Raise The Rant: Lewis Black Talks Writing, Comedy And The Real Cost Of War
Lewis Black's "The Joke's On Us" tour arrives at Wichita's Orpheum Theatre on Friday. Black is known for a unique brand of observational humor that covers a wide range of topics, including politics and social trends. Though his humor is often based in anger, it often intersects with a deep empathy for others.
He has appeared in films such as Unaccompanied Minors and Inside Out as well as on a variety of television programs, including the Law and Order franchise. He is also a regular on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and has been a regular on the program since its inception in the 1990s, when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn.
Black is also an author and a playwright with his stage comedy, One Slight Hitch, which is in frequent production around the country. His latest comedy album is Black to the Future (2017).
He recently spoke with KMUW about his standup and writing careers.
You and I spoke in 2016. At that time, you were coming through Wichita and you were telling me that you were going to leave comedy and open a gun store. What happened? What changed?
[Laughs.] What changed? What happened was that I needed a new bit, that's what happened. I also haven't been able to locate the land that I really want in Alabama yet. I need to have the white supremacy thing calm down before I roll into certain parts of Alabama.
Are you thinking about the next show that you'll do as we speak or do you have a concentrated period of time where you have to go away and write?
I don't write anything. To be honest, I write a little of it. A bit here and a bit there. If something strikes me after a show, I make a note of it. I write on stage. I think about it. I wake up, I watch this nonsense, and I think about it. Things strike me, and I go, "I'll talk about that." I'll hit one thing and then there's another, then the next night I'll hit the other thing and eventually I'll get both things I want to say and tie both things together. Eventually, it all evolves into what, hopefully, will become a [broadcast] special. But basically, it evolves. If you saw me in May and a year later you saw me again, probably 60 percent of what I'm doing has changed.
Have you always operated that way or is that something that evolved as you evolved?
That was always the way. I tried to write it down. It never worked as written. What really struck me was that when I would write it down, I would worry about the way I was telling the story. I'd worry more about the words than telling the story. Then what I discovered was that the more I told the story, the more I said the same thing every night. I didn't have to worry about scripting it.
This is something that some people may not be aware of: You are a playwright, started off as a playwright. How did it differ, going into comedy where you have a more extemporaneous approach, as opposed to in theater where it's about having the words be the same night after night?
The difference was that … it was solitary in that sense. Until I got into a room with actors and stuff, then it's their interpretation of what I wrote, not my interpretation of what I wrote. It was really being locked up for four or five hours, sitting in front of a typewriter and then a screen or a pad, initially, writing it all down. And it's a bunch of different voices. What you're doing when you're writing a play is you're creating a reality for people, you're asking people to help you sustain that reality over an hour-and-a-half.
I'm curious about the nightly rant and taking suggestions from the audience.
It's not so much suggestions anymore as they're writing it. Ninety percent of it is all generated by the audience. It's all generated by the people that live in that town. There's nothing like it anywhere.
What was the origin of approaching it that way?
It evolved into that. I wanted to do a Q&A with the audience and that became impossible because you get 1,200 or 1,500 people in a room and you can't have somebody running around with a mic. It's ridiculous. But initially it was me just doing a Q&A and it was like any kind of TV show. We started with a pilot. The pilot was me answering questions from the audience and saying, "If you've really got something on your mind, write about it." People really started writing rants and what's extraordinary is the quality of what's being written. In every single town. There's a level of intelligence, in terms of clarity of thinking out there that one does not see in our government. At all.
Are there any in recent memory that stand out?
There were two that we did during Veterans Day. Two veterans wrote in about the problems they were having, individually, in dealing with the VA and trying to survive the aftermath of coming back from the war that never ends. It defined things better than just saying, "We've lost X amount of money." It put it on the basis of what war means to one individual. It's staggering.
What was it especially that was attractive about comedy, that made you say, "This is what I'm going to pursue"?
It was really only because things didn't work out in theater. I was broke. It was what people were responding to. It was much easier for me to find an audience in terms of my stand up than it was in terms of my theater. My plays. It was torture trying to find a theater … I was producing everything myself. It's easier to produce yourself as a standup than to produce your plays. Every so often I'd get just enough reinforcement as a playwright, just enough, for me to keep coming back. But I loved every minute of it. I did come back to it. I have a play that's published. The Dramatists Play Service published it. It's being done throughout the country. A number of my one-acts have been done, and I'm working on a one-person show that hopefully will be done within a year.
The play that you were referencing is One Slight Hitch.
What was that like to have that, something I understand you wrote quite a while ago, take on a new life?
It was great. You know what was nice? I could afford to be a playwright! [Laughs.] I could actually afford to do it. People would kind of pay attention to it and had an interest in it because I'd established my name as a comedian. I knew a lot of people in the theater so I started working it. The problem was trying to marry a farce and a romantic comedy, which was always the problem with it. It had been optioned for Broadway over seven years in its initial incarnation. If that play had actually gone anywhere when I was younger, I wouldn't be doing standup.