We have a King of Hearts. A King of Pop. Even a King of Queens. So when it came time to pick a King of Rants, one stood out in bold black.
Lewis Black, famous for his jittery diatribes on politics and society, happily embraces his crown as comedy’s ranting royalty. Born in Washington, D.C., but now seen as a consummate New York comic, Black headlines his own stand-up act across the country and appears in long-running segment “Back in Black” on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” His recurring appearances on the late-night satire show have spanned all of its hosts over its two-decade history, from Craig Kilborn to Jon Stewart and now Trevor Noah.
The comic spoke from a tour bus driving through the middle of Kansas on his Rant, White & Blue Tour. The show stops at Modesto’s Gallo Center for the Arts on Friday, May 5. While the call was spotty, due to his travels along the kind of rural route you don’t want to “break down on when it’s 2 in the morning,” Lewis did not launch into any of his trademark yelling. Though whether he deployed his other signature, aggressive finger pointing, is anyone’s guess.
Q: I’ve heard a lot of comics say Donald Trump is a gift to comedy. Do you think he is a gift, or is he sensory overload? Since he seems to be all anyone can talk about right now.
A: He took up the oxygen in the room in New York. So to me it’s just a repetition of what I watched before, only on a larger level. He couldn’t get enough of himself before. I had to live through the Marla Maples mess. In that respect, I go, this is serious? It’s absurd. He is not a gift. Just because you get to repeat what the person did doesn’t make you a comic. I say to the audiences, what is my purpose at this point? Literally. You can’t get up and read what is going on yourself?
The head of the House Intelligence Committee goes to the White House to have a meeting about this stuff? I mean, come on. I keep saying if this were fiction it would be great. But essentially what you are trying to do in a lot of the cases is out fiction fiction, and how do you do that? How do you make funnier something that’s already funny.
Q: As a comic known for political commentary, is it different for you during times like this when people are paying intense attention to politics vs. perhaps the previous eight years when some people were perhaps less engrossed in the day-to-day happenings?
A: The laughter at times is more desperate. And there is a little bit of blow back that I didn’t experience since the start of Iraq War. You know the, “What do you mean? Why don’t you give him some time? We won!” Well, what did you win?
Q: Anger is a trademark of yours. When did you realize you had a gift to harness that onstage?
A: Well, I should have recognized it sooner because I’m funniest when I’m angry. The fact is it was a comic knew from Michigan who told me, “The next time you go on stage, I want you to yell everything you say.” And he was right.
Q: Do people expect that from you on demand? Like when you are on the street, do people want you to rant for them?
A: They don’t do that. But they’ll go, “Tell me a joke.” That’s the worst. Really? You know, it’s just beyond belief. And that makes me mad. And then I guess you’ve never seen my act because I don’t really tell jokes.
Q: “Back in Black” on “The Daily Show,” you started it in the show’s early days and continue it with Trevor Noah now. Why do you think it has had such longevity?
A: I don’t think they know how to fire me. Nobody one wants to walk in and say, “You’re fired.” It’s one of those things; it’s a short segment and I’m not in your face all the time.
Q: People who only know you through “The Daily Show” or your public persona might not realize you actually began your career as a playwright and have written and staged several plays. Artistically, what does that give you that is different than your comedy?
A: Theater is a communal form, that’s the thing. I am working with people and not just on my own flying around the stage. The people who are doing my stuff are better actors [laughs]. And it reminds me what things were like when I was poor.
Q: For a guy who is known for his tightly wound persona, what do you like to do to relax?
A: Sadly, I play golf. I kind of beat myself that way. When you are playing golf, you really don’t think about much else. You just have kind of stupid thoughts. You try to hit a little white ball far, which is ludicrous. But it brings thinking to a halt, which is nice.
Q: Do you think in this current climate people go to comedy for escapism? Do you think they expect that from your shows as well?
A: I think 80 percent come to kind of rid themselves of anxiety. I think they come to feel like they’re not alone. Then some people say, “That’s enough politics.” It’s the same amount of politics that I did before. And I dump it in the front so that we can move on.
Q: Anything else people should know about the show?
A: By the time I get there, who knows where we’ll be. We don’t know what the end of the week will be and what nonsense we’re at. Look, do I think it’s Watergate? No. Does it look like Watergate? Yes. Having lived through it, you look at it and understand why some people think that. Just tell us what the f--- went on, you idiots. Who talks to Russia that much? My family was from Russia, OK. And they left and there was a reason.
Hopefully by then I will have hired a group of research assistants to keep track of all this. Well, I usually start every night saying I can’t remember what happened two days ago. So we start from there.