Getting Better Every Day
“If I’ve learned anything from
the pandemic it's that 1000 days
seems like one day and one day
seems like 1000 days.”
“If people make things up
and then they believe what
they made up, that’s crazy!
That’s what we call crazy!
You don’t get to make shit up
and then think it’s real.
Because if you do you’re nuts.”
by Jason MacNeil
COMEDIAN LEWIS BLACK rarely had to bite his tongue when it came to issues that rubbed him the wrong way. Over dozens of memorable rants on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and several stand-up specials, his passionate, logical and profane-punctuated pieces struck a nerve with many.
But Black, now 73, was at the pandemic’s mercy, resulting in him interacting with an actual, in-the-flesh audience just twice over roughly 20 months. In September Black performed a mini-residency of sorts at a Cleveland club. The eagerness to work left him happy but worn out.
“It felt really great and then it felt really bad because I didn’t have the common sense to realize I hadn’t worked in 600 days,” the comedian says during an enjoyable phone interview in early October. “And the common sense being you don’t do six shows in four nights. ‘Wow I haven’t done anything in 600 days, let’s run a marathon.’ So I exhausted myself. Because if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic — or at least I have — it’s that 1000 days seems like one day and one day seems like 1000 days.”
“The problem is when I go onstage I give 100%. I push myself as hard as I can onstage physically. Now I’m back to the point where I’m, ‘Okay this is how we do it.’ By the time I did the sixth show I was able to do my show without any notes.”
Black, performing at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall as part of his It Gets Better Every Day tour, says booking shows is a little better now. But his initial hopeful thoughts in February after being double-vaccinated and what ended up happening the rest of 2021 were polar opposites.
“I thought most Americans were waiting for a vaccine, how tough is it going to be, everybody will be vaccinated,” he says. “Or at least we’ll have 75% of Americans vaccinated. Why wouldn’t you do that? So initially I had no hesitancy. It was February and I was going back on the road in September.
“As it got closer I realized I wanted to go to Huntsville, Alabama and I couldn’t anymore because nobody at the club was vaccinated. I wanted to go to Omaha, Nebraska, but they weren’t even publishing or sending out information about what was going on there. None. There was a map of the United States with all the hot spots. It was like six weeks or eight weeks before I was supposed to go in August. And Nebraska was blank—it was white, blank. All the other states filled in, no information from Nebraska. I said I can’t do it. I have an underlying condition, I’m older. Basically, I hid out for 600 days, I’m not putting myself at risk.”
Black also succinctly offers his advice to those who refuse—without any rational thought — to get vaccinated or accept basic public health protocols.
“Here’s something I need to get out,” he says. “It’s a public service announcement. If people make things up and then they believe what they made up, that’s crazy! That’s what we call crazy! You don’t get to make shit up and then think it’s real. Because if you do you’re nuts. Americans are crazier than I ever imagined!”
The lack of shows made Black realize just how much he missed both the interaction with an audience and how that dynamic served as creative fuel towards his decibel-raising diatribes.
“I love what I do, I really love it,” he says. “I didn’t miss the whole idea of, ‘Oh, I got to get back there for the laughs.’ I got to get back to the audience because they are my guardrails. I write in front of an audience so for me I stopped writing because that’s who I write in front of. My audience has been incredible because they’ve allowed me to do that and get it. That’s what is my primary relationship. It was like my marriage was over.”
One saving grace was the Rantcast, a series of often weekly rants which premiered on his YouTube channel on July 22, 2020. Black could still get things off his chest while receiving rants from fans and honing them to his level of rant-tastic.
“The Rantcast was huge because it allowed me to continue to do it,” he says. “I didn’t need an audience to read rants. I knew what made a rant funny. If you send me the rant and I like the rant then I can read the rant and make it funny. I’ve been doing that since The Daily Show 100 years ago.
“What was difficult was just sitting here talking to myself,” Black recalls. “I’m sitting here, but I feel like a psychotic public access [television] person. But the basic reading of the rants and the rants that I was getting before the shutdown was as good as anything written. The stuff evolved to the point I found it impressive. Not that these folks could then consistently write another one. What I’m saying is they had something to yell about and they yelled about it really well. And the way in which they did it was terrific.”
Having had his share of comical but quite pointed, thought-provoking rants, Black says there’s one key that’s essential to every rant.
“Something has to really irritate the hell out of you,” he says. “That’s really it, that’s what drives a rant. If something really pisses you off, the rest will follow. What pisses you off and why does it piss you off? Once you get through all the whys then you’re done. There are always more whys than you realize.”
As for his Fort Myers show, Black deadpans about karaoke and making animals out of balloons before mentioning topics he’s interested in, one of which is gun violence.
“It’s a newspaper article,” he says about the topic originally slated for his 2020 stand-up television special Thanks For Risking Your Life. “It’s about gun violence, it’s not about me taking a position, this actually happened. So you can’t go, ‘Yeah, but I feel...’ No, this happened so let’s move on and now you can deal with it. And it’s funny. It’s sad and funny, tremendously sad, but it is funny.”
And while nothing is set in stone given how quickly things are changing, another topic which could be on the agenda is health insurance, an issue which has taken on even greater importance given the pandemic.
“At one time in my life my health was really threatened and I had an underlying condition, I had a severe case of pneumonia,” he says. “I talk about that because I was hospitalized in Ireland. So I get to talk about something all Americans think they know about. ‘Boy look at those other countries.’ ‘No, you’ve never been there so shut the fuck up!’ No Canadians need to hold their urine for six days to see a doctor!”
While Black did his best to keep busy and his mind occupied during the lockdown stretches, he feels the ramifications of isolation have weighed heavily on himself and everyone else.
“I learned you don’t put yourself in solitary confinement, that’s torture,” he says. “There’s a reason people are put in solitary confinement and it’s to torture them. What I learned is I can’t handle it because your brain will go through all of the things that it likes and feels comfortable with and enjoys and wants to yell about. And once it goes through that a thousand million times it comes after you and it’s relentless.
“I learned the thing I think we all learned, which is we’re vulnerable. And what else I learned is we are going to have trouble, all of us, with some sort of mental [health issue]. People aren’t going to be able to skip this. Everybody’s cage was rattled.”
Black says he’s hoping to perform more shows in the coming months, but that depends on the state of the pandemic. He’s also trying to create a travel show “because what America needs right now is 12,000 more travel shows”, but nothing is confirmed.
Throughout his rise to fame during his years on The Daily Show, Black has managed to keep a loyal following while not following the likes of Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah hosting a show. Black says he’s maintained his career through keeping an open mind.
“As long as I was learning something on that stage I was comfortable, I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I went, ‘Oh, wow!’ Then I had something to think about and talk about. As long as the audience seemed to want to show up and listen to me go off those were the driving forces. I got into theatre for starters and that’s always been the driving force, having my words on a stage.”
Speaking of Stewart, the comedian says he hasn’t seen his new Apple TV series The Problem with Jon Stewart. But it’s nothing personal.
“From what I gather he’s become a pundit and I get that and that’s great,” he says. “But I avoid stuff for a while and then go back because I need to work on it and get my own point of view. I really respect Jon and John Oliver and all of the others, I think they’re great. But I really need to avoid that because I need to come up with my own thinking. Sometimes I’ll see something with Oliver and I’ll go, ‘Fuck! God dammit! I should’ve thought of that!’”
Perhaps one small pandemic-related oddity is Black’s family having first-hand experience with pandemics. His mother, Jeannette Black, was an infant when the 1918 pandemic ravaged the world. Now, 103 years later, she’s still celebrating birthdays, as she did in late September.
“As I keep saying, she’s here and sometimes she’s there,” Lewis says regarding her condition. “I consider her to be living in a senior living situation in Maryland that I would call a launchpad. She left the planet much sooner and has returned on a number of occasions, almost daily. And she did It much sooner than Musk, Branson and Bezos. It didn’t cost her a billion dollars.
“She’s well, but like she says, ‘Who the fuck should be living this long?’” •
Lewis Black will be appearing December 9 at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.