Lewis Black On Sharing His (And Your) Angriest Thoughts With The Rest Of The World

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Longtime fans are familiar with Lewis Black’s rants, but not everyone realizes just how much of a workhorse the typically angry comic is. From making frequent appearances on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, to constantly touring to promote his latest stand-up hour, Rant, White & Blue, the comedy stalwart is seemingly unstoppable. Hence his latest project, The Rant is Due, a new series on Audible through which users can submit their own tirades to Black.

As the 68-year-old comedian explains to Uproxx, he selects the best submissions — be they long treatises or short questions — and delivers them while on the road. Black isn’t performing The Rant is Due en lieu of his own material. Live audiences who attend the comic’s concerts will see Rant, White & Blue and his latest material, of course, but Black spends an additional 20 minutes or so debuting the fans’ latest ire from the Audible series. And it all came about, he says, because the seemingly angriest man in the room wanted to interact with everyone else around him.

How did The Rant is Due come about?

About three years ago I was thinking, “You know, it’d be fun to do a Q&A with the audience.” We started doing it about two years ago, and once that happened, I realized I was just getting little things about what was going on in their city. All the things they thought were psychotic, you know? If something was being done that was completely ass-backwards, and made no sense, we’d hear about it. Then people started sending in these things online, so I started telling people at shows, “If you’ve got something to get off your chest, just go ahead and send it in.” It started very slowly, but now it’s kind of snowballed.

Fans love sharing their own jokes — or in your case, frustrations — with comics.

There’s been a certain amount of that, yes. For the ones who tell you jokes, you could shoot yourself because they come up to you and say, “I got one for you.” That’s usually the beginning of it. I always try to smile and focus whenever that happens. The other thing that happens is when people come up and say, “Did you hear about this?” or “Do you know about that?” It’s always about something. So yeah, there’s always been that kind of thing after shows. Mostly things like, “I’m glad you’re doing this because I’m as angry as you are. I just don’t let it go.” It’s not that difficult to note there’s been a lot of anger in this country lately, and we’ve just been sitting on it. This is just a way to let it all out.

The other thing about anger is, people always ask me how I do it every night. I am able to do it because it’s not just anger about whatever the larger issues are. It’s also about little things, like trying to use your phone to get something done. Like trying to get a prescription because most places are forcing you to go online. You can’t go to your local pharmacist anymore. You have to go to their special place. And then it comes down to access. “I can’t get on the website.” “What do you mean you can’t get on the website?” “It doesn’t work.” “We’re going to send you the ID.” It goes on and on, and the next thing you know, a day and a half has passed and you’re still not on the website.

At which point you’d probably be dead.

Right. There’s such a high level of frustration because we live in a society in which everything should be solved in a second, but the solutions always take much longer. Well, how the fuck is that possible? The shortest distance between two points is not a machine. I think we’re learning that finally.

I don’t know if we’re actually learning, though.

That’s true.

You shrugged off fan jokes earlier, but you seem to really enjoy many of the submitted rants you read.

Here’s the thing. I don’t really like to laugh at my own stuff. I’m not good at it. I mean, sometimes I’ll say something I didn’t know I was going to say and I’ll surprise myself. Or, I’m trying something for the first time. Though I don’t usually laugh at new material when I’m really trying it out for the first time, which is about 20 percent of the act. But if I’m reading somebody else’s stuff, I can laugh at it. That’s part of the reason I’m reading those particular submissions. They made me laugh.

It has been really fun to read them because the rants, and the people who wrote them, are developing an audience out there. Listening to them on Audible, or watching the live streams on my website. We’re doing these every night after the main show. We live stream all of them, and Audible picks the best ones for the latest Rant is Due episode. And the people who’ve been paying attention are writing better stuff. I mean, what they’re writing is remarkable. Some of it, at least.

During a recent live stream from St. Louis, you read a 17-year-old girl’s bit about her recent diabetes diagnosis. It was fantastic.

She was taking shots, and it was great. She was there with her boyfriend and his grandparents, and her rant was all about her elderly school nurse. This nurse, who was giving her her shots every day, had become her nemesis and was totally screwing up her life. The whole thing from beginning to end was great, and it was all written by a 17-year-old girl.

What’s the submission process like?

Here’s how psychotic it is: Loads of them have been coming in. Every day I get a bunch. Some of them I star immediately because I know I’m going to use them, while others I’ll return to after reading them all. “This would work, this would work, this would work.” I’ve gotten better at the process over time. Audible has really helped me out, as they created some software that allows me to organize everything so it’s easier read, select and perform them by showtime.

At the beginning, however, it was like sitting at a Cracker Barrel while listening to some kind of psychotic storyteller. I was working with an iPad then. I have about as much of a relationship with an iPad as if I’d appeared on stage with a falcon on my arm. It drove me nuts because I’d have to go back and forth between all the different submissions during the show, but it’s much tighter now. I’m better able to put it all together. I was doing my damnedest at first, but especially now that Audible has gotten in the mix, I can fly through hundreds of these without issue. And I really do try to read them all when they come in. I’ll be getting on a plane Thursday, and I’ll sit there the entire time I’m on the plane and read these rants.

I suspect the longer you do this, the greater the volume of submissions.

Yeah, and some of them are very serious. I try to fit those in when I can, especially when I know I can go from something serious to something funny in a spot. I’ve actually asked Audible if we could record some of these without a live audience. Not because I don’t like having the audience there, of course, but because I want to avoid something I’m so fucking sick of. Every politician does it whenever they’re at a town hall or a rally. They’ll get up and say, “I met this woman in Carson City and she came up to me and ‘yada yada.'” Then the schmuck tells the person’s story, but now they and their audience are distanced from the reality of it. The person who originally told it isn’t there telling the story, and the politician telling it for themselves isn’t going to fucking do anything about it.

My comedy has always avoided being about these putzes, and instead been about what these putzes do and how it affects people. That’s where, for me, the real relationship comes through in my comedy. So this feels like is a direct pipeline for people, to share with others how they’re affected. People who are living with PTSD, or people who are living with people with PTSD; those who actually deal with the VA (Veterans Affairs), Medicare or both; others who’ve lost their jobs. It’s all about those people and what all that stuff means for them. You get all kinds when you open yourself up with something like this. I mean, a lot of the assholes causing these problems need a report card or something. It’s just amazing.

Maybe Audible can deliver these, including the unread submissions, direct to Washington D.C.

That would be nice, though I’m kind of in a weird position. I always want to be off to the side in these messes, ranting and raving and drawing attention to these things. Whether it’s stuff I wrote for myself and my own show, or things submitted by fans for this separate thing.

The Rant is Due hinges on your popular image as an angry comic, and you don’t seem to mind. That said, do you ever get tired of playing that character?

No. The only thing that ever got to me was a few specials ago, when I made a concerted effort to modulate the anger. I’ve always made an effort, from when I started until now, to monitor how much I would rely on anger in my shows. I didn’t want to do too much of it. When I first started, I was yelling from the beginning to the end of my act. I quickly went from 70 percent yelling to 100 percent of it. It was insane. So I tried to do something different and modulate the intensity throughout the piece.

I found other ways to express anger — through the language I used and how I delivered the lines. Anger doesn’t just need to be yelled. But all I got in response to it was, “He got tired.” And it was like, “Fuck you, you idiots. You’ve never heard a word I’ve said, then. And you certainly didn’t listen to what I was saying now.” Of course, part of what made my act work was that character I played up there. You’re stuck with what works for you. You made the bed, so lie in it. Then Trump and Hillary came along, so there’s that. I mean, this is what my generation has spawned?

Speaking of which, there’s a popular idea floating around that having Trump as president makes comedy easier. Or that more comedy is possible as a result. I don’t buy it, but what your thoughts on the matter?

The thing is, he has turned everybody into a political comic the same way Bill Clinton got the blowjob and turned everyone into a blowjob comic. I was so excited he got the blowjob too, because I felt could talk about blowjobs on stage without issue. So in many ways I wasn’t a blowjob comic then, but it opened a door for me so that I could bring it up in my act. In the same way, comedians working today have a similar opportunity with Trump. Honestly, all you have to do is repeat what he or someone working with him said. Things like “Holocaust centers.” I’ve done this plenty of time before, and it always gets the audience howling.

You don’t actually have to do a lot of work. But what I find difficult is, how do you satirize that which is already satiric? That’s the main difficulty. That’s what makes it tough, but it’s also what maintains my interest as a comedian. The material we have to work with already reads like fiction, so how do you exaggerate it more? Look, my job as a comic is to always make things seem crazier than they actually are. Now I’m really being tested because I don’t know how much farther I can go without just being hospitalized.

Hopefully they fill your prescriptions on time when that happens.

Yeah, really.

I was happy to hear you talk about having younger fans, be it the 17-year-old diabetic’s rant or the set from a 14-year-old fan and her father. My brothers and I grew up listening to your albums long before we probably should have.

When people ask me about what the minimum age is for my shows, I tell them about the comedians I listened to when I was 12, 13 and 14. Back then I was listening to George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and others like them. I was looking to listen to something that would shake up my world. They’re the ones who shaped me, as did the writer Kurt Vonnegut — even though he’s in an entirely different ballpark. Though he’s certainly just as profane. But it was great to hear and read those voices as a kid and realize I wasn’t crazy. Besides, not all adults act like we think adults should act. There are some who don’t, and others who are more adult that the rest of us.

You can find new episodes of Lewis Black: The Rant is Due at Audible.