If Christian Bale had taken a breather from filming Terminator Salvation and spent a few moments relaxing with Lewis Black, he may have been able to turn his angry rant into something more constructive than a scandal-of-the-week audio stream. Who but Black to instruct Bale in the art of the angry rant? Don’t get me wrong, Bale was hilarious (and yes, I know Bale has apologized and we all feel better about him), but his rant just wasn’t smart.

The first rule of a good rant: smart is funny.

Lewis Black does smart funnier than just about anyone on the comedy circuit. Problem is, when you’re as smart as Black you can’t help but spot stupidity in everything around you. It’s a tough burden to carry and it’s bound to piss you off.

Thankfully, Black has made a career out of being pissed off. He’s a skilled professional who can use the word “fuck” the way a symphony conductor uses a baton. Even in print, the word plays like an exclamation mark rather than an assault.

Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, where Black gained wider recognition as a surly, caustic, segment contributor, says that “Black is the only person I know who can actually yell in print form.”

Black doesn’t do a lot of yelling during TORO’s recent phone interview with him, but he does rant about the things that bug him: injustice, ignorance and television execs who see fit to program his college-student-skewed show, Root of All Evil, during summer break ... “fucking morons.”

Q: Must be great to go through life having people call you Mr. Black.
A: No. Not really. But also Mr. Black sounds like I’m aging. When kids call me Mr. Black it’s like, “Shut up. I’m Lewis.”

Q: Your book Me of Little Faith could easily become one of my favourite inspirational books, if I haven’t misread your intent.
A: [Laughs.] What did you think I was trying to say?

Q: Well, I’m all for tipping over our sacred cows, but there seems to me an inspirational and life-affirming tone underlying your criticism.
A: Bill Maher was doing his thing, which is great, Religulous. And then, you know The End of Faith by Sam Harris. [Christopher] Hitchens wrote a book. There were all these things coming out. The only way I could see writing a book that would be funny was from my own personal point of view. To me, there were all these books written about people who were either like The Purpose Driven Life by [Rick] Warren, or “I have this enormous amount of faith, if you just got it, everything follows,” or “I did so much blow, then after 30 years of blow, on Thursday Jesus showed up in my jail cell.” There are not a lot of books that have been written for those who are stumbling towards a light. And that’s what it’s really about. There are certain experiences I have that affirm the fact that there is something going on. But my experiences don’t add up to the Catholic Church being built [laughs].

Q: The chapter that really hit me was called "Ron the Archangel" – about feeling the presence of your late brother when he passed away.
A: Oh yeah, my brother. Yeah. That was pretty big. That was an extraordinary experience. I’ve talked to people who’ve had that experience. And I’ve talked to people who just want to know "When does this suffering end?" I literally had this sense of him being there. I´m pretty jaded about shit, so it’s really got to be in my face.

Q: It’s clear your brother Ron had a large and dynamic affect on you and your career. But it was also a relationship filled with passionate discussions and disagreements. What do you miss most about Ron, the companionship or the arguments?
A: They’re pretty much one in the same. What I miss the most is that he had put all this energy and money and faith and all of this stuff into my career. And I’m just sad that he missed the fruits of it. He would have known what to do with the money [laughs]. He’d say, “We should go do this....” He was always tracking stuff. I mean, he’s the first one – this was 20 years ago, people weren’t buying wine and he’d been living in France – and he said, “I just bought a quarter barrel.” And I said, “What?” He said, “I bought a quarter barrel of wine.” I’m sorry he’s missing out on some of the opportunities that are now presenting themselves – things he would have gotten a big kick out of joining me on.

Q: I would have called you a political comic had you not referred to yourself as a topical comic.
A: Yeah. The reason I said that is because so much of my act for so long was not really political. And there are guys that I know who do full-bore political comedy and don’t get their due for it. I mean it’s a tough road to haul. There are a lot of full-out political comics. I’ve always felt that I’ve tried to take it from the politics down. There’s the giant being against gay marriage, but what does that mean individually? How does that work? So I’ve always tried to take it down to what the human level is.

Q: OK, so you bring up gay marriages. Now, it doesn’t strike me that Lewis Black is going to go out on stage and do gay jokes – but if you are ridiculing the ignorance of others, you can certainly slide one or two under the PC radar.
A: [Laughs.] Yeah. You don’t exactly think of it that way, but it’s kind of the luck of the draw. I don’t think we’re as conscious of that, but it’s like a bonus [laughs]. But also the PC thing that has crept into a lot of audiences, which you especially find in college campuses, the politically correct thing is just so antithetical to humour. It’s disturbing. Somebody can say some horrible joke to you and it’s just wrong on so many levels and you’re allowed to laugh, and then you have to say, “Oh, that was bad” [laughs]. It’s silly to cut off laughter. I get it all the time. At least once or twice in every performance the audience holds back.

Q: For me, it’s the image you write about in Nothing´s Sacred, where Lyndon B. Johnson is screwing the assassinated John F. Kennedy.
A: Oh yeah. That was fantastic.

Q: Speaking of political correctness, I guess the world has grown tired of talking about Michael ... now I forgot his last name, and the politically incorrect rant he had on stage. Michael....
A: Jackson.

Q: No. Well, I guess him too. But I’m thinking of the guy from Seinfeld.
A: Oh yeah, Christ. Michael ... fuck ... now I can’t think of it. Kramer. Michael Richards. Yeah, everyone’s over that.

Q: It made me think of the recent tirade from Christian Bale. Isn’t he stealing a bit of your act?
A: I haven’t got to him yet.

Q: But the angry rant shtick is yours. It takes skill to use the word “fuck” and make it funny – you and the late George Carlin seem to be two guys who do it best.
A: Sure. I think it’s because it’s been so much in my vocabulary for so long. I’m not using it to shock you. I’m not saying it to illicit a laugh. I’m saying it because that’s the word I use to express anger and it works in so many ways. It’s the best word. It’s the “ck-k-k.” It gets a lot out. It’s always been my anger word. I’ve been saying it since I was a kid.

Q: Yeah? Your parents didn’t object?
A: Yeah, but you know, that’s where I learned it. They deny it. My mother used it a few more times than my father.

Q: You have a pretty risky routine, perhaps less risky as time goes on, which I think is one of the funniest in your act: the September 11 attacks as a social and professional inconvenience.
A: Oh yeah, man. Thank you. I don’t get a lot of compliments on that.

Q: Really? But it’s true. Imagine people born on that day, or celebrating birthdays, or getting married or promoting their new book – it was a pretty overshadowing event.
A: Since then, it’s even truer. My brother worked in that area. Worse for me, if he lived three more years and died in 9-11 then I would have it in front of my face every fucking day. Lenny Bruce had said something that drove people nuts after Kennedy was shot. He said that Jackie was trying to haul ass to get out of there [laughs]. It’s an instinctive human reaction for fuck´s sake.

Part of it is the confidence you have in delivering it. If it doesn’t bother me; it shouldn’t be bothering you. My opening act, he’s great, in one of the things he did he went on stage almost immediately after the inauguration saying that, “Now there’s a black man in by far the highest-regarded position, the most powerful position on the globe, and so that means we’re allowed to do black jokes now.” He sets that up right at the beginning. The first time he did it, it was hysterical because he was really comfortable with it. The second time he wasn’t as comfortable. By the fourth time he figured it out. So part of it is just figuring out how you’re delivering it and what you do to set it up.

Q: This is your opening act?
A: John Bowman.

Q: Can a joke be too soon? Or is it funnier if it challenges the audience to go beyond their comfort zone?
A: I think so. My friend Bobby Slayton, who is also known for crossing the line, the evening after Hartman has been shot and killed he goes on stage and does a heartfelt eulogy about Phil Hartman. I think he knew him. He went through all of it and up to how it comes out that Hartman’s wife had killed him. And he pauses after doing all this and he says, “Wow. And I thought my wife was a cunt.” And I thought, “Wow. That’s really something” [laughs].

Q: But isn’t that joke OK? He’s not belittling the man. He’s not demeaning the tragedy.
A: A lot of what gets lost with the PCs is they hear the buzz of the first few words and they stop listening – and they don’t hear the joke. Or they misplace what the joke is about. “Really? That’s what you thought the joke was about. You idiot!” If you can find it, I don’t think there is really a joke too soon.

Q: I discovered comic Bill Hicks long after his death. I’ve been told he’s a legend around comics.
A: Yeah, he is for a lot of guys. He’s like Carlin was for my generation, Hicks was for the next generation. He’s in the pantheon because he broke a lot of ground. I just didn’t know him at all. We never crossed paths. We were both headliners. We never ended up in a festival together or anything. By the time I probably would have met him, he passed away.

Q: What is it like to sit in a room full of comics.
A: It’s fun. It all depends how on somebody feels they have to be. There’s kind of an energy that’s really fun about it, and then there’s this energy where people just feel they got to prove something. As soon as you feel you got to prove something, it gets a little antsy. But most of the time it’s really fun. We never really get to spend any time with each other, and we like each other’s work. We don’t have to fuckin’ entertain people; you’re getting entertained for a change.

Q: How’s your show Root of All Evil doing?
A: It died. Died on the vine. They killed us on their own. They put it up in the summer, “What are you thinking?” Our core audience was essentially college aged, which is the core audience they wanted, and they’re off on summer vacation, you morons.

Q: [Laughs.] Is this HBO we’re talking about?
A: No, this was Comedy Central. God love them. They’ve been great to me, but sometimes they just don’t fucking think something through. Initially, we were on after South Parks that were original South Parks. So the South Park audience they were delivering was smaller, because it was not original since it was summer. And we hold the same amount of people that we held before, but it’s less people. “Well of course it’s less people you fucking moron because less people are being delivered.” They were nuts over us to begin with because we had done well. Not since [Dave] Chappelle, who had become the beacon. We had held a good chunk of that audience. And then they tried to figure out what the audience would find funny. You don’t get comedy by trying to figure out what the audience thinks, you get comedy by figuring out what you think is funny. They wouldn’t let us do death vs. marriage – now that is fucking funny – because I’m sure they thought the target audience wouldn’t go for that. It’s that kind of stuff. It’s stupid.

Q: Your first screen appearance is in Hannah and Her Sisters. Are you and Woody friends?
A: No. We worked together. There’s a friend of his, a photographer, who’s also a friend of mine and every so often he says, “Woody says ‘Hi.’” That’s about it.

Q: [Laughs.] Well, it’s more than I get.
A: It’s pretty nice.

Q: You are both New Yorkers, right?
A: Yeah.

Q: My wife and I are going to NYC during the Academy Awards. Where should we hang out?
A: I would hang out, quite honestly, at the place that I hang out: The West Bank Cafe, on 42nd on 9th and 10th. It’s a great bar. Theatre people go in there – basically people who do shows across the street on off-Broadway. In the basement there’s this really terrific room where there’s entertainment. Mostly music now, but that was the room I ran for 10 years. The one who owns the place is a close friend of mine. They have a chef who’s terrific. They have a great wine list. And he’s got a menu that’s adjusting to the times. For an A meal that’s not stupidly priced and he’s got a great burger. I’ve been going there for 30 years. It’s where I hang out.

Q: I like the fact that you mention Bob Newhart and Norman Lear as inspiration.
A: Newhart just told a great story. He was very simple. He kind of comes out of the [Jack] Benny thing, with the pause. It was just such a unique comic style, but it was just so simple. Shelly Berman had that quality, and then you throw in a little Jonathan Winters who takes it out a ton. And it was what you had access too.

Q: Great story about how you thought Norman Lear was calling to suggest a TV show project for you, when in fact he was booking you to entertain at his son’s bar mitzvah. How was the bar mitzvah?
A: It was silly, but it was fun. I got to sit near Juliette Binoche – so how good is that? And I got to smoke a cigarette with her.

Q: That woman can hold a cigarette.
A: That made the trip worth it alone.

Q: Unrequited love over a cigarette. But you don’t mind your loves being unrequited. You once followed an unrequited love into a cult that was run by a 12-year-old.
A: Yeah.

Q: Were you inadvertently enlightened by the experience?
A: I think I was. I don’t know if I was so much enlightened, but it would have been nice if one of these people could have told me how can I take – I mean, I’m in the sky when I did this mediation – so how am I going to take that and relate it to the fucking world?

Q: So, when are you arriving in Toronto?
A: Fuck. Wait, I got it here. I should have it here [shuffles papers]. I arrive April 22rd [for a show on the 24th].

Q: What’s the funniest thing you can say about Barack Obama?
A: He’s actually lactating hope. His nipples are bursting from it.

Q: One last question: how long before we see you hosting the Oscars?
A: Not in my lifetime. Maybe if I come back as a different comic. Christ, they’re giving it to Hugh Jackman. I really dropped down on the list when they’re giving it to Hugh Jackman.

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Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program, Saturday Night at the Movies.

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