The king of the rant is here to defend his crown with his new stand-up special, which might be the last comedy special filmed before COVID-19 hit the US.
On March 13th, he took his place onstage for one last show, just as everything was coming down. As everyone is more than aware of, it was at this point that the country had just been declared as being in a state of emergency, and the national pandemic was in full swing. By that Friday, the future was bleak, and everybody was closing up shop. Lewis Black knew this all too well. And upon finding out that the crowd for his gig at the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Michigan was already there, he decided to go out there for one last hurrah until things were deemed safe again. And as he took to the stage to perform material from his It Gets Better Every Day tour, he greeted the audience with the words “Thanks for risking your life”. And just as he had for every other performance since 2006, he had cameras rolling.
This performance, which now acts as a time capsule that takes you back to that pretty historic moment in time, is now the basis for his new special, Thanks For Risking Your Life. For the special, which comes out today on our TLB Records label, Lewis is in top form, and gives as great a performance as he could give. And given the spontaneous nature behind the special (the audience is not mic’d nor are they ever shown in close-up), you feel as if you’re right there, in the room for the performance. It is truly something to behold. And now you finally can.
And that’s been a consistent thread throughout this time. For the past 6 months, save for the occasional tweet that he couldn’t help himself from writing as well as the intros on his popular Rantcast, the king has remained relatively silent. He tells us that it is because he just doesn’t have it in him to compose jokes for Twitter. So when he does go out to do press, you feel as if you are getting all of the thoughts, all of the anger, all of the frustration, and all of the rage that has been building up inside his mind for the last 6 months. And it is nothing short of spectacular. Never one to hold back, you’ll find that he manages to live up to that title, and then some. The man is the comedic voice that we’ve been sorely missing throughout this ordeal, and we’re so happy to have him back where he belongs; Yelling with all the intensity in the universe, to the point where you think his head might pop off.
We recently spoke to Lewis about the lead-up to the special, when he realized he had something there and his immediate thoughts following that last performance, why he refrained from tweeting throughout it all, what he did during his 10 weeks of solitary, his thoughts on the scandal surrounding Trump’s tax returns, the leadership he felt we were lacking, why he loves doing the Rantcast, and his hopes for eventually going out on the road again once the dust has settled.
And just for a bit of background, can you tell me about the whole lead up to the special becoming what it is?
The lead up to the special is I was about 80 to 90% to the point where I felt the special is where it should be in March. And what would have happened normally… (Laughs) Normally what would have happened if we were in a contiguous life is I would have locked it up and continued to do it, and then I would added other things and had start doing some other stuff that was going to be on the next thing I was going to do. I like to, once the special comes out, not to be wandering around doing the special. So what I like to do is, once I start to work on material – which I had about another 20 minutes-, I usually start with about 20 minutes of stuff that didn’t get into the special, so it would hold over to the next special. So I start there. So I would have been, you know, throwing some of that stuff in and meanwhile working out little things within the special that I was doing. And then my “plan” was -haha- in August or September to shoot the special up at the National Comedy Center, becaue I kind of am “married” to them at this point. (Laughs).
Well I think it’s important. I mean, I’ve done a lot for them and it’s one of the few places where I feel like… I’ve worked in theater and I’ve done a lot of stuff. And I’ve had moments where I feel like I’ve worked with people where my input seems to be validated. And then I’ve worked in other places where my input doesn’t seem to be. Nobody seems to pay attention to it. And here I felt like I was able to contribute. And I also thought what they did was kind of incredible. And I kind of wanted to establish it as a place that someone might [do a special]. Where they might want to come up and look at a really nice theater there. The Reg Lenna is a nice space to do a show. I’ve done about eight shows in that, if not more. It’s a really nice room.. I played that room a lot. And I wanted to do, you know, two shows in there and have it be the way you normally do it.
It is a pretty nice space. I saw a few things there before.
It is. And I would, you know, maybe do it in part as a fundraiser, because it would be a nice thing to be able to do that. And get some eyeballs on it. Because that’s been the tough thing. And also it would help in terms of, you know, certainly a symbiotic relationship with -these are words that people will have to look up-, a “symbiotic relationship” with me, and not because it’s because you lose 20% of your memory during this lockdown. It would also help in terms of getting word out about the special.
That’s what I “thought” was going to happen. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. So, turn to reality, and we’re rolling along and we show up in New Buffalo. We know it’s coming to an end. I knew, in part, it was coming to an end because my friend Kathleen Madigan and I started to talk about the fact that we knew it was coming to an end. Because we’ve kind of been tracking it and wondering why the country wasn’t dealing with it more in advance of it. And considering Italy was, you know, starting to go up in flames. And the sh*t was hitting the fan. And places were starting to say “Okay. No more than 50 people can show up”. And even in our, where we were in New Buffalo at the casino, there was talk of, the next night being canceled. Then that one was canceled already. There was a debate about whether they would cancel it or not and they let it go through. The problem was, these people were already kind of packed in. There was already like 1500 or however many were already in the casino. They’d already come out and, you know, had been there during a chunk of the day. So we do the show. And we have two cameras on for every show that I do. Those two cameras record every show. We’ve been doing that for a while, like since 2006 or so. And so those were running. And we had two extra cameras, because the casino was filming it for their screens. The big screen that people in the back could see. So by luck really, we had a four camera shoot going. The two cameras that I have are completely static. Their two cameras moved around a bit, which gave some angles and all of that. There were no instructions given because we didn’t know. And I did the show.
And when the show’s over, I came backstage and Jeff Stilson, who had been working with me on kind of refining the show and he was my opening act, said, “You know, that’s the special. If you show that,” because you’ve been watching it on the feed, backstage, “then you got it.” Then I said, “Well, you know, I don’t know.” And then my tour manager, Ben, started to look at it. And he said, “I think we’ve got enough to cut it into a special.” And so that was the way it happened. It really was, for me, I verbalized that performance as well as I was going to verbalize it. You work on it every night. You want to say it the way you want to say it. And I said it that night. I would say 99% of the way I wanted to say it and how I wanted to say it, maybe not the way I wanted to do a beat or something, but it was f*cking close in terms of that. Not in the way you’d shoot it, because you know, it was not high tech. So it didn’t allow us a lot of ways to kind of emphasize things that way. But it allowed the language to speak in its own way. And we went ahead and we had folks work on it and we got it done.
And all things considered, I think it definitely did come out incredibly well. And you were on Jim and Sam last week talking about how you actually like that you didn’t have the opportunity to pan over or mic the audience.
Thanks. I mean, I feel like it came out pretty well. And all these people try to shoot things. Like “I’m going to shoot without an audience,” which I just think, I’m sorry, that’s the road to madness. I don’t know, that’s a choice I couldn’t make. I don’t know how you do that. I mean, I write in front of an audience. And you know, I just feel like they’re a part of it. It’s whoever showed up that night. That’s, you know, the reason people like to watch the shows that they were at, because they know they were a part of it and they helped create it. And this I felt, as I’ve been saying to people, I think it gives a sense of the intimacy that a performer would have in a large space because you lose it when you light up the audience and you have those shots of them that you don’t really [need]. Mostly you just get a sense of “Oh boy, this is really fun. And everybody’s really having a good time. And the energy in the room is just great.” But you really miss the sense of the relationship between the performer and the audience. And that we achieve just totally by luck. And maybe I’m psychotic and I’m saying that in order for people to go, “Oh, that’s why they shot those shots from the back”. But I think we created something. Would I go out to shoot it that way? I don’t think so. But I’m glad it happened this way. And especially at this time.
And I think the coolest part about it is the fact that the audience, at that point, didn’t even know it was going to be a special. Nobody knew.
Yeah. There’s no “You’re all here together. And you know when Lewis comes out, everybody really show him your love!” (Laughs). Which always I find a little weird. You know, because they’re gonna do that. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.
Totally. And were you surprised by just how easily (or eerily) how perfectly the COVID topic you started the show with had segued into the rest of your prepared act?
Well it always kind of followed out. I mean, it was just weird that “It Gets Better Every Day,” was the name of the tour. So you know, something’s going on and I started talking about it initially. Whatever was horrible that was happening. You tell them something horrible and then you go “You know, it’s just tough to be funny. And I think you know why.” And it kind of worked. So it was already a part of what I was doing. And this just, you know, whatever it was that was two weeks before that was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe that just happened!” was now replaced by “Oh, my God, I can’t believe that just happened.”
Exactly. And there was one moment where you were talking about people not listening to science. And boy, did that specific joke hold up.
Well I mean it does, but you know, I had been working on that for months. Because that was the thing. Already it started to happen, with the climate change. And I didn’t dwell on it, because you know, it was pretty simple. It was not just climate change. It was, there’s all sorts of stuff. It’s one of these things that I think will eventually be a longer bit when I hit the road again. About what was going on in terms of this, you know? In terms of the lack of any respect for science.
Which is absolutely mind boggling to me.
Mhm. I mean, there are things that occurred over the last two years that my brain was not prepared for. Because I kind of didn’t believe that could happen in the country that… I never thought it was the greatest country on Earth. I thought it was a country that had real potential. I thought it was a country that should look toward other countries to try to figure things out. But I thought it was like… I really always felt that we would do what was right. By “right,” I meant, you know, that science would prevail. You couldn’t have someone say, “Gee, the problem with the woods out there. They’re burning because nobody’s sweeping the woods.” Which is interesting, because you know it’s a tenth of the problem that we’re talking about. But you’re not the expert on these things. That we would allow someone who’s really… You know, the tax forms when they came out [the day before our interview]. But boy, the grades. I’d like to see the grades.
And what was going on through your head when the tax forms came out?
I just thought, “Wow”. One of the things that started when I started talking about him was the fact that from the very beginning, when I was talking to the audience, it was during the run up to the election. I get why they didn’t like Hillary, but I think that, you know, they ought to realize that I also had the same trouble with the other guy. You know, the reason you had the trouble with the other guys… You don’t know the other guys and I spent 40 years in the same city with him making jokes about it. And so I watched him. And I saw what he did. And I read the papers. And then I did a lot of material because, you know, he would do something and it was kind of unbelievable. It was funny. You always had a little something. You go, “Wow.” And it was funnier in a sense because it was just a guy. A business guy who thought he was a business guy, but he’s bankrupting casinos, so you kind of went “Wow, okay.” So I got this material. But underneath what I could see was something that I’d said almost from the beginning, a couple of years into it when nothing seemed to bother people. That he could do anything. You know, that “Mexicans were eating all the avocados and raping and pillaging,” you know, all the nonsense, the gutter mouth. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts”. Undermining. You know, saying things about McCain. Like the list is endless.
So, it’s a long way to get to the taxes, but what I felt was when they got him- if they got him- it would be like Capone. The didn’t get Capone for the big crimes. They’re not gonna get [him for], like 25 women or whatever that charged him with some form of assault. Not stuff that he should be doing. He shouldn’t be doing it. But all the other things you might have gotten him for. And like all the stuff that you could have gotten Capone for, but it was the taxes they got Capone for. It’s the taxes they’re going to get them for.
I can’t wait to see how he responds to all this.
Well he’s just going to say what he said today, which is that it was made up and we don’t have the full story and we don’t understand business. And all that. And, you know, the true believers will follow. But, you know, the paper is there. And I’m sorry. It’s not crazy. You know, he’s the President of the United States. We have certain things in place because of that, in order to prevent these things. It’s the things that the true believers wanted prevented amongst Democrats, okay? That they felt Democrats were doing, in terms of collusion. Well, you know, if you owe $421 billion, unless you just go straight up to banks in the United States, that’s one thing. But you know, you’re in office and you’re trying to prop up your business that you’re going to have when you get out. I mean, it’s the whole thing. But also, apparently he was borrowing money from countries, but we don’t know. So that’s the next step. So we’ll see.
We definitely will. And given that the entire world has changed before us between March 13th and now, is it weird for you to not have that platform of stand-up to talk about this kind of stuff as you normally would?
Yeah. Yeah, it was. The one thing I realized is the platform’s not only a platform. I made a choice and my career was kind of like my primary relationship. So that was tough. You know, it was like my wife’s in the hospital right now. So that was tough. And just on any level, because that was the focus. That’s really the focus that I had. So it was just, it was that focus I lost in terms of what I do everyday and the focus in terms of being able to talk about this stuff. Because people say, even the folks who write into my Twitter feed and Facebook and all that, “How come you’re not saying anything?” Because it’s not where I say it. I don’t write that kind of joke. The only thing I really hope to clear up during this time frame was in the interviews that I’ve had is to say “I write in front of an audience. I write live on stage. That’s what I do.” I’m not someone who sits at home and writes. So every so often I get a joke I can put on Twitter, I get all excited.
And the other reason I kind of have trouble sending stuff out on Twitter is I don’t like giving the place where people can react with their vitriol. Because some of the stuff that’s said is just appalling. And it’s really unnecessary. I sent out a thing, and I used my mother, just kind of used her as the voice for something about Trump. And most people got the fact that, you know, it was funny. And then people wrote things [negatively]. My mother’s 102. And you kind of go “Really, guys?” And that’s the stuff. I don’t like giving them the space. And to be honest, one of the things that always bothered me is that I didn’t want, not that I do personally, but in a sense, legitimize his use of Twitter. I didn’t want to make it legitimate. It’s not legitimate. It is not a legitimate way for a president to communicate. But the kind of nonsense that comes out, the kind of rage, is beyond belief. And a lot of it is, you know I’m hoping, 25% of the people that you kind of go “Holy God. We still got people who think this way. And that’s the way it’s gonna be”. Because I feel like, people always have said “We’re really upset about all this”. I go, “What you’re hearing in part,” and I really feel this in terms of what’s going on, “what you’re hearing is the sound of dinosaurs dying.” And these are the last screams. “F*ck you. You’re gonna get this. And f*ck us. We’re gonna do this. And we’re going to f*ck you on this thing. This is the way it should’ve been.” Well, no. You die and life goes on. You know, you don’t hold this in stone. You don’t hold this. Because the statuary sometimes has to go, assh*le. Wake the f*ck up.
(Laughs). I absolutely agree. It’s crazy, when you think of it in those terms. And let me ask, throughout the pandemic and all this craziness that we’re inundated with, how did you manage to stay sane throughout it all?
I didn’t. Much like many people, I think we’re gonna have to deal with it when it’s all over. The first 10 weeks I was in solitary confinement. Now I had a good solitary confinement because I have a nice place to live in New York City and a nice outdoor space in my apartment so I had a way to walk around. But I could not leave my apartment because I was told not to leave my apartment. “Just stay there. (Laughs). You’re at very high risk, you don’t want to go outside.” And there was no information because we were not getting any information. You know, because [Trump] was doing the press. And when I also saw that he was doing the press conferences, I went “My God. No one’s protecting us. There’s no protection.” And that really freaked me the f*ck out because that was something I always expected. You know, I don’t care what people think about the federal government. I don’t give a sh*t. I was born and raised around Washington. There’s certain things that the federal government has to do. One thing that would always help is to create a balance between what the Fed and the states do. Got it. Understand that. Two, the Fed has to really take the lead on how we deal with a problem that is national and in scope. So the same way in which the Fed had to deal with you know… It didn’t bother them after 9/11, did it? Homeland Security didn’t bother them. It was a whole new f*cking thing, did it? Now everybody’s like “Yeah, we have Homeland Security.” Still the weirdest name. Homeland Security just smacks a little weird. I just don’t like the title. So I thought “Okay. It wasn’t there.” So there was like a little “Oh, my God.”
And that freaked me the f*ck out. Being high risk and being locked up by myself. And I was locked up for 10 weeks. I exercised, I ate pretty well, I stopped watching news all the time because it was making me nuts. (Laughs). I binge watched, I didn’t read enough. Most of the time I punished myself for not becoming a better person. I thought “Boy, this would be the time to read books”. I couldn’t get my brain to focus. I couldn’t get my attention going. My emails became longer and longer and longer. I was not doing well, because you alone with your brain… Now if I had been able to read, I think I would have been okay. I believe that. But I just couldn’t do it. My brain would not stay on something. And so after 10 weeks, I realized that I had to get out of there. And I had friends around who were doing the same thing that I was doing. So I escaped and went and saw friends. People who had been locked down either with a significant other… Generally, that was the case. And so I could visit them and spend time with them. And that really was huge. That was the lifesaver.
That was sort of where I was as well. I think everybody was missing that. And so after that, you posted a picture on Instagram and I have to ask. Did you really tour around the country in a bus that had your face on it, with nowhere to go?
No, my face wasn’t on it. That was a joke. I’m not psychotic. That was just kind of the joke. But I had gone to see my mother. And I had a week. I was going to go up to Michigan and see friends up there. I helped build a cabin up there when I was very, very young and I had been there about five years before. And then they were going up again. And I said, “Well, can I meet you up there?” And they went “Great.” So I went back up there for a week. And having left my mother, I just literally wandered around. So I went to Gettysburg and the Eastern shore of Maryland. I just kind of wandered down the skyline drive, which people should do whenever they get the chance. And went through the Blue Ridge Mountains. And so I took some drives. I was really lucky. I was just, you know, trying to get my brain back in order. And I still think it’s not [there yet]. There’s still clutter.
(Laughs). But it’s better than during lockdown?
It is better. I’d say I hit about 75% of what it was. Better, because it was really… When you’re locked up, you can see why they put people in solitary. Because you just tear yourself up. Your brain just starts to go. You brain needs other things to do. And then you become the dark. You really kind of go through, at least for me, just kind of childhood stuff you relive. I mean it’s crazy. Crazy! And a lot of it had to do with the fact that there was no public square to be in. So people were all in their own worlds. And then I can’t imagine if you had a kid or two kids or three kids and they had to deal with all of that. And a spouse who was a helper who had to go out and do essential work. I mean, all of that stuff. I can’t imagine having all of that on the tray. I mean, I was just by myself and it was enough. I always felt like, you know, “Stop whining, you f*ck. There are people who have 50 times more the problems”. You know, you take what you have and then multiply it by 500. Because all of a sudden if you’re a family of four, wow! I mean, it can be pretty stressful. And without any real guidance, it becomes intolerable.
It does. And I want to say I admire how much you’ve stuck to your guns about not appearing on any Zoom shows or any of the socially distanced outdoor shows that I’m sure you’re being asked to do. Although it was great to see you do that one thing for the National Comedy Center’s virtual festival.
Well that was easy, because that was with Mark Russell. It was just me and Mark. So that was easy. So if I’m doing something with just somebody else, that’s fine. But being a stand-up in the midst of this… It’s like I call it. It’s Hollywood Square’s comedy. And you’re Paul Lynde. It’s really bizarro. I don’t know, I’ve heard this. I mean, which I find fascinating. Ben, my tour manager, said that he’d been talking to [Brian] Regan. Brian Regan is going around the country at this point.
He’s back on tour?
Yeah. And some of it’s outside. He did three shows outside. And then he did some shows in Huntsville, and I like that club down there. But I was like, “Wow!” I couldn’t. I don’t know how he’s doing it.
You’re gonna wait it out all the way, I imagine?
I have to. I don’t know how I’d beat it any other way. But I’m going to continue to do the Rantcast. So I’m going to get those out there. Tomorrow, I’m going to start doing the first rant, I’m gonna try to do as many as possible, here. And even if I’m sitting in front of my f*cking computer at home, I’ll read the rant there.
Oh that’s great! So there will be some new ones.
Yes. So I’m going to try to send out one or two of those a week or more. I’m hoping we’ve got some. We’ve got a couple of we already have. And then I’m going to send out a thing today asking for more and I’ll try to try to do a bunch of those and put those in storage and get them out. And I’ll do that. And then, Kathleen Madigan and I… She started a podcast that’s really good. It’s just her. It’s stuff that we’ve talked about for years that she’s really getting out there. And it’s very funny. She’s really good at this, I think. But she and I worked on doing a podcast about touring. So cities we liked and places to go. And so we did 10 of them and I think we’ll want to do 10 more. And we’ll see if it works. If it doesn’t work, then, you know… It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. If we don’t send it out, then that’s fine. But I don’t see myself doing stand-up unless something changes. I mean I’ve had some offers, you know, like outdoors. And it’s like, “Well, I’m gonna do two shows, and then I’m not gonna do any shows. Well, then it doesn’t make any sense to do a show”. For me. Then it just becomes like I don’t need to do the heroin if I’m not gonna get it for the next six weeks after I’ve already had the heroin.
I can imagine how hard it must be to go back to it and then not do it again after. But going back to the Rantcast, is that something that you’re enjoyed doing throughout this?
Very much. I’ve gotten better at it, I think. I think at the beginning it was tough because I’m just not used to it. It was finding my voice. A lot of it is finding my voice, in the midst of all this, without an audience. And I think I’m starting to do that. And then just feeling more comfortable with me talking about stuff into a mic with nobody around. (Laughs). And I think it started okay. And hopefully it’s gotten better and better. I liked the last one a lot. Hopefully the next one will be better. It will be as good. It was really learning another skill. But what I really like is what they did in terms of the editing of it. And what I really like about it, to be honest, is I felt that the writing had gotten stronger. I felt that everything that it was really about, it was becoming specific to the places. So if it was Iowa, it was about someone. It would be about Des Moines in a way, and it would be about Iowa in a way, and then maybe another thing. But mostly it was about the places I was at. And really well-written and really smart.
And the people writing in, as far as I’m concerned, you know they’re not going to become writers on The Daily Show, but they’ve got a solid sense of how to write, more and more of a sense of how to write for me. And so it was like having this really great group of comedy writers who really got it. Who are a really great group of folks who were experiencing things that I don’t experience, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do this in the first place. Because it was like, there’s 1,000 things I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to work in an office, I don’t know what it’s like to have a bad boss, I don’t know what it’s like to go shopping in a sh*tty store. I know what it’s like to deal with shitty health insurance. But I’ve had my experience, people have tons of others I don’t know. I have a sense of what it’s like to be in the military, but I don’t know the stories that they would tell and all of that stuff. And so it’s becoming really, really written on a level that I had never imagined we would reach or they would reach. And so that’s what I’m excited about, which is for folks who haven’t listened to it, give it a listen. Because it’ll give you some hope for the fact that there’s really, really bright people out there. Who really have something to say.
I love how much you embrace and support your fan base in that unique way. It creates a unique experience for them. And the last thing I want to ask is, going back to the special and all your gigs are being cancelled and everyone is expecting comedy to be back a few weeks later, did you have a sense that it would go beyond that? When were you conscious enough, after you had taped the special, to realize what was really going on?
I didn’t until I got home and watched [Trump] talk in his first news conference and then I knew it was not gonna be short. And then I knew. And Kathleen and I kept talking to each other and we kept going, “How come?” We know nothing about public health. And neither of us really would have really passed organic chemistry and would be able to become a doctor. But we were discussing it for a couple of weeks, two to three weeks, everyday. We were discussing it. And she was [of the mindset] that it would go longer. I wasn’t sure of that, but I knew it was going to be a haul. And I knew within a week or two weeks, that we’re not touring. And we wouldn’t be touring until January. Because we weren’t dealing with it. We weren’t dealing with it at all. And I was in New York City and it was a meltdown. It was just a complete meltdown. And now Brian [Regan] is doing it and I don’t know how. And there’s people who are out there kind of finding ways to do it. I mean Dave Chappelle has that thing out in Ohio. There’s people who are doing it. But for me, I don’t want to go back until I can go back. And so, I don’t know what that means. To be honest, that does not make me f*cking happy. (Laughs).
Well I hope we can get you back out there soon, because I’m sure your first show back will be a site to behold.
Oh yeah. There may be more screaming than anyone could imagine. One of the things I didn’t say to you is, when people always say “Well how come you’re not saying stuff?” Because there’s not enough f*cks in the universe for me to say what I have to say.
Thanks For Risking Your Life is now available on a lot of platforms such as iTunes, Google, Xbox, and Vudu. Rantcast can be found wherever you stream your podcasts.