Lewis Black on the worth of training and keeping a cantankerous kind of optimism
By: Emily Votaw
Lewis Black is known for yelling.
For dramatic explosions of emotion ignited by the absurdity and cruelty percolating below the surface of day-to-day life. The comedian and longtime Daily Show correspondent even portrayed anger personified in Pixar’s 2015 film “Inside Out.”
There are plenty of things to be angry about in 2022, and Black knows this better than most. In fact, that’s exactly what’s fueling his “Off the Rails” tour, which has two upcoming stops in Ohio. The first is on April 21 at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre (317 East 5th St.) , followed by an April 22 show at the Goodyear Theater in Akron (1201 East Market St.).
A few weeks before those aforementioned stops in the buckeye state, Black took the time to speak to WOUB Culture about a number of things, such as the power comedy has in the face of authority, his recent election as the chair of the board of the Kurt Vonnegut Library and Museum, and how he maintains enough optimism about the human condition to believe we all have the capacity to be better.
Emily Votaw: This morning you were at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill working with students there. Why are you so passionate about the arts and about arts education?
Lewis Black: The arts are important because they’re sort of like our insulation. They allow us to step back in a variety of ways or to get closer in a variety of ways to life – the arts are also how we interpret life. They enrich us in ways that are astonishing. Nobody wants to hear this, but the arts are, in their own way, a kind of a drug in the sense they take our consciousness and they expand it. And for that alone, they’re vital – and certainly vital for every member of society. The sooner kids can be exposed to them, the better.
Education has always been big with me because my mother was a substitute teacher. I’ve always felt like the teachers I had were terrific – especially the teachers I had in middle school and high school, but really all the way through they were about 80 percent exceptional – and the other 20 percent – well, you know, they maybe needed some psychiatric care just from having taught for too long. But they really had a profound effect on me. And it’s not since I was in school have teachers been paid commensurately with what they do. When I was a kid, being a teacher was a good, solid, middle-class job. And it isn’t anymore.
(The arts) enrich us in ways that are astonishing. Nobody wants to hear this, but the arts are, in their own way, a kind of a drug in the sense they take our consciousness and they expand it. – Lewis Black
Emily Votaw: What kind of things do you learn from the kids at UNC?
Lewis Black: Students really show me where we’re heading. And hopefully it’s a better place because, you know, a lot of my generation really dropped the ball, didn’t they? Yep. They did. And I’m more than willing to discuss this with any of them. You know, you hear people who are my age just asking ‘what about us?’ Asking ‘how come we’re gonna send money to Ukraine? What about us?” And the thing is – they are us. It’s that simple. We learned that when we went to the moon and we looked back at the planet and went ‘oh, we’re all in this together.’ How do you forget that?
Partly my yelling about it right now has to do with being with those students today. People in my generation yell about millennials, but I want to know what millennials are thinking, what their problems are. It’s just like it is with my generation, you have some millennials who are schmucks, and some that aren’t. It’s that way with every generation. Young people today were raised in a different world, and although I know a few of my friend’s kids pretty well, it’s really good to be able to find out in a variety of ways what is really going on. For example, correctly using pronouns. Today the students asked me what my pronouns were. And I said ‘I’ve never been asked that in my whole life,’ – and it’s important for me to understand why pronouns are so important – so instead of yelling about something I don’t really understand yet, I think it’s important to ask “why?”
Emily Votaw: You’re so masterful at transforming the depressing, stark realities of contemporary life into comedy, and I’m curious: what is the connection there?
Lewis Black: Well, comedy is what allows you to step back for a moment from anything and laugh about how dumb it is. Your sense of humor is like a muscle, and it’s something you have to work on. It finally dawned on me one day that a sense of humor isn’t something they teach you in school. No, you stumble upon it with your friends. Or, maybe if you’re lucky, you have funny parents and you come to it that way. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to read Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, and then you kind of go “oh, I get it now, I’m not crazy!” That’s a part of what comedy is, too, it’s there to let you know that you’re not crazy after all.
Emily Votaw: That brings me to my next question: last year you were elected chair of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library – after having supported the museum for a long time. What does it mean to you to be the chair of this institution?
Lewis Black: Well, I mean, for me to be the chair, that means that they’ve actually run out of competent people to do it! There’s only so much I can do as Chair, and it’s really not what my skill set is in – but I can certainly talk about the institution. I think that it was important for the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to have created a space where Vonnegut’s work is honored. I became involved partially because Vonnegut’s work had a profound impact on me. I read him when I was young, and for years I’d been wondering if there was an adult out there who could see how insane all of this is. And when I read Vonnegut, I went, “yes, there is.” And I think his work is also important in terms of getting kids to read, because it is very simple, yet profound. And that’s really something.
Emily Votaw: Why do you think we don’t learn how to exercise that sort of muscle of comedy in school? Is it because there’s a level of danger to authority in the concept of comedy?
Lewis Black: Yeah, that’s it exactly. You nailed it! That’s exactly what it is. It’s kind of like you’re giving a kid a weapon – all of a sudden you’re going to have to deal with kids who have a sense of irony and sarcasm, and that might make it tougher to teach. But once you get over that, it should work out.
Emily Votaw: So, a lot of our audience is involved in education in some capacity, whether they’re students or instructors. I’m wondering: do you have any advice to instructors who want to present comedy to their students in a way that is meaningful?
Lewis Black: Well, I don’t know how you do it in math, but I think what any educator has to do is sit down and try to figure out “where is the funny? Where can we find the funny in here?” With English, it’s as simple as exposing kids to all types of humorists. Start with Mark Twain. Jonathan Swift. Heller. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” still holds up! And I’m not even beginning to scratch the surface, but there are a number of gifted comedy writers that are well worth pointing kids in the direction of.
Emily Votaw: So, you are certainly an entertainer, a comedian – but you’ve always been involved in all types of civic causes. I’m wondering: from your perspective, what is the role of the comedian in the context of the overall American identity?
Lewis Black: To make people laugh. That’s what every comic will tell you. That’s it. Anything else is just gravy. You know, a lot of the backlash that occurs with comics is really ludicrous because it’s based on this idea that comics somehow effect the world. We might, at times – but the effect is so minimal as to be staggering. Comedy allows people to step back, laugh, and then go back to the rest of their lives – and nothing has changed except they got a little respite. And to me, that’s what we’re here for, as comedians, to give people a sort of mini vacation. And that’s what everyone in comedy says. John Stewart has said that we don’t go out there to educate, we go out there to make people laugh.
Sometimes I’ll go out there, really wanting a laugh from the audience, and then they’ll applaud! And it’s like ‘oh boy, I gotta work on this.’ Because they don’t need the applause – it’s like ‘oh, you had a good thought!’ But you want a good joke, not a good thought. What you really want to do is make people laugh – and if it makes them think, too, then that’s gravy. But we didn’t go out there to do that. Then again, that’s really what a joke is – engaging people in their thought process.
Find information about all of Black’s upcoming stops on his “Off the Rails” tour at lewisblack.com.