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October 10, 2015

Lewis Black: The TV Squad Interview

by Joel Keller, posted Mar 19th 2008 12:03PM
Lewis Black In the last twelve years, Lewis Black has gone from being "that angry guy on The Daily Show" to a comedy icon. Now, he finally has his own show.

In Lewis Black's Root of All Evil, which airs on Wednesdays at 10:30 PM ET on Comedy Central, two comedians argue why the pop culture item they represent is "the root of all evil." Last week's premiere episode, for instance, pitted Oprah against the Catholic church. Black plays the judge who controls the proceedings and makes the ultimate verdict. Sounds corny, but the first episode, which featured Paul F. Tompkins and Greg Giraldo, was wickedly funny and just a tiny bit subversive, everything you want in a good comedy.

I spoke to Black by phone last week; he was in Atlantic City on his stand-up tour. We discussed everything from the 2008 election to being on a cable news show with Ben Stein to sharing a jail cell with Jim Norton. The interview is after the jump.

Joel Keller: I watched the first episode and it was great; really, really funny. I'll ask you the standard question: how'd you get the idea for the show?

Lewis Black: Scott Carter and David Sacks worked on The Simpsons among others and Scott is known as the executive producer of Real Time and Politically Incorrect. They came up with this idea of putting popular culture on trial and I was the obvious judge of it. Both of them wanted to work with me and that this was the way we could do it. I've known both of them and I've worked with them. So I was thrilled and then we started – I went out and we started working on the nitty gritty of it.

JK: In the show, the first two comedians were Greg Geraldo and Paul F. Tompkins... Now, I noticed that (tonight's) episode has got Greg back on, who's going to be the other comedian on? -- Or is it Paul again?

LB: No, it's not Paul. Its Viagra versus Donald Trump – I can't remember, I'm sorry. We switch it all up. Greg faces up against – I think Greg's on the most, I think partly because of our scheduling. But we do mix up who's going after (chuckles).

JK: Right, so it's not always Greg every week. Although, Greg – I always love how Greg just comes out with those surprising lines, you know.

LB: I, I got a – It's very funny, I've had some reactions on my website from people saying that they didn't think Greg was funny and It's like... seriously? How can you not... I just don't get it. I just don't see how you... I mean, he's just... in-your-face funny.

JK: I think when he used the word, you know, "knob gobblin'" last week; I just couldn't help but laugh. In the show do the comedians write their own arguments?

LB: Yes.

JK: But they don't know the questions that you're going to ask them, right?

LB: Some they do some they don't.

JK: Because it did seem like they were a little surprised by some of them.

LB: Well as I got more comfortable and they got more comfortable... I think the show is like 85 percent scripted, 15 improv and I think it'll move towards 70/30. I think once I get more comfortable, because I think that it's hard for me because... it's like a comic respecting a comic. Sometimes, I'll cut in more as we roll along.

JK: Who writes the stuff that you say? Is it a combination, you and a few of the writers?

LB: Me and a couple of people, Kathleen Madigan and John Bowman and a couple of others.

JK: Is it tough to have writers get your rhythm and your way of speaking? Because I know the Daily Show segments you do have changed over time a little bit. Is it tough to find writers who would get how you speak and how your sensibility is?

LB: Yes. The Daily Show, partly, is putting me within their context so that's how come. But there are a lot of the guys there who actually sit around and actually talk like me now.

But John Bowman has been around me a long time and he really gets it so, you know, there are people who seem to really get it right off the get go.

JK: What are some of the other topics guys are going to be doing?

LB: Tila Tequila vs. Kim Jong Il. Weed vs. Beer. YouTube vs. Porn. Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney.

JK: Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney. Wow. That does seem like a struggle for the ages. Where did you guys come up with these match-ups?

LB: Well part of it was us in the office and partly Comedy Central. And we would have ideas and then they'd go, 'Well, this would work better and that would work better,' and I think – I think the match ups will be you know, it's so insane. The concept's so insane, you almost can include anything. They all seem to work (laughs).

And especially it's finding – as long as you have the 2 comics passionate about (they're arguing about), you're halfway there.

JK: Is it good that you have like, a big pool of people to draw from?

LB: Yeah, it's terrific right now – I mean, there are a lot of people that I would like to get on the show.

JK: Can you name a couple of people you'd like to get on the show?

LB: Yeah, Dom Irrera. He'd be great and he's – you know the other thing is I'd like to surprise people because they don't see him a lot you know, Dom's one of those guys you go, 'Oh, that's the guy.' And I just think he'd be terrific. I think Judy Gold... I think.... (thinks about more names) I know all these comics and now my brain comes to a halt.

JK: Is Jimmy Norton going to be on any of the shows? Because I know you know him well.

LB: I would love to get Jimmy. Yeah, Jim would be great especially for the topic we're running. I think that if Jim came on the show I'd have to throw him out of court.

JK: Do you do a lot about the primaries and the campaign now? I'd imagine you would be, right?

LB: Yeah, there's a chunk now that's involving -- I didn't do a lot on the primaries because I was so angry that they were running so early that it made me sick.

JK: Really? What's the part about running them early that made you –

LB: I just thought it was disturbing. I thought it was really cynical on the part – especially the Republicans to start running that early – it's just so obvious that we were in the midst of a leadership void. And I just thought, wow, its one thing for the Democrats to start that but it's another thing for the Republicans, you know?

And the whole thing to me was – I mean it is right now, you've got major problems sitting on the table and I don't hear anybody addressing the major problems. All I hear them talking about is what they're going to do (chuckles). I mean, I don't – I think we're in the middle of some deep, deep shit and they better start – you know, I'd like to know what they'd do now.

JK: Right, like health care, Iraq, all that kind of stuff.

LB: Yeah, well health care, Iraq but you know Bear Stearns, an economy that's plummeting... We got – you've got a president who's telling the American public that there's nothing wrong with the economy three months ago, that we're not going toward a recession (chuckles) You know? I mean, and then you've got McCain and all the rest of these candidates standing around and not going, 'Are you insane?'

JK: No one seems to want to directly challenge President Bush at this point for some reason.

LB: They don't seem to want to do anything. It's – they haven't for 8 years, it's been the – what do you call it – no one who's – what do you call it – it's an abdication of power by these – by both Democrats and Republicans that's astonishing.

JK: What do you think of the way the Democrats are conducting themselves right now? Because right now it seems like it's just Hilary and Obama trying to take each other out.

LB: Well I said last night... What I end up doing on stage is I go 'If the Democratic party's response to the fact that they could take power you know, at this point in time... When they began the primaries you know, 9 years ago, they could take power at any point in time,' and basically and then I'd just mime a guy putting a knife in his chest. They've committed suicide, they just – the Democratic Party, in the face of taking responsibility, seems to enjoy committing hara-kiri.

JK: Is it a case where they're going to let McCain kind of run all over them at this point or is it –

LB: I don't think they're going to let him run all over them but I think nit picking yourselves over major issues that the Republicans really have no interest in, such as health care, by nit picking about it, doesn't serve the public interest. At all, not in the primary season. That's the kind of debate you have in Congress.

JK: When did you start doing political stuff in your act? You've been doing standup for how long -- about 20 years or so?

LB: About 20 – well, I've been doing it actually, since – I've been doing it actually 39 years. Where I was really doing it for a living is 20.

JK: I read that when you wrote plays, you use to do standup to warm the crowd up before the play started.

LB: Yeah (laughs). But I – I've been – I've been giving some very small part of my act (to politics), and it's been growing over the years, it's still, I mean, it's still only half of my act, that's the most I'll let it be. I don't – I prefer really talking about the social consequences of what the idiots do.

JK: How do you keep that from sounding dated?

LB: I think it's because I try to, get it from what happened to what it meant. Hopefully. My discussion of health care is really not so much about what these idiots are talking about but about my own personal fact that I have two insurance companies and neither pays for anything.

JK: Did you read where George Carlin mentioned you as a good person to listen to, with regards to political comedy?

LB: Yeah, yeah, I have. He's been very kind.

JK: Is he one one of your big influences?

LB: Yeah, yeah, he was a huge influence and I mean – you know like – other guys. I never felt – I never felt like you know, you kind of follow certain voices. His sense of humor really just helped kick mine along.

JK: If we were to go back somehow and see a YouTube video of you 20 years ago, what would your act have been like?

LB: Well, it would have been – it would be, more yelling. It was like constant yelling, I'd sit on stage – I came on stage yelling and then just got louder. There was no modulation. They said – people would say that it was astonishing to watch because I could literally go on stage for 3 minutes and then I'd get a laugh and it didn't seem to phase me (laughs). I was yelling so much, I didn't really realize no one's laughing.

JK: You achieved fame later in life. Do you think you handled that differently than you would have if it'd happened in your 20s or 30s?

LB: I don't know how well I would have coped, because it's –it's – I think it's a difficult proposition. I mean, it's really – it's a lot. And I think I was as prepared as you can be for something that's this silly.

JK: What is the thing that you've found about being a well-known personalities that you didn't expect?

LB: I didn't – the amount of the people that'd want to... you know, the press.

JK: Yeah, guys like me, huh?

LB: Yeah. We'll I mean, I just didn't expect – and it's not you guys but the thing of the two, three times a week of radio shows calling up and asking 'What did you think of this?' You know, and it's like, really? You want to talk to me? I mean, it's certainly, certainly, like certain events happen that are really major political events and they want to know what my take is on them and I'm going, 'Could you talk to people who actually have you know, information and insight? (chuckles) I'd like to hear what they have to say before I start working on my act. (laughs)

JK: So you don't consider yourself any kind of expert or pundit or anything like that?

LB: No. I don't want to be in that class. I really try to avoid it. I won't put myself in a position where I'm on with experts. It's like silly, I've done it once and it was horrible.

JK: When was that?

LB: It was some CNN – or – it was like – yeah, no it was a Fox show, the guy with the cash – I can't think of his name. Neil Cutherbert or Neil – Cavuto.

He brought me on and so I made a joke about – and Ben Stein was on, he's kind of you know a weird comic, mostly leans towards the pundit. And i said something about Schwarzenegger, the joke was being Jewish, I'm a little bit freaked out when I hear somebody with an Austrian accent. And Ben Stein went off on me, and it was like, 'You know Ben, it's a joke. You know I'm making a joke.' and he's thinking, 'Well, you know, he gives millions of dollars to Wiesenthal Foundation,' and I said, 'Why shouldn't he, Ben?'

He was just – and I got so angry, I said, you know I don't need to be in this position sitting around with people who don't get what the joke is. Especially, Ben, who should have gotten the joke; he knows me.

JK: So but you still go on shows you like, but just by yourself or with other comedians?

LB: Yeah, just by myself or with somebody else is fine.

JK: I asked a friend of mine who's an Opie & Anthony fan, what questions he'd want to ask you. He wanted to know how it felt to get arrested on – what's it called, the Voyeur Bus?

LB: Oh yeah, it was one of the strangest – it was one of the five strangest experiences in my life – really to share a jail cell with Jimmy Norton is – is, I think our souls are married forever.

JK: Yeah. And what was it, just people having sex on the bus or something?

LB: No. I wish. No, we were sitting around and these girls were dancing topless.

JK: Oh, I see and you guys got arrested because it was what, indecent exposure?

LB: No, it was – that was part of it but they couldn't really bust them on that, they said it was disorderly conduct.

JK: Oh wow, so how long did you spend in that jail cell with Jimmy?

LB: It was 26 to 28 hours. It was really long, really long. Cost me a lot of money.

JK: You got fined or something or was it just to get yourself out?

LB: No, I had gigs, I had to be at and I couldn't get to them.

JK: Was like the sickest thing that Norton talked to you about there? Can you say?

LB: Yeah, the sickest thing he said was – he turned to the police chief that was sitting talking to me, and he said, 'You know the good thing is Lewis and I will be in there together and at least we can protect each other,' and the police chief laughed in his face.

JK: Okay, so he didn't go into some of his sicker hobbies, then? (Note: Go to Norton's web site or listen to him on O&A to get what I mean... it has to do with bodily functions. We'll just leave it at that.)

LB: No. I didn't have to listen to any of that – I would – I'm certainly not going to ask that question when I'm in a jail cell with him.

JK: You're about to turn 60, later this year. When you were younger, writing plays for a living, what did you expect that you'd be doing at 60?

LB: Yeah, that's what I thought I'd be doing. I thought I'd be teaching school and writing plays.

JK: And so this is completely unexpected to you?

LB: I'm stunned.

JK: Do you want to see yourself continuing to do this type of stuff for the next 10 years, 15 years?

LB: Yeah, probably. I hope – I mean, I hope that I do a few more films and you know, maybe a series that is more sitcom or you know, at least funny drama, comedy. And get some more plays produced.

JK: Anything else you wanted to mention about the show, about what's coming up?

LB: I've got a book that will be out in June, early June – June 3rd called Me of Little Faith. It's my view on religion.

JK: So is this stuff we've heard in your standup or is this new stuff?

LB: No, no it's totally new. I think 90 percent of it you've never heard.

JK: Is it written in a way that we would be able to hear your voice or is this going in a new direction?

LB: I don't really know, I'm interested to see what people think. It's not a big, loud, angry thing, it's mostly personal experience.

JK: But it should be funny, I would hope, right?

LB: I hope so or I'm fucked.

JK: In the meantime you're just going to continue touring and hopefully on doing the show, that kind of thing?

LB: Yeah. Touring and doing the show and I have a show that'll open up Broadway in late September, which will be September up to the election. It should be about the election and various other things.

JK: So like kind of a one man show or is it going to be exactly like your standup?

LB: They keep wondering, 'What's going to make you Broadway, Lewis?' And I go, 'I don't fucking know.'

JK: Just a big stage and an orchestra pet I guess.

LB: Exactly.

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patton completely outdoes greg no question about it. i cant remember which topics they were arguing about atm :/ all i can remember is that patton had great arguments and was all around hilarious. while all greg had going for him was the fact that he would talk crap about patton.

April 24 2008 at 1:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched the first two episodes of Root, and I actually think it's a really funny show. Sure, it feels a little stiff, but you can tell it's a format that really has legs.

And I thought Geraldo was really funny.

March 20 2008 at 10:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Lewis' new book is actually called "Me of Little Faith." June 3 release date is correct.

March 20 2008 at 11:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Scott's comment
Joel Keller

You're right. I must have misheard it when I transcribed it. I've fixed the title in the interview.

March 20 2008 at 1:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jeff stiefer

nice going, Joel, great interview with one of my favorite comics. Im getting jealous of the folks you are getting to interview.

Now if you can get Conan or Patton Oswalt i will have to consider you a small god.

oh, and Greg Geraldo rules. Check out his most recent CD.


March 19 2008 at 11:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hard to read.

I think the first episode was heavily scripted and it showed. They have to get into it better so it feels natural. You could notice they wouldn't do double takes because there were a couple of scenes in there that felt off and disturbed the flow of the show. I guess they were on a budget.

March 19 2008 at 6:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

FANTASTIC Interview!

March 19 2008 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was very excited to see he got his own show. I was very disappointed to see how it turned out.

Greg Geraldo SUCKS!!!

March 19 2008 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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