When it comes to comedian Lewis Black, to paraphrase Rage Against the Machine, his anger is a gift. That is to say, the often-incensed comedy veteran and sociopolitical pundit has made a considerable living and earned significant fame over the years with his rage-filled rants that hilariously skewer stupidity, hypocrisy, insincerity, and ineptitude, particularly the sort practiced by politicians.
For the better part of two decades, Black has unleashed his rancorous tirades against politicians, pundits, and pinheads alike via The Daily Show and his recurring segment, “Back in Black,” in which he becomes very much like Peter Finch's famed character in Network and gets as mad as hell over the airwaves about the latest idiocy du jour.
So famous for his rage is Black that it seems only natural that the producers of this summer's smash hit Inside Out cast him as the living embodiment of the emotion in the flick as he provided the voice for the character of Anger.
Black's ire isn't limited to either the silver screen or small screen as he regularly hits the road to spread his rage, bringing his bluster-filled persona and furious tirades to venues across the country, much like he'll do on Saturday, September 19, when he performs at Comerica Theatre as a part of his current “The Rant Is Due Part Deux” tour.
And while he's been getting hot under the collar for decades, it seems like there's always something for Black to by angry about, since stupidity – admittedly the thing that pisses him off the most – is as renewable a resource as the sun.
We asked the comedian what's been grinding his gears lately during a phone interview earlier this week and – to the surprise of no one – it happened to be the latest debate between Republican presidential hopefuls and the news media's seemingly wall-to-wall coverage of the event, as well as frontrunner Donald Trump.
So what's pissing you off most these days?
Well, the fact that the election process is so important that it's actually more important than the governing process. What we're really interested in is a contest and we have no desire anymore to really do anything. So what we're doing now is we're waiting around to see who the next president will be so maybe we can do the things that we should have done the last time. But we didn't get to them last time because we were waiting to see who the president was going to be then. CNN, their coverage of [last night's] debate, a year and change from the time in which we're electing somebody, is the most psychotic thing I've ever witnessed in my life.
That's all they're talking about! There's no news on CNN! None! I don't know if you've watched it the past three or four days, but that's all they've talked about. Seriously! They're treating it like the Super Bowl.
Is that what politics and the presidential race in particular has become — just another sporting event?
Well, certainly this year. Because news has become ratings-driven, to the point where it becomes like, "Oh, good, we've got this really good story with Donald Trump. Now we can put Carly Fiorina in the mix." They can't get enough. It's literally like what appears to be the most important thing, in terms of television at least, is the better the soap opera, the better the ratings. It's like, "Let's try to do the best soap opera we can."
It seems like this election cycle they're starting things off way earlier, like when the stores start gearing up for Christmas earlier and earlier.
I think if you look back, they started it before like this, but I don't think the news media treated it like this. I mean, Trump kind of raised the ante. But I don't know why [there's] this kind of extensive coverage. And meanwhile, nothing is being done. Nothing. We're not doing anything else, we're not covering anything else. You know? There was no news on CNN for an hour and 15 minutes except on the crawl.
Is it just a slow news period or just that people are eating it up?
I don't think people are eating it up. I think the reason Donald Trump is doing well is because people are disgusted by this. So the sideshow is more interesting than the show. We can't find a way to maintain a focus on what we have to do.
Do you think that Donald Trump has a realistic chance of winning either the Republican nomination or the presidency?
You know, I have to believe the American people as a whole can't find the idea of him as president to be acceptable. I just can't believe that. I'm going to be hard-pressed to continue with it in this business at all. [Chuckles] Then we've really moved into another realm. Then we've moved into, "Let's not just read fiction, let's live in it."
Could you live in a world where Donald Trump was president?
No, I don't know if I could find that acceptable. I really don't. There's just certain things you don't say if you want to be president. With what he said, you don't get to run for president. I mean, you can as an independent. But saying those things is unacceptable. You don't say those things about the Mexican people. You don't say those things about John McCain. That's not a matter of being politcally correct, that's just a comic without any jokes.
So besides the obvious differences in your politic and Trump's general lack of sense, do you see commonalities between yourself and him, then? I mean, you each have your outrageous or anger-based rants.
Yeah, I say anger-based things, but I try to have a punchline. And I'm not running for office.
Why is that? Al Franken became a senator after a long history in comedy...
Because I just can't be around those people. You know?
Does the buildup to an election give you more material or more to be angry about?
It does. This year certainly has, because some of the stuff that's going on is [ridiculous]. I mean, I've just started to talk about it and I feel pushed into talking about it, because I just don't really think seriously about it until we actually get through this year, until it's like eight months out. Don't ask me to take this seriously now.
Do you think the fact that we're so far removed from the actual election explains Trump's popularity? And as we get closer, people will get serious and says, "Yeah, I really didn't want him for president. Just kidding."
I don't know. I honestly don't know. I'm just kind of stunned that there just doesn't seem to be any adults in the room. And the news media, when they do these interviews, they don't seem to really try to deal with his blowhardness, they just let him be a blowhard.
Because it makes for good copy?
I just don't think they know how to deal with it, you know? He's established himself as this wild card and they kind of accept it. And the other thing is, we're the only country that spends this much time on an electing process. And we're the only country that it's somehow important for us to sit around and do this process because we have to get these people to at least act like they're presidential. And they talk about that all the time. "He really has to act like he's more presidential." What? Are you serious? We got to teach them?
In recent interviews, you've hinted at endorsing Bernie Sanders for president. We're still months and months away from the election, but do you support his candidacy and think he has a realistic shot at winning?
I do support him, considering the fact that I'm a socialist. I'm kind of thrilled that someone like that is running. However, what are his chances? And I need to be honest, I don't think he has a chance. Why? Because Americans have been kind of basically processed out by everything and Americans don't like the idea of socialism. And that's partly because they don't understand it, 'cause no one's really taken the time to separate communism from socialism. And we're a social democracy, so to speak, and Americans have trouble with all of those kind of things, that redistribution of wealth is always going to be difficult. I mean, it wasn't when I was a kid but now...ooh boy, that's not really a place you can go.
I don't think you should run as a socialist. I think you should run saying that he represents the Cocksucker Party, and I think the people would find it easier to deal with him, as opposed to being a socialist. By saying, "I'm a socialist" to begin with is putting yourself behind the eight ball. And there's a poll that just came out that said that only [47 percent] of Americans would vote for somebody that's a socialist. So I'm excited that somebody's running and saying things that I think need to be said, but what truly amazes me is how much Americans fear that somehow that those ideas would lead to fall of America. How they're contradictory to what our values are.
It seems like every day there's something new to be outraged about popping up on Facebook. Do you feel the same way? And has the world always been such a messed place only we're just instantaneously aware of everything?
Well, part of it is that we've got too much information and too little facts. We can't get any more information. The data is spectacular. Data is hard to come by. It's exhausting to try and find a fact. [Laughs] And when there is a fact, people start spinning on the fact; they try to reinterpret the fact. The fact is actually a fact, but they can't let it be just a fact anymore. And I think eventually when the dust settles maybe this whole new world of interconnectedness makes sense, but [the invention of] the computer was like handing people LSD as far as I'm concerned. Nobody said, "Hey, let's take it slow," and it's like a drug in a lot of ways and people are addicted to it.
So until that generation that was born with the computer as a part of their daily lives kind of acclimates to it, it's going to be that way, but for someone my age, I don't know if it's going to happen in my lifetime. With Facebook, it's great that people in the military can keep in touch with their families and families can keep in touch and that's all really nice, but a lot of the collateral damage of Facebook is unbelievable.
Do you think people can sometimes get pissed off at a lot of the wrong things, like all the fervor over the beloved Zimbabwean lion that was killed by that American dentist? While horrible and tragic, it didn't affect much in terms of our daily lives.
I just think it's just the way stuff goes. It's kind of like, everybody can agree that you don't shoot Lassie. I mean, everybody can agree on that. And the other thing is, I think in part too, a lot of it had to do with the fact that nobody likes dentists. [Laughs] It just goes to prove that a dentist on his own is the same prick that he is in the office when he's got a drill in your mouth. I mean, I think that it's sad that it happened, but we've got a million people displaced, for Chrissakes and there doesn't seem to be a worldwide uproar.
Do you think there should be more attention paid to the refugee situation overseas?
I think that the attention should've been paid before Syria was turned into dust. I don't know what people were doing, the world just seems to be — and us a lot of times — a day late and a dollar short, as I say in my act. And we just found out we were spying on Germany and that we were doing it last year, and I think we can all agree that's a little late to [find out about] that.
Is there such thing as outrage fatigue? Like I said, everyone seems to be up in arms about something practically every day.
I just think people are tired of not having any sense, which has been going on a long time, that they have a government that's insulated from them and doesn't do what government should basically do and that's govern. So these people's jobs is to sit down and cross the table and compromise, whether they like it or not. That's what the deal is. And so, I think people feel like, in a sense, powerless. And that's been coming for a long time and I think that spills over into everything else.
I was struck by your quote about how you start every day thinking things are going to be great before reading the paper and get pissed again. Do you still feel that way?
Well, it's like I get up with a lot of hope and by the time read the front page of the New York Times, I go, "It's not going to happen. Things aren't going to work out today. Son of a bitch. Maybe tomorrow."
You obviously have to stay abreast of topical info and update your act constantly, right?
You know, a lot of [the material] just stays there like it's a pond filled with mosquitoes. It stays relevant. A lot of the time this stuff just doesn't go away, it just stays there. A lot of the stuff I say, even in my act now about congress and how much they're not liked in the polling that was done a year ago, still holds up.
Do you ever feel like Cassandra inasmuch as no one heeds your warnings?
Nah, I can't feel like that because I'm a comic. I just hope that they laugh and that I give 'em a break so that they can step back for a minute and go, "Yeah, that's really nuts. I'm not nuts, they're nuts."
Is it hard to mine humor from politics.
Yeah, it's like a lot of the times I have to read the business page of the paper now to find out where the joke is and that's like mining corn out of feces.
Do you ever get naysayers at your shows or are your crowds all of the same mindset as you?
I don't think many of the people have the same mindset. I think most of 'em like me because they think I'm funny, so I've got people that don't agree with me but come to the show. What I am up there is kind of somebody who's reached the point that he's snapped. So people who want to deal with that character as a real person, you're crazy. But a lot of the things that I say are just common sense. I'm not on either side.
Because you've skewered liberals as well as conservatives?
Yeah. And I try to make that a point. The problem is as I've said it already two tours ago, the difference is that at times the Republicans are funnier because they're stupid, and stupid is funny, but the Democrats are dumb and dumb isn't funny. Stupid, you laugh and go, "Wow, why'd you say that?" Dumb, you just stare into space and go, "Please don't say that again. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
Because you're both of a similar mindset, I was wondering what your opinion is of John Oliver and his success with Last Week Tonight?
Oh, I think John's doing a terrific job. It just irritates me that he's been so successful. [Laughs] But I've known John a long time and I knew him when he was a comic and knew him before he came to The Daily Show. And I think we have a mutual admiration society. I think he's really smart and this idea of really taking a subject and really kind of going through it and mining it the way he does is phenomenal. And he's funny and he can be really silly. It's great.
He's more subdued than your act but its still taps into a similar anger of the way things are.
Silly question, but was there ever any consideration to have you take over Jon Stewart's spot on The Daily Show?
No. They never considered me. I always find it a little appalling. I just think by etiquette, they should ask me and kind of have a fake audition and then go, "Nah, that didn't work." [Laughs] At least pretend that I might be able to do it.
Right, go through the motions, at least.
Yeah. When they first replaced [original Daily Show host Craig Kilborn in 1999], they auditioned everybody on the show but me. That pissed me off. At least do a fake audition. If you're going to audition everybody else — granted, I was gaining some traction at the time — but at least realize that I don't have the "big angry guy" all the time. I'm pretty smart.
Do you ever get to where you can't take it any more, the amount of bullshit in politics or the world?
As a person, yeah. I mean, I have to take a vacation. [Laughs] It gets way, way beyond anything I could imagine sometimes. I did not think that my generation could be this stupid. I didn't think it was possible. I didn't think that my generation could produce the same kind of dinosaur mentality that I had to produce when I was a child.
And when I was in college and was watching these people who I thought had a dinosaur mentality, I figured by the time we were in charge that that mentality wouldn't exist in my generation and they've carried it on. One of the reasons I'm hopeful is that I believe, from generation to generation, there's less of that kind of nonsense. They can yell about the youth of this country all they want, but that's the hope. And they seem to have a grip on things as group that many of my generation lost sight of. I don't see how you come out of the '60s with the attitudes that some of these people have. It's beyond my comprehension. What are they holding onto? They're holding onto a past that's gone.
You skewer people pretty hard sometimes. Do you ever hold back or is always balls to the wall?
I generally kind of let it rip, especially if it really enrages me. [Laugh] I just can't tolerate stupidity. So I do sometimes go balls to the wall if I'm really upset. And a lot of times when I cross the line, one of the things that I do is I immediately tell the audience, "I've gone too far." I know I've go too far sometimes and I apologize for it. I don't think I should go too far.
What would make Lewis Black happy with the world?
If I had a round of golf and I parred. How sad is that? [Laughs] But it's true. If I could get my brain to stop long enough that while I'm on the golf course, I could par out, I'd be happy. I'd be happy to break 80.
Lewis Black is scheduled to perform on Saturday, September 19, at Comerica Theatre. Tickets are $39.50 to $75.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.