden is a spectacular choice, but when your leader says to you that he knows more than science, it’s just… no. You don’t know more than science, okay? Just because you say something doesn’t make it true. I think both the democrats and republicans have been criminally negligent when it comes to sending someone out to say something instead of the news, so that the news isn’t saying it where he can blame them. You need to get there and say it. You need to let him hold the microphone, you fucking morons. What it should’ve been was a democrat and a republican who gave a shit about telling the truth. 

To me, you might argue a little bit in terms of what should be happening with the EPA, but you shouldn’t be undermining it. No president has ever come in after another president ever, and dismantled things the other president did just because he didn’t like the other president. I think that the only reason that we’re in this position is, and I said this when we voted in 2016, because it was the first time in my lifetime that you had two people running for office that nobody liked. 

It’s going to be fascinating seeing what happens. My feelings have a lot to do with the fact that I was born and raised around Washington, D.C. and I feel like he’s done things as the president that are indefensible. I really feel like whoever wins, the first thing that has to happen is, whatever position you’re in, in terms of government, there has to be a constitutional amendment that if you’re in any position, be it city, county, state or federal government, you can’t make shit up.

I feel like that’ll be pretty hard to push through at this point, but you’re not wrong. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on it.

 One of the more interesting things about the special, while I don’t want to go into it, is the bit about his face being orange. It took me that long to figure it out. About a week or two beforehand that I was working that I was just ‘fuck me, I can’t believe it took me this long.’ I’m sure there’s another comic who has brought it up at some point, but I hadn’t heard it yet. It was so fucking simple, and it was like ‘I’m so fucking stupid, and so are the democrats and republicans for noticing, and I felt like it cut to the heart of the situation.

I did all the jokes that I wanted to do about him over the course of 40 years, and I got fed up with doing them. Here’s what I’ve never understood about his base, and a lot of the people I know that said they voted for him. I cannot imagine that they would enjoy being in an office, sitting next to someone who has his personality. That’s what I find extraordinary. Another thing that has always gotten to me, since the beginning was everyone saying ‘I like him because he talks like me.’ Well, that’s why you’re not the president of the united states.

I’m down to my last question I had for you. Above everything that went into this special, what are you hoping people take away from watching it?

I’m hoping they take away that, on some level, it helped. Even if they nap through it.