Got something on your mind that’s irritating you? Well, there’s a good chance comedian Lewis Black is irritated too, and he’ll be venting about it during his “The Joke’s on Us Tour” performance at the Lied Center for Performing Arts on Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.
Known for his angry, confrontational comedic style, Black has largely made his career in stand-up, recording multiple comedy specials and touring all over the nation. But he is a man of many talents, as he has been featured in many TV shows and movies (including a role as the voice of “Anger” in the 2015 Pixar film “Inside Out”), written multiple books and began his early career as a playwright.
With his Lied Center performance approaching, Black spoke with the Daily Nebraskan about his tour, his advice for college students and exactly why he seems so angry all the time.
Daily Nebraskan: How would you describe “The Joke's On Us Tour” for an audience going into it? How does it differ, if at all, from any of your previous tours or sets?
Lewis Black: Basically every time I do a tour, I do a different show. Actually, even during this tour, if they'd come a year ago to watch this tour, the show they would have seen is different from the tour that I'm doing, the show that I'm doing now, because the show evolves. So basically, I take something and try to make it, what I try to do, is tell a story about the times we're living through. That's what I try to do. You know, God knows if I'm successful, because I try to make it funny. And I think that works a lot of the time. People seem to laugh and then there's some people who don't seem to think it's funny, and then they sit among people who are laughing at it, and then tell me that they didn't think it was funny even though 95% of the people were laughing at it. So I don't know how I'm supposed to know it wasn't funny, unless that one person pointed it out.
DN: What are your personal pros and cons of performing on college campuses for a largely college audience?
LB: It's the same as performing anywhere. I mean that. You know, the only time, the only difference is that sometimes there's a political correctness that enters the room over a certain use of a certain word or certain joke. You might say nine times out of 10, when I'm in the middle of saying something, I know that it's only then when I'm on a college campus, and I'm saying that thing and I go, "Oh my God, they're going to react to this." And then when they do, I try to explain to them why they miss the joke. And the problem with political correctness is that it has nothing to do with humor. It's a discussion of things that should be discussed, but not when a joke is concerned. You can laugh at the joke or not laugh at the joke. You don't have a discussion of the joke. You save that for later. You go to the bar and talk about it.
DN: What advice would you give to college-age kids who want to break into the comedy world? What would you have wanted to know when you were that age?
LB: Well, I didn't want to break into the comedy world — at all. I wanted to write plays, and I wanted to be in theater. I thought I would teach, really, and write plays. And that's the way I would get by, and I never thought about making a ton of money because I was going to be doing something, and I did for a long time, that I really wanted to do. So money wasn't a concern. It was really just being able to do what I love to do. And then it slipped into something, it evolved into standup because that's what people really liked. And then that did make money, which shocked me.
What I would advise people who want to do comedy depends on what kind of comedy. If you want to write, you write. And then you find people who can perform the writing, and you get those people who have a like mind to what you do. Or if you want to perform, you perform with people who have a like attitude toward the performance. I mean, all you gotta do, you look at, you know, Key and Peele. All you got to do is, they take the ones who you've admired and look at their work and then realize that a lot of it has to do with the fact that they shared something, they shared a sense of humor in common. If you're doing that as a group, that's what you got to find … if you just want to be a stand up, just do it. Find a couple of people who you like and who are friends and they're supportive. Then, find a place that is around campus or that you can get up once a week and do it. Get up whenever you can and perform. If you want to be a comic, there's no way around it, okay? You can't network your way into comedy. Some people have and they're terrible. If you want to be a good comic, you have to get up again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
DN: Going off of that a bit with your theater background, how has that background influenced your comedy and how you perform on stage?
LB: I went to a major theater school, an undergraduate theater school. I was surrounded by really great actors. So, I learned from watching them and they were always kind of amazed. I did comedy on the side for fun. I wasn't doing it. That was the way in which I could write to get my comedy and get my writing out there, and they would give me advice. And then I started doing some acting, a little bit of acting here and there, and that loosened me up. And what the writing taught me was how to tell a story, and it was easier for me to tell a story on my own and to do it through a group of characters because none of the teachers I had could teach plot, which is telling the story. So, I found it easier, in the end, to be able to just tell a story about something that happened to me, which is what I'll be doing the night that I'm performing for you guys.
DN: I noticed on your website you have these Live Rants that you do. Tell me a little bit about those and how that idea came to be.
LB: A number of years ago, I wanted to begin to do a Q&A with the audience. I liked that, and I wanted to see what people were thinking. And you can't really do a Q&A if there's 1,000 people in the room or 600, or even 500, even 300. So my tour manager, Ben Brewer, found a way in which to do it through phones, that people could actually text in questions, and then they could text in comments we discovered. Then we realized this has evolved and people could write in rants. We've collected those and now what it's evolved into over time, especially over the past year and a half, is to get folks, like the folks who are in Lincoln, to write rants about Lincoln. It doesn't have to be about Lincoln, but if something bothers them, it doesn't have to be about Lincoln, it can just be anything that really irritates them. I try to do a show that is written by the people of Lincoln, Nebraska, or by the folks who live in Nebraska. So it's a show that's produced. We do a show each night that goes throughout the world but comes from the city I'm in.
DN: Where does your confrontational style stem from and what made you want to do this style of comedy?
LB: I didn't want to do it, it's just that I'm funny when I'm angry. So that's where it came from. Your style comes from what makes you funny. That's where I was funny. Hence, how I ended up being Anger in "Inside Out."
DN: Who were your comedy inspirations growing up, and who today do you look at as peers in the industry that you admire?
LB: Growing up, there was a lot. Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers, this one isn't a standup, but Kirk Vonnegut, his writing. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Lenny Bruce. I could go on. There's a long list. Pretty much anytime I stumbled on a comic who made me laugh. And then now, once again, there are a lot of comics that make me laugh. So I really enjoy — and I tour with from time to time or work with — Kathleen Madigan, who I think is really terrifically funny. A guy named Ted Alexandro, who is really excellent. Jim Gaffigan is great. Brian Regan is great. There are a lot of really great comics and a lot of great ones coming up. I don't get to see as many as I like because really literally I'm on the road too much, and I'm not one of those people like George Carlin who would kind of do a show and then go watch comics. I just don't have that - I'm kinda like, f*** it, I gotta go lie down. [laughs] I gotta do something else.
DN: How have your comedic styles evolved throughout your career?
LB: Well, really, I tried everything until I stumbled onto the fact that, "Oh, that's why I'm funny, I'm funny when I'm angry." So, I mean, there wasn't an evolution. It was, "Let's try this, this didn't work. Let's try that, that didn't work."
DN: What's next for you? Are you going to continue to tour for the foreseeable future or get back more into movies and TV shows? What's next on your roadmap?
LB: I've missed out on some really nice TV shows because the problem with TV is they'll call you like two weeks before because that's the way they do it. So I've missed out because generally I'm doing something, I'm on the road. Movies, hopefully something comes up, but really what I'm working on is, like I'm coming to Lincoln and I'm staying on the bus at this point to work on a one man show called "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas," which is based on a book that I wrote. So I'm working on that, and I'm hoping to write another book. And I'm hoping to write another "play" play that's not the one man show and if one of those happens, I'd be ecstatic. [laughs]
As the interview ended, Black took a moment to give his unprompted thoughts on the state of Husker athletics.
LB: Nebraska went into the Big Ten, right?
DN: Yeah, we're in the Big Ten.
LB: Yeah. No, that's really … I still think that's wrong. My father went to the University of Oklahoma, and I think that they should have stayed.
DN: In the Big 12?
LB: Yeah, I mean, because when I was a kid growing up, that was really a great rivalry, and it's gone and it's kind of stupid. It's ridiculous. Really, yeah, go wander off and play Ohio State. F*** you. Ohio State doesn't deserve to play you. And you can quote me. [laughs]
Black was then informed that the Nebraska/Oklahoma rivalry will be renewed in two years when the Huskers take on the Sooners in Norman on Sept. 18, 2021.
LB: Oh, that's good. Well it's about time.
Lewis Black will take to the Lied Center stage on Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the Lied Center box office or online.