Lewis Black is back at the Memorial Auditorium May 2
Most Chattanoogans know Lewis Black as the quick-to-agitate comic wildly pointing his fingers while ranting about the latest cultural or political lunacy during his regular appearances on “The Daily Show.” He is seemingly always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Since those “Daily Show” segments, Black has continued a prolific career as author, actor and comic with two Grammy Award-winning comedy albums, starring in several specials on HBO and EPIX and voicing the character Anger in the upcoming Pixar film, “Inside Out.”
Black, who is no stranger to Chattanooga, will return to the Tivoli Theater on May 2, bringing “The Rant Is Due: Part Deux” tour to town. I recently had a chance to speak with Black about religion, politics and his love for Southern food.
Q: Was there a point in your personal life that unleashed the anger, or did your colicky childhood provide the perfect setup and you just went with it?
A: Well, it started when I was a kid. My mother was angry and there was a lot of stuff that was wrong. I was 9 and they would tell me to get under a desk in case of a nuclear attack. Things just kept getting to me. There was this tremendous documentary by Edward R Murrow called “Harvest of Shame” that was about migrant workers. I was about 11 or 12 and I would see this and think “Really? These people pick our food, and we treat them like shit? I’m like…How do people allow that?” It made me angry.
Then you come through the ’60s and you’re watching the civil rights movement happening on TV and again I’m thinking, “What are you doing? You don’t treat people like this.”
Q: Did you see comedians early on doing social and political commentary or did your style grow out of observations like those?
A: I came to it through a more circuitous route because I was doing theater, where we were just trying to create our own realities since I didn’t know what to do with this one. But I was always watching comics, that was something I loved, along with writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and “A Thousand Clowns” by Herb Gardner…those had a big effect on me, Vonnegut really had a huge effect. And then there was Carlin, Lenny Bruce, a magazine called The Realist that for some reason my parents didn’t notice I was getting. You know when people say they like Playboy for the articles? This was like that, but with no centerfold. The articles were really funny, written by a guy named Paul Krassner. It was really out-there funny.
Q: I know you’ve spent some time in North Carolina and went to UNC [Black maintains a home in Chapel Hill], so you’re familiar with Southern politics and how the South leans pretty heavily to the right. Are the audiences here as receptive as in other parts of the country?
A: The audiences in the South have been terrific to me. But there are people there who are still living through the past. It’s like watching dinosaurs die, you’re hearing their final moans. I mean, how does anyone end up in any form of legislature without having read the constitution to know that you can’t make the Bible your state book? Plus, it wasn’t even written in Tennessee.
But you’ve got a history of it. You’re the state that gave us the Scopes trial. If you go back and read “Inherit the Wind” about the trial and look at things now...I mean do we have to keep saying this stuff to these people?…How do you not get it?…[Writer’s note: I can almost feel Black’s fingers beginning to curl and point in frustration at the idea we are struggling with the same religious issues today.]
OK, look at Jordan Spieth, the guy that just won the Master’s. One of the things that I thought, other than the fact that he just seems to be a good kid and “gets” humility, is that he didn’t have to tell me that Jesus Christ helped him. He didn’t have to tell me because his basic presence, the way he acts, what he does, I mean everything about him says, “I’m from a Christian family.” He’s a perfect example, to me, of a good Christian. He doesn’t have to tell me [about his faith], he’s doing it. And what so many people don’t get is that’s a thousand, ten thousand times more profound.
These people who try to take it out of the church, they don’t realize that they don’t have to. You’ve already got it in the contract, so what the f**k, what do you need to do? You don’t need to do anything; he [Jesus] did it. It’s right there in the contract, you assholes, read the book.
Q: So the election is approaching, we’ve got Ted Cruz, Rubio, Hillary. The Koch Bros may be/may not be getting behind Scott Walker. Does the candidate field seem a little more unhinged than in the past, or am I just cynical?
A: We’ve had some of this same nonsense before; it’s just revved up now. But if you think you’ve seen crazy, wait until tomorrow. What’s really unhinged is starting [the election cycle] this early. Every year they just keep pushing and pushing it back. I mean, can’t we get something done in the next 500 days? Let’s try to get some things done. We’ve got stuff to do now. I don’t need Mario Rubio to tell me what he’s going to do about immigration. I need him to sit down right now with John McCain and Chuck Schumer and the rest of the oddballs and come up with a plan. They’re trying to figure out how to fund roads and bridges...what’s so tough? Just do it. The price of gas is down, slap a tax on it and raise the f**king money. We need to raise the money to fix these roads; I know—I travel on them all the time.
Q: There seems to be an air of inevitability around Hillary, even looking at the general election. I wonder if the same people whose political philosophy mainly consists of “If Obama is for it, I’m against it” will just shift that attitude over to Hillary and we’ll have another four years of the same divisiveness.
A: Well, you know, a person of color gets elected and we look at the world and say, “See, we’re not crazy,” but then we act crazy. Some of the response to him, I’m sorry, but some of that was just based on race. I’m not going to argue that because it’s true. And you know, it’s going to be the same for her. It’s going to be based on the fact that she’s a woman.
Q: Going a completely different direction, I have to ask, are you a fan of Southern food?
A: I love Southern food. In fact, if I lived down there I would weigh 500 lbs. Biscuits and gravy, fried green tomatoes, and now we can just have fried green tomatoes with bacon and a fried egg, I mean…well sure. Just f**k it, why not? I have a break right before I come to Chattanooga so I might try to lose a few pounds so I can gain them back while I’m there.
Q: What got you involved with “Children of the Forest”?
A: Children of the Forest is a group that responds to the desperate needs of Karen, Mon and Burmese refugee and migrant children in the Thai-Burmese border region in the Kanchanaburi province in Thailand. It provides protection, education, healthcare and opportunities to stateless children and mothers in that border region. Currently it assists over 1,000 children per day. You can send 11 kids to college for $25K, that’s pretty extraordinary. I’m glad to help.
Q: Lat year you did a tour in Europe. Since so much of your material is based around culture and politics of the US, how do audiences outside the US react to your show?
A: Yeah, I was in Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Ireland. They get it. The Canadians really get it. I found that if I do my act the same as when I’m here I get a better reaction. They watch us as if we’re some sort of really f**ked-up reality show.
therantisdue.com has tour information and chances to become a part of the Frustrated Union of Cynical Kindreds Universal, which is like a fan club with cool perks like first chance at the good seats for shows, videos of previous shows like Nashville and Greenville, and a chance to suggest rants for Lewis (as if he needs an excuse).