Lewis Black opens week with examination of comics’ role in society

Lewis Black has been angry about politics for a long time. And he’s been letting that anger out through comedy for nearly as long.

Keeping up the act isn’t always easy, though.

“The hard thing is really making a joke about the same (issues) over and over again; it’s the same joke,” Black said. “You’re just finding a different way to express it. ‘Well, what’s another way I can put this, so that you hear it this time?’ ”

But when Black steps up to the Amphitheater stage at 10:45 a.m. Monday to open Week Six: “Comedy and the Human Condition,” he’ll have plenty of criticism of politics as it stands now, too.

“(With President Donald Trump) all we’ve really done is found another way not to accomplish anything,” Black said. “And now he’s blaming everybody but himself, much the way Congress did. The Democrats blame the Republicans, the Republican blame the Democrats, and he’s blaming both of them.”

Lewis Black

Black, it seems, is not a big fan of the president.

“He’s a showman,” Black said. “And an egotist. And a blowhard.”

Personal animus aside, Black has a career — as a comic, as an author, as a social critic — at stake. And Trump’s ascendance to the Oval Office has not made that part of the comedian’s life any easier.

“How am I supposed to satirize what’s already satiric?” Black asked. “How am I supposed to make something that’s already funny funnier?”

Pointing to First Lady Melania Trump’s campaign to end bullying, Black suggested that writing jokes more humorous than the real current events is no small feat.

Obstacles or not, however, the job remains. And Black sees his field as having a notable, albeit limited, niche in America’s larger sociopolitical ecosystem.

“I don’t know what the comic’s role is in terms of that except … if the emperor’s not wearing any clothes, you go, ‘The emperor’s not wearing any clothes,’ ” Black said. “That’s all we can do. Does it change anything? I doubt it. But it can certainly help someone laugh and move on.

“Your main worry as a comic is being funny,” he added. “Anything else is like, oh, really?”

Even if a comedian like Black doesn’t have to do anything more than cracking jokes, though, that’s a plenty complex task on its own.

“The hard thing … is that the comedian’s job is to continue to press,” Black said. “Because as we grow older, knock-knock jokes don’t work. You need darker and darker material for many people to get the crap that’s cluttering (their) brains out.”

At the same time, it is this very tendency toward “darker and darker” material that has gotten Black in trouble at certain points in his career.

In particular, persistent swearing has hurt his ability to get certain gigs. One of his bits in “Red, White and Screwed” describes how the show’s Warner Theatre location was only chosen because his first choice, the Kennedy Center, didn’t want to be associated with a comic who’d said “fuck” 42 times over the course of an earlier HBO special.

Black is not made uncomfortable by obscenity.

“These are words that adults use to express frustration, anger and rage,” Black said. “And, you know, I mean, those are the words that allow you to get it out of your system. … (And also) that’s the way my character talks, that’s the way I talk a lot of the time. And I don’t do that in front of children, but if I’m sitting there talking to adults, I say whatever the fuck I want.”

In fact, he questions how this “Puritan streak” will inform the reception of Monday’s lecture.

“I don’t have time (for sensitivity) … which makes coming to Chautauqua interesting because there’s a certain sense of political correctness … (which) I find irritating,” Black said. “Because political correctness has nothing to do with humor.”

The exception to this, he noted, was to not “go after … groups of people” based on things like sexuality, gender or religion.

Even then, though, the humor comes first.

“If it’s funny, it’s funny,” Black said. “And if it’s funny, then it is politically correct.”

If being politically correct isn’t a big priority for Black, though, he’s definitely interested in being correct about politics.

“If (the government is) gonna keep this up, and (they’re) gonna continue to march down this road, then, you know, I’m not gonna put up with it,” Black said. “I will continue to go toe-to-toe until I pass out.”

In this regard, Black is far from apathetic. And having grown up on the outskirts of D.C. in a political era when “things were getting accomplished,” he has hope for a status quo that isn’t quite so enraging as the one he finds himself in now.

“I just think that things can be better than they are,” Black said.

It was growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, only a handful of miles from the White House, that the foundation of his comedic and political sensibilities got cemented in place.

“Government was always omnipresent, so you know, it did have an effect,” Black said. “Both in terms of the amount of respect I had for it and the amount of disgust I had for it.”

As he moved from an early career in playwriting on to the stand-up for which he became famous, Black developed a unique identity as a performer and cultural critic — the sort of well-defined persona that led The New York Times to describe him in a September 2016 review as, at various times, either “incensed, seething, irate, furious, aggrieved (or) annoyed.”

Black has a simple explanation for the success of such an attitude in the comedy scene.

“Apparently,” he said, “people wanted to hear somebody yelling.”

And from there, it seemed, he was off.

“Once you find your comic voice, you’re kinda married to it,” Black said. “(There’s) not much you can do.”

Of course, if the state of modern American politics doesn’t set him off, Black won’t necessarily rant too much during his talk Monday.

“If I was that angry all the time, I’d be dead by noon,” he said. “Especially now, you know, in the midst of this madness.”

Tags : comedianComedy and the Human ConditionLewis Blackmorning lecturepoliticsWeek six

The author Brian Contreras

Brian Contreras covers the morning lecture series for the Daily. He is a rising sophomore at Stanford University pursuing a career in journalism. His interests as a writer include political investigation, the human side of technology and cross-cultural ethnographic research. He is also interested in backpacking, science fiction, running, good food and political satire. Contact him at