“There’s nothing better than talking about something else other than yourself. It’s like I’m not that interesting.”
When it comes to people being identified by their persona and how the public sees them as being, Lewis Black is on a playing field all his own. I found this out myself. Every time I told someone that I was going to interview Lewis Black, they would wish me “Good luck.” As if I was going off to war. Or they would say “Oh boy, that’s going to be crazy.” People expect, just because he is a certain way onstage, that he is truly incapable of turning it off and is just going to yell in my face the whole time. Something like that couldn’t be further from the truth.
There seems to be a bit of miscommunication in regards to my interview with Lewis. It turns out the hotel, where I am supposed to meet him, is in a gated resort. I struggle with what to do, and how to get to where I’m supposed to be when the people in charge of my getting in finally asks “Can you call Mr. Black?”
I pause. I’ve never spoken to the man before. But I just so happened to have his number, thankfully, in case something went wrong. So I had to call him to 1 – Confirm the interview, 2 – Explain the situation, and 3 – Ask him to vouch for me. He finally did, getting on the phone with the woman. “He’s good,” Lewis explains, in a toned-down version of how you’d expect him to be. “He’s press. He’s an enemy of the people!”
I sit across from him outside of his hotel at a little metal table in this beautiful result, the Chautauqua Institute. “It feels sort of like Our Town,” he quips. “This place nobody knows about!” Multiple people stop by to say “Good morning” or to tell him how great he was the other night, of which he is receptive.
We are both in town for the National Comedy Center grand opening in Jamestown, NY. The center is something he has become very outspoken about. He has, alongside other advisory board members such as Kelly Carlin, Alan Zweibel, and W. Kamau Bell, among many others, sort of become their spokesman for the center. He has gone about promoting it all over the airwaves, including The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“I do consider that I put myself in the position to kind of push people toward taking a closer look at this. I’m dealing with a community that, this is a group of people that are sarcastic. This is the most cynical group of fuckers on the planet [comedians]. And you’re saying “Oh no, this is really good.” “Yeah, right, Lewis.” And I thought coming from me to say “You better stop and take a look,” I’m the person where you go “Really?” I just felt like this was important.”
It was Kelly Carlin, daughter of George, that had gotten him involved in the first place. “We became friends and she came up here… I guess I came up here three years ago. But she had already introduced me to the folks who were doing it. And I was there when she announced she was going to give them [George’s archives]. And once that happened, it was like “Okay, if she’s doing that, I’m going to go see what that is.” If she trusts them, chances are I’m going to trust them.”
Kelly’s donation of the archives sort of blew the doors off of everything. “What it helped do was legitimize it and make it real. I mean you could still run the museum as an interactive experience about comedy and get certain kind of access to certain kinds of things. But what it did was it opened up what the center had access to. So Shelley Berman’s widow [Sarah], she followed suit. We had gotten in touch with Norman Lear and David Steinberg, who is Billy Crystal’s and Robin William’s manager, and Alan Zweibel, who is a friend of Billy’s. I’m not sure how exactly Alan got involved, but he did. And all of us together kind of helped create this. It was the dominoes.”
Lewis Black is about as much of a New Yorker as you can get these days. And New York is a state that is so identified with comedy, whether it be New York City or the old days of the Catskills. This is a community that lives and breathes comedy. So, it is only fitting that a center that is devoted to all things comedy would be here, and would be endorsed by Lewis Black.
“People go “Who’s going to come here? Why would people go here?” Well why would people go to Canton? Why would people go to Cooper’s Town? Who the fuck had heard of Canton? And what they’ve done is create something where you take people who love comedy. Just really love it. You take that percentage of the population that is obsessed with comedy and you show them this.”
We are living in a social media world, whether you like it or not. At the start of Twitter, it was a fun novelty. You could give people a short glimpse into what you’re doing or regale your followers with a joke. But it’s grown way beyond that. It has become now a formable way to keep your brand alive and to advertise yourself. It’s all about the concept of keeping your brand alive. This is something that Lewis Black is all-too familiar with.
“I’m not good at it,” he admits. “I feel like I’m in high school. I’m walking down the hall and I say something and somebody’s got something to say about it. They can expand it to 250. I don’t even get to the joke. I’m not even at the beginning of the joke at 250. And a lot of what I do is I write onstage. Or I’ll have an idea that every so often I’ll put it.”
For the most part, when it comes to engaging on the internet and social media, he’s got some people that help him out. “I’ve got a good group of people that take old stuff of mine and put it back out again. And a lot of the stuff I’ve said, it continues to be the same. History continues to repeat itself. So they bring back stuff and put a little photo of me yelling.”
And that’s not to say he rejects the form. Not at all, actually. In fact, he has found a unique way to use it to his advantage in his stand-up, even. Something no other comic is doing.
“I do this thing now, where after every show, I do this live stream,” he tells us. “It’s written by people. Now it’s getting to the point where it’s all coming from the communities I’m going to. It’s all written by these people who live there, or have lived there, and are telling these stories. And to me, it’s a live show. And then I can make my comments or whatever. And “Here, it’s free, fuckers.” Now shut up. (Laughs). You don’t need to have your phone. And it kind of works.”
Lewis continues: “I tell kids who are like “How do I break into show business?” Well you take 5 guys that you like, male or female or whatever, you put a sketch together and you film it. It’s on T.V. already, asshole. So just put it out there.”
Things will keep changing or look different, certainly. Society, on the surface, appears to be nothing like how it was even just 10 years ago. The more that things evolve, the more things will continue to change. However, underneath it all, a lot of things are still intact. And it harkens back to how it was when Lewis was first starting out.
“It’s the same thing when I was starting out, when I was in NY or wherever I was. I would find the space. I would find a space that wasn’t being used. I would do stand-up in places where nobody was doing stand-up. I said “I’m going to bring in…” because I had friends that A – Wanted to go hang out somewhere. So I’d say “Okay, you’ve got nothing going on Tuesday. So I’ll bring you 50 people.” I didn’t care. Time to me was as important as money.”
Comedy is the whole reason we are sitting across from each other. And the Comedy Center is what brought us both here today. One thing that the Center can help do is preserve comedy and keep its rich history from getting lost, particularly as technology will continue to advance and people will be onto the next big thing.
“Well, it’s in danger of getting lost,” he urges, “because I felt like we’re moving from wherever we are in time, wherever the end of this period that I consider myself a part of… It’s somewhat the industrial period, I think. And then we move onto this tech period. So now we’re moving from one to the other and they’re kind of like colliding, and that’s part of the problem. So my feeling was, once you enter that next period, all of this shit goes into the waste basket unless somebody puts it together.”
Much like has been the case here, you get the feeling Lewis is recognized practically everywhere he goes. He just has one of those faces that can’t really blend in with the crowd. Particularly with the advent of social media, more and more people want their moment and picture with Lewis Black to post. He insists, that his fan base is nothing but respectful.
“What’s weird is how many photos I’ve taken where people go ‘Can you give me the finger? Can we both give the finger?’ That’s as far as they go. Or they’ll say ‘Can you sign this and tell my brother to go fuck himself?’ Or ‘My brother’s a big fan. He’s at home now. Will you call him?’ And then I will go and say I’m there and ‘Your brother is with me and he handed me the phone. He’s in the Newark airport, so any spare change you may have give him. You may want to come get him. I think it’s time to bring him home.’”
As our conversation is starting to wind down, as it is in the midst of a whirlwind of a weekend for us both, I hear one last person stopping by to say hi to Lewis.
“Hey, how are ya doing?”
“Hey, Mr. Aykroyd,” Lewis responds
Dan Aykroyd, who is also in town for the opening of the Center, has donated the motorcycle that he rode from Toronto to New York in 1975 for SNL to the Center.
“Dan Rather is here,” Mr. Aykroyd tells us. “I’m doing a thing for 20/20. But I’m just going to pretend like it’s for 60 Minutes.”
Lewis erupts into laughter. He’s got a very distinctive laugh. It’s the kind of laugh where, if you’re in a crowd full of people, you know without a doubt where that laugh is coming from. But this laughter that has been elicited is a bit different. There’s something so much sweeter, more pure about this particular laugh.
“I realized it last night, when I was at dinner with him. Usually I don’t have a lot of heroes. I mean I like a lot of people. So my brain was like “What are you doing? Why are you saying this?” And I realized he’s a hero. I’m sitting here like ‘It’s Dan Aykroyd!’ I hear his voice, it’s like ‘Wow!’ And you start to realize, through films and Saturday Night Live that’s his voice. That’s the voice he built off. His characters come from that guy. And my brain literally goes. And the first thing he said when he came in last night was ‘You should have a show where you’re a lawyer and you don’t move around much. You just sit at your desk and tell people “No.” That was it. That was the end of the day.”
This is evidence that there is so much more. Beyond the comedian, the persona, the guy you see onstage as the guy who yells and is angry. There is a Lewis Black that exists as someone who is eternally youthful. Someone who gets such a joy out of all of this. Someone who just is infatuated with all things comedy. That is who Lewis Black is. The man, not the persona.