People of Detroit, Lewis Black feels your pain. And he’s got a few things to say about it. (Children, cover your ears.)
The comedian best known for his rants on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is coming to Royal Oak on March 21 to headline Laugh Detroit, a weeklong international comedy festival hosted by Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle.
But Black is more than a jokester with a fondness for the F-word. He got his start in theater, graduating from Yale Drama School, and he continues to write and produce plays. He has appeared in several movies and had his own TV show on Comedy Central: Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil.
He’s also no stranger to Michigan. His first standup tour passed through the state. In August, he filmed two shows at the Fillmore Detroit for his concert film, Stark Raving Black. And his opening act, John Bowman, hails from north of Grand Rapids.
Black recently spoke with Hour Detroit about his career, why it’s hard to tell jokes about Detroit, and what he likes about Dick Purtan.
The Daily Show brought you into the public eye in a big way. How long were you writing and performing plays before that?
It’s been about 20 years writing plays, and initially that was what I was going to do. Then I really made the transition to standup. I’d been doing standup on the side for fun, and no one gets their play done. Then the comedy kind of took hold and people seemed to like it.
Theater or standup: Which do you prefer?
I enjoy standup the most, because it’s just me and the audience, and I’m the only one who can f— it up. I love theater, but there’s a sense at times that it’s an outpatient [mental health] clinic, that you’re dealing with people who should be taken care of [at a clinic]. But luckily there’s theater, so you can take care of them, and you have to work with them and it can screw it up badly. But I still love theater, and I’m working on a play that hopefully will be done in the next year. I was 27 when I wrote it; it was done, optioned for Broadway. It never made it, but I (and a friend of mine) started working on it again. I think it’s a better play now. But no one really cares — it’s just theater.
What persuaded you to come here to kick off Laugh Detroit?
Because I feel Mark Ridley really knows deep secrets about my past. It’s obviously blackmail.
No, I like Mark a lot; he was really good to me. He’s one of four or five really great comedy-club owners in the country, and he’s helped in the careers of a lot of people I really like. I think it’ll be a lot of fun. I have a real fondness for the club, and he keeps my friend Kathleen Madigan working a lot.
What’s funny about Detroit?
I don’t know if funny is the word. I mean, the Lions are, certainly. The Lions are the only team to make me feel even vaguely good about my own team, which is the Redskins. My opening act is John Bowman, a Michigan native, so it’s like I’m constantly bombarded. Every third person I know comes from Michigan.
It’s tough to make fun of Detroit when the whole nation has [violated you]. You can make jokes about how it’s tough, and John makes those jokes and he has a right to because he’s from there. But it’s a little too much to be piling on. [Detroit’s decline] is crazy, it’s f—ing unbelievable. I don’t get it, I really don’t get it. It’s staggering. [Laughs] So I haven’t figured out the jokes yet, but the serious stuff is pretty solid.
I mean, we have the money to go to Afghanistan, but we don’t have the money to do a stimulus? We really can’t figure out what to do with factories that are sitting there, we have no clue what to build? That was my favorite: ‘Well, we’re going to Afghanistan,’ and then the next day, literally, [the Obama administration] is asked about the stimulus package and jobs, and the president said, ‘Well, we’re broke.’ Really? Really, you’re broke?
What does it mean to do comedy in a city like Detroit that’s been kind of beaten down?
Hopefully, what you do is you get them to get out of their heads for a little bit. That’s all comedy does. It beats going to the gym for your endorphins.
When you first came to Detroit, did your preconceived ideas jell with what you found when you arrived?
When I first got [here] years ago, it kind of jelled because it was the big buildings, the whole sense of ‘hoo ha.’ One of my fondest memories was doing the Dick Purtan show, which is great. There’s not a lot of shows like that in the country. Really, it’s one of the last of that kind of radio show, and he’s really good at it. He’s one of those guys that’s the glue of the community.
Why do news reports that interview locals in New York always show hipsters with Starbucks mugs, but in Detroit it’s guys with baseball caps and flannel shirts? Why can’t we ever be the hipsters with Starbucks?
Well, because nobody in Starbucks is hip. You’re looking at another schmuck, who’s really paying the kind of prices you might pay for cocaine, if you broke it down.
What makes a good comedy festival? All standup, some film, different locations, one location?
It’s funny. I mean, the key is funny. I think it’s getting good comics — some good new comics nobody’s seen and some elderly comics like myself.