Lewis Black is best known for his apoplectic style of standup, but he spent his early years as a playwright. The 64-year-old comedian grew up in Silver Spring, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Yale School of Drama. He appears regularly on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and was nominated for an Emmy for the HBO special Red, White, and Screwed, which he filmed at DC’s Warner Theatre in 2007. Black returns to the Warner for three performances September 27 through 29; we caught up with him to discuss reality television, Washington audiences, and what he’d do if he were President for a day.
What was it like growing up in Silver Spring?
Not like growing up in Silver Spring now, now that it’s a city. It was real suburbs, and it was kind of the American Dream in a lot of ways. There was no ADD, no ADHD, and PTAs actually did stuff.
Did you go to comedy clubs?
No, there was barely a comedy scene when I was growing up. It was all cabaret. There was a place called the Casino Royale, where my parents would go. I watched comedy on TV, Ed Sullivan and all that stuff.
You worked in theater in New York for many years. What made you switch to standup?
I was doing standup on the side, and I’d always been fascinated by it. Standup was a way I could keep writing and actually get a sense of what I was doing. The problem with playwriting is if you get two shows done a year you’re really lucky, and most of the time you’re locked up writing. By the time I was 40, I got tired of banging my head against the brick wall that was theater, and I was completely broke. People seemed to be interested in my standup, and that was the door that opened.
Your act seems to be inspired by everything being totally messed up. What would you make jokes about if everything suddenly got fixed?
I’d go back to what I used to do. When I started out, 90 percent of my act wasn’t about politics. It was about the weather, and stuff I dealt with, and how there was a Starbucks across the street from the Starbucks, and how that was even possible. Observations. But what was always the impetus behind my act was what got me angry, and politics became bigger because it’s what really angers me.
If you could be President for a day, what would you do?
I’d probably get on Air Force One and just ride around. No, I’d probably just spend my whole day dealing with education, because that’s where it all starts. If everything’s education-centric, then we move further down the road.
How would you describe yourself when you’re not onstage?
Probably low-key, a little shy, and tired.
Who do you think is the most evil person in America?
That’s a tough one. Whoever invented reality television.
So you won’t be on Dancing With the Stars any time soon?
They asked me. I said no. I find that show immensely silly.
Do you think comedians have a social responsibility?
I think it’s important not to be mean-spirited, or racist, or demeaning. But people get all in a hoo-ha about what a comic says, and we’re not that important. We’re comedians. I have a limited audience, and I have no interest in talking to people whom I’m going to upset.
What are Washington audiences like?
They’re great. HBO is re-running the show I did at the Warner, and I think the reason that was one of the best shows I’ve done is the audience. They’re smart, they’re bright, and they get it, because all of this stuff is right there in their faces the whole time. It’s why I don’t live there.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done professionally, and what’s the most satisfying?
The hardest thing I’ve ever done was probably the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2005 with Dick Cheney to my left and Mitch McConnell to my right. And the most satisfying? That I can help raise funds for charities, especially in these times, simply by showing up and doing my standup. That’s really the best thing.
Lewis Black performs at the Warner Theatre September 27 through 29. Tickets ($49.50 to $75) are available via the Warner’s website.
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.