Legendary Satirist Lewis Black Returns To The City That Drove Him To Comedy

Lewis Black is ranting for his health, and yours!
Lewis Black is ranting for his health, and yours! Photo by Clay McBride

Lewis Black has long had a special relationship with Houston.

Houston is the city “where I made the decision to quit playwriting and become a comic,” the 71-year-old comic says, adding that Houston is a great place for comedians to play. “I like the crowds of Houston, I’ve been coming a long time, and its been one of those places that helped shape me. A lot of that had to do with Laff Stop and development of the comics that came out of there.”

Perhaps most famously, Houston also gave Lewis Black one of his signature bits: ‘The End of The Universe,’ which he performed on Comedy Central in 2001, and later became the name of his 2nd album. “It was right across the street from the old Laff Stop. I left the Laff Stop, I driving away to go to dinner and there it was: the Starbucks across the street from the other Starbucks. I just came home and started yelling about it. By the end of the weekend, I had a bit, and it was a bit I could do on television.”

Now, Houston audiences are lucky to be getting a return visit from the now legendary cultural commentator, who will be doing a one-night-only stop at the Cullen Performance Hall on Saturday, January 18.

These days, Black has been lionized in the world of comedy as the de facto voice of rage for everything in American life from the trivial to the significant  — so much so, he even voiced the literal manifestation of the concept of Anger in the PIXAR’s 2015 feature Inside Out. Black agrees the performance can be a good gate-way drug to his material. “It’s the perfect way to look at it,” he says. “I think they can stumble on to my comedy late. I think [anger] kept my blood pressure at a normal level. Seriously, my blood pressure is spectacular and I think its because I yell and scream a lot.”

Since before one state was called in the 2016 Presidential election, Black has been vocal about the bizarre nature of the times we’re living through. Four years later, things haven’t changed much from his vantage point. “It’s hard to satirize what’s already satiric,” he quips, “and this is beyond belief! If you read what’s going on in a fictional book – you’d say this is a great book! Some of it is hysterically funny, and some of it… it’s like people who binge watch TV shows. I mean, that’s essentially what’s going on here. You’re binge-watching a TV show.”

While there’s plenty of blame to go around, Black circles around to interesting target. “My hope is that television news stops trying to… that they actually do what they should do, and give us information and stop trying to foment numbers. They all do it. The way CNN has tried to handle the Democratic primaries is… it’s a cage-match! You can’t be doing it. It can’t be everyday! It isn’t! There’s important stuff that needs to be… if the economy is better, how is it better? If it’s worse, how is it worse? If things are good, how are they good? How did we end up in a…

"How is it possible that people don’t know that we ended up in another staggering amount of debt over this time frame during a Republican administration? And that it doesn’t seem to bother them! It seems to bother them when the Democrats do it, but it doesn’t seem to bother them when the Republicans do it, or something to that effect. I don’t really know. It’s amazing to me that don’t seem to get out what needs to be gotten out. I mean, if you’re going to make the decisions that they’re doing in terms of the environment, then the job of the news media is to say how this effects the environment. Not even just the environment, but the EPA, are you gonna allow them to dump sewage into water systems or whatever it is where you’re loosening rules, or allowing the companies to oversea themselves – come on! What planet are you on? Hundreds of books were written, in the turn of the century in the 1900s they wrote about this. You can’t stop it, you can’t go back there. The job of that estate is to do that.”

It’s worthy of noting that while “fake news” has become all but a catch-phrase for our 45th President, that exact descriptor was often applied to Black’s long-time home on Comedy Central: The Daily Show, hosted since 1996 by the likes of Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart and since 2015, Trevor Noah. “It’s also you can’t promulgate the fact that there’s some sort of a fake news system out there,” Black elaborates. “I just think it's absurd. One of the things I talk about in my act is you know, if you see something on TV, the reason I know there’s no fake news is because I’ve been watching the news for years and these people aren’t smart enough to make shit up.”

For someone who has made his stand-up routine tied to much of the news cycle, Black acknowledges there has been a learning curve for operating in the Trump years. “Part of it is the audience is on edge more, so it was kind of finding a way to lighten it up. Used to be able to, I can get there again in terms of poking and stuff, but I really have to find a lighter touch at times, because both sides need rabies shots.”

But are audiences so different, from sea to shining sea? “You’re more similar. Most people, what’s really being missed in all this, is there is this great middle, and it’s the middle that’s important. That’s what counts. What’s strange, is I used to have a completely mixed audience, but some Republicans aren’t showing up, because since… don’t use his name – since, the leader was elected, people have a tendency to think that I shouldn’t come down on him. Their reaction has been different, I’ve talked about every president and I don’t ever talk about any of them a lot. This is the first time where there’s been a blow back about it.”

In the age of nightly satirical eviscerations from the likes of Black’s contemporaries like Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Oliver, Samantha Bee, and more – it’s jarring to hear that the comic refuses to even say the President’s name. “When I do use his name, his ears perk up. His name is mentioned enough, it's done enough, everybody knows. It’s the same things, and it gets both sides – it's like pushing a button, I don’t like to push that button.”

One of the casualties from this era of extreme political divisiveness is the once hallowed institution of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which in years past invited late night jokers to crack wise directly to the President’s face. Stephen Colbert elevated the status of gig in 2006, when he roasted President Bush in character as his fictional conservative newsman persona of the same name. Larry Wilmore dropped a bomb before Obama literally dropped the microphone in his final year as Commander in Chief. But since 2017, the show has gone on without a guest of honor, as Trump has skipped out on performances by Hasan Minhaj and Michelle Wolf – whose salty comments led to the organization to book historian Ron Chernow for their 2019 dinner, which received significantly less media coverage immediately after the event.

But the event’s death may be largely exaggerated, argues Black, who might happier to see its impact reduced.  “I did the Correspondent’s dinner, and it was the last time I want to do anything like that. I did that once when Bush was president, and I don’t want to ever do that again. I don’t like performing for large amount of congressional leaders. I don’t enjoy none of that. I’m not playing that role anymore. I was trying to hold to a Will Rogers standard, he was really good at it, he was brilliant and I’m not that brilliant. I was born and raised around DC, and that audience isn’t fun. They’re irritating. There’s a ‘I know more than you do’ quality to many of them. It’s the weird other end of the mirror, the inverted mirror of the Emmys or Oscars hosting. What’s really stupid about those is you’re in a room that’s not designed to be performed in, a banquet hall. You’re being shot in way that doesn’t enhance comedy, the audience isn’t mic’d properly. There’s no reason to have people sit around and review comics doing that, that’s wrong.”

In the days after the election, more than a few people compared the gut-punch to the after-effects of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Black, who was touring during and after the event, recalls those months with clarity.  “The thing that was crazy was people were saying Irony is Dead. What’s ironic about is that most people don’t know what irony means, so it was dead before it started. I performed in San Francisco, which was like performing in another world because San Francisco is so far ahead of the country socially, so they were already living in the future. I was kind of excited about performing in San Francisco. I wanted to go back to work, I was ready to get back to work from the very beginning.”

“I just knew there was stuff to be talked about in the way they were covering it. I was down there watching, it was 20 blocks from my home. It’s a shock to the system, you’re watching this and you’re looking at the news people standing in the way of the first responders! There was this whole dark, black comedy going on that bizarre! There was other stuff like the President not going for three days to New York, and it was like: no, you gotta show up. Sorry! I went off on that. Others may not have agreed with it, but I had – and I don’t remember my jokes, but were sitting there freaking out and you gotta show up! That’s your job is to make us feel OK. The weird thing for me, and it has always been the weird things for me, but I knew when I saw this happening that we were gonna do something really stupid in response to this, and we did. We used it as an excuse to attack someone. Chances were that we would go to the wrong place, and we did. I’m never right, but I was right. And I’m sad that I was.”

Though a fierce opponent of America entering into a war with Iraq, Black did tour the combat zone in three separate USO tours with the likes of Robin William, Kid Rock, Kathleen Madigan, and Roy Wood Jr. “I went over on 3 USO tours, so whatever people have to say about that, you can go fuck yourself. It was completely life changing. I used to compare it to LSD. Because everywhere I turned something I had never seen or imagined before. It was really extraordinary. Their level of service and commitment, under excoriating conditions was an utter marvel to me. It was a lesson. Every American should have to spend five days in a combat zone to come back and realize, and I’ve said that if the American people had gave 10 percent of what a service person gives in terms of service to their community, our country would be in spectacular shape.”

When not on the road, Lewis Black is known for his recurring Back in Black segment, which has been popping up on The Daily Show a few times a month for the better part of two decades. Looking back on his journey with the series, Black breaks down how he’s gotten on the air since 1996. “Craig [Kilborn] was more of a figure head, it was really driven by Liz Winstead, and the writers, the producers, Frank Gallow. So that was it, and then Jon [Stewart] came over and made it his. It was really more micromanagement on his part. He made the show his, put a stamp on it.”

“They call me, I give them my available dates and they say we’re gonna do you on this date and again, they give me what I’ll talk about.  Initially I improv’d my segment, because we weren’t doing it front of an audience, so we could do it three or four times then put it in the can. Then we started bringing in an audience, started scripting it and that evolved into Back in Black. We took reams of footage and turned into something. Then when Jon came in, my segment became a part of the show, he made the decision on what the segment would be about, and how it would fit in. Each show was a separate entity, and that was his stamp. But, and I’ve said this before, there were a couple of producers during that timeframe who were pricks. Really made it difficult for me to get anything I was writing into the pieces, so I kind of removed myself in a sense from the process. It wasn’t worth the fight. The writers were good, but often I was taking what I was being handed and sometimes I turned it into from something not in my voice into something for my voice. Then it got better and better, and eventually it came back around again and became a lot of fun.”

Under the current leadership, Black admits that his role has transformed on the show – but it appears he’s more vital that ever, signing a two-year contract that will see him hit 25 years on the landmark program. “Under Trevor it has been different, because Trevor has kind of used me in a different way. We do little short clips of me doing stuff, I do the Back in Black and then there is usually a little video segment, like the difference between what doctors are charging for various medical procedures. So we did this thing were I played a doctor, and everything was the same price. Everything was $100 – a candy bar, a hernia surgery. And oddly enough, Trevor, oddly enough,  knows how to write for me. Jon also had that sense, but Trevor has a bit even more so, because I can’t assume, but he’s really been someone who paid attention. It’s been fun the whole time. I got another two more years of doing it, so I’m looking forward to it - I think it will be 25 years.”

While sitting on his legacy is fine, Black still has the drive to hustle beyond his tour dates and late night spots – he’s also entered into a partnership with Audible, through his audio series The Rant Is Due, which will be taping a portion of his appearance in Houston for a future episode.

“I do this thing called The Rant is Due, and we do that after every show. When we’re in Houston, we’ll do it again. If you can ask folks to go to my website, and take it a look: it will explain how to write a rant, write a short little piece: this is why Houston is great, this is why Houston sucks. Why didn’t they do this! Whatever they want. What it's really about is trying to do something that – I either try to read it about Houston, or Texas. The writers of the show are the people who write that show. I just perform it, and add comments. It's your show, the Houston show. It really is great, great for me.”

Black’s Performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday, January 18 at 4300 University Drive. For information, call 832-842-3131 or visit $17-82.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee