At the beginning of the year, Lewis Black went on tour with the intention of filming a new comedy hour in August at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York. Black is an honorary member of the board there, and hoped his performance would help bring visibility and money to the museum.
"That isn't the way things worked," Black told VICE. On March 13, the 71-year-old comedian finished a performance at the Four Winds Casino in Michigan. His opening comedian, Jeff Stilson, told Black that the set would be his special because of the impending lockdown. And that's exactly how a performance from his "It Gets Better Every Day" tour became Thanks For Risking Your Life.
Although the special was recorded over six months ago, the material has aged well, given the glut of news, chaos, and devastation that the country has faced since. But Black told VICE you can tell how old it is from his temperament—if the special were recorded more recently, he'd be much, much angrier. While his physical anger is not there, the material is still irate, which is what fans have come to expect from the comedy veteran best known for being pissed off. Black credits his material's timelessness to America's own consistency.
"Nothing was gonna change in the way that America was dealing with stuff," he said. "Nothing was gonna change in terms of our stupidity."
The special's title may now seem like a sarcastic jab at the president, but Black said it's a nod to his last live audience before the shutdown.
While Black, a veteran of standup and former Daily Show correspondent, has spent his career shit-talking sitting presidents, he's never received the feedback he does now: fans will say he's either talking about the president too much or not enough. He told VICE he credits this to people living in "totally separate realities."
But Black has been making jokes about Trump for 40 years, as he said in the special, noting they were basically neighbors in New York. "I knew him pretty well," he said soberly. Then, he goes into a bit about the president's face being orange; a joke he'd thought of just several days before recording. If the performance had occurred in August, the bit would've changed, Black said. In our conversation, he said he'd tie it to Trump declaring himself the winner of the election, essentially, by attacking mail-in ballots, as both are "glaringly obvious," like "staring into the sun."
VICE: This special is one you've obviously been doing for a while. But if you had until August to record it, how much would have been different?
Lewis Black: The basics of it would probably have been the same. I think the only thing that might have changed [was] the energy of the event that night. We all know, ‘Oh boy, we're going to have to go home. This is the last big night out.' People had the sense of that. The level of my anger by August might have been over the top. Just going through this utter chaos day after day, it would have just driven me into a place I call large barking dog syndrome.
In the special, you talk about cable news showing the viewer an event, and then talking heads come on to describe what they saw. With the first presidential debate, that was especially clear. What did you think about the debate?
I watched it but then afterward, it was too much even for them. It was appalling! It was so appalling that even on CNN, [Dana Bash] called it a shitshow. It was driving people over the edge. But, you know, then again, it's the same thing. They come out and they sit there and Fox basically, I'm sure they basically said, “Well, you know, he really did what he had to do.” And MSNBC, “You know, Biden, he didn't bite the bait.” What planet are you people on?
What I really thought was, I don't forgive Chris Wallace. It's not hard. You stand up when he's doing this, and say, “We cannot continue this, Mr. President.” It's a debate! It's not a very good debate. I don't know if any other country on Earth runs the debates the way we do. Two minutes? Seriously? It should be ten minutes. And the other person should have to have to fuckin' listen to them. And so should the whole fuckin' country. That's the nature of democracy. You can sit down and listen for 10 minutes. And if you can't you better have a goddamn good barbecue going.
You mention this in the special, there are ads like, “Person with no medical training: ask your doctor if you should be taking these drugs.” That kind of TV advertising is an age-old thing. What made you put that in now?
You pay a high price for medicine. And part of the reason you're paying a high price is because we're paying for them to advertise the medicine to us. It's one thing to advertise aspirin or Advil, Tylenol or whatever kind of cold medicine you got. But to advertise major drugs in terms of someone's mental condition, someone's physical condition, life and death situations? And it's gotten worse! Now there are hundreds of these ads now because there's a certain vulnerability out there because people have way too much time to themselves. Because we're not in the public square. We're just on screens. So they've got a lot of time for their brain to go, so they can be probed in terms of that. You could've had this, you might be taking, I know you got AFIB, but there's a better drug. I mean, what? Talk to a doctor! When did television become your primary physician?
And the other thing that I would add now: they started pounding people with gambling site ads. FanDuel and whatever other ones they've got. I'm certainly not a psychiatrist, but I think one of the reasons that people gamble is to alleviate anxiety. And so you're banging them with these ads, one after the other, and it's just not right. You can't do that to people. No one stepped in and said, “Now's not the time.” All it boils down to—and it's part of the theme of that show—is there are no adults in the room, and there haven't been for quite some time.
Are there events, where you're like, ah man, if I had recorded now, there definitely would've been a specific bit or line, that you couldn't since you recorded already?
The hard thing for me is, in order to record it, I need an audience because I really do write in front of an audience. So there are things that I would have liked to talk about. I have a garbage bag filled with things piling up. I've been asked if I want to do certain socially distant shows. And I think it's great that people want to do 'em, and hats off. I can't [do socially distanced shows.] I can't because it's like coitus interruptus [laughs].
I'm in that high-risk category. So I can't just travel around and continue to do shows. I'm not gonna put myself at risk in terms of that. I've got other things like, essentially, it was the summer so I had it off anyway. I was in lockdown for 10 weeks, I wanted to get my brain back. And plus the fact if you're not doing a show, three or four nights a week, in terms of what I am doing, things just got more rapid. This occurred, then you want to talk about this in the next 16 other things to talk about? And what I try to find when I'm putting together the special, which is what I really tried to do when I'm out there performing each night, is a through-line. So given three things happen and another four things happen, do I drop these two, which do I keep which are important, which say something which mash up together? Well, which are the through-line? I just don't get to do that. Every so often I've felt like, being able to say to you that what he said, 'I'm the winner,' that to me is as good as it's gonna get. [laughs]
How do you filter out what might become an old news riff by the time a special comes out?
There are certain things I'm going to do that are never going to get beyond the time. They're just there. They're going to disappear in the night. A lot of what I've done will disappear as time goes on. But what I try to do, so I can leave something behind—what Carlin achieved—is to put it in the context of here's the story, here's what happened. Certain things that are my favorite bits are things in which, the Dick Cheney bit in Red White and Screwed, the stuff I do about him is telling the story of him. The set up is the story, the facts of the situation [in this case, Vice President Cheney shot his friend in the face while quail hunting]. And so by giving the sense of the context of giving you a story that hopefully has an arc, what you've done is transcend Dick Cheney. There's a bit about Dan Quayle. It's not just about Dan Quayle. I don't even know if that'll [pass] the test of time because it's almost like listening to music from 1910 when you think of a Dan Quayle. Do you follow what I'm saying?
Yeah. Material like that now seems especially difficult. There are so many things that you could attack Trump on. But if you are talking about a guy who's like wearing a propeller hat and reciting Mein Kampf, and only just talk about the propeller hat, that's not going to age well.
[laughs] True. All the stuff that I do that has some legs to it, is stuff that I've framed within the context of a story, and the story hopefully takes it out of the time period.
What's interesting about all of the news, that I never really liked talking about presidents. [laughs] I have no interest. One of the things I've learned out of this, it would've probably eventually [made] the act—this is not going to be funny, because I haven't worked on it—During the course of my life, I think all presidents have been given a kind of power that is ludicrous. Ok, you're a president of the United States. You have a third of the power. That's what you got. You respect the office. You don't really have to respect the man. But I don't have to think, Oh boy! Because all of them have overstepped their bounds, and been allowed to overstep their bounds. And I'm tired of it. Everyone has led to the next one doing a little more. A lot of it has to do with Congress—during my lifetime—devolving, it's two bowls of shit looking in the mirror at itself.
“Thanks For Risking Your Life” is streaming on Apple TV, iTunes, and Pandora right now.