Upon learning that Lewis Black has written a Christmas book — I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, out this week — you might ask yourself: Isn’t he Jewish? And also: Isn’t he Lewis Black? The famously ill-tempered comedian — Jon Stewart has called him “the only person I know who can actually yell in print form” — seems likely to write the Grinchiest of Christmas memoirs. But while his autobiographical book contains plenty of Black’s trademark rants, it’s also a surprisingly affecting meditation on being middle-aged and single during the holidays. The book even contains some very personal, painful stories that Black, 62, has kept close to his chest until now — most surprisingly, the story of how he married his pregnant girlfriend in graduate school, only to learn (after five months as a stay-at-home dad) that the baby wasn’t his. In the spirit of Christmas, we challenged Black to name ten things that made him genuinely happy. And just when he was feeling relaxed, we had to go and mention Christine O’Donnell.
Your book was surprisingly touching.
I know, it seems to be a shock to everyone.
And yet you’re a legendarily angry man. So, before we get into it, I’m going to ask you, in the spirit of the upcoming holidays, to name at least ten things that you honestly, genuinely, unironically like or love in the world.
Wow. Wow. God. That’s what they want?
Yep. Have you had enough coffee for that?
Wow … I like coffee. Because it gives me the illusion that I might be awake.
I like food a lot. Way too much. It’s almost not even right. It just seems that everything cannot make sense, but food always makes sense. All food is comfort food. Maybe I just like to chew.
I’ll write “chewing.”
I like my friends, because they make me feel normal even though I’m not.
I was noticing while reading the book that you keep some pretty respectable company: Willie Reale, founder of the 52nd Street Project [a theatrical nonprofit in New York] …
Hey, put that in! I like the 52nd Street Project, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Michael Fox’s thing — which is, fuck, I can’t remember what it’s called. And Autism Speaks … And, uhhh … I like really good fiction of all sorts, be it stage, screen, or print.
Anything you’ve read recently?
What’s that fucker — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I really liked those books, because I realized that I’ve reached the level of illness where I can fall in love with a fictional girl who doesn’t even exist. And Vonnegut.
What’s your favorite Vonnegut?
Probably Slaughterhouse Five. And Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and I could go on. I like all of those because they take me out of my world.
And bring you into a dystopic world in the middle of a war?
Exactly. No matter what my day was, at least I wasn’t at the bombing of Dresden today … I like news of all sorts, because it’s taken the place of drugs in my life. Because at least once in the day, something happens and I go, “Gee, I must be hallucinating.”
Do you have the 24-hour cable news constantly on in the background?
I don’t do it 24 hours a day, but I kind of do it at ten, two, and four. I kind of check in.
Do you have a favorite news anchor?
No. Not really. Actually, I’m probably the last person still watching Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer. I go back and forth depending on whether I want my feminine side or my masculine side to get the news.
Diane Sawyer speaks to your feminine side?
She certainly does. Um … I love women! ‘Cause they’re not men.
Is there a woman in your life right now?
No. You just read the book.
I did, but you might be keeping somebody under wraps …
No. Nobody’s under wraps. I’m single.
What do you look for in a woman?
Everything. Everything that will complete me, which is a lot. What I look for is sense of humor, intelligence … doesn’t do a lot of psychotic self-examination, comfortable with herself, doesn’t have to spend two weeks in front of a mirror — but I understand that. If I was a woman, I’d never even get out of the house. I mean, that’s the thing that amazes me: There were fifteen minutes during the sixties and early seventies where women kind of gave up on makeup and stuff, and I can’t believe everybody went back to it! I think I like women who aren’t high maintenance. That’s probably No. 1. Christ.
Don’t comedians have their own groupies?
No. There’s rock-and-roll groupies. Occasionally that happens, and you really do thank God that someone thinks you’re that funny that you’re worth hopping into bed with. But most of the time it’s: You’re funny, but you’re not that funny.
Okay, give me some more things you unironically love!
Uh, I like my parents. Because they actually brought me into the world and at the age of 92, they’ve proven that life is worth living at any age.
Aw, that is lovely.
Well, I want [readers] to know I’m sentimental, so when they read the book they’re not fucking shocked. And then, finally, I like golf. Because it allows me to hate myself more than I normally do, so when I return to my real life, I go, “Wow, I’m not so bad … “
Let me get one more just for the hell of it.
I like red wine, because it makes me feel good, and when I drink it I don’t feel like I’m an alcoholic …
Are you one of those people who can detect notes of bark and tire rubber?
No, I’m one of those people who detects notes of, “It’s red. And splendidly so! ”
Okay, now let’s talk about the book. Is there a tradition of Jews writing books about Christmas that I don’t know about?
I don’t know! I mean, I didn’t really do any research. Now I’ll probably be slammed with a suit. There’s probably a book that I haven’t read that’s exactly the same somewhere.
Most of the Jews I grew up with seemed kind of indifferent to Christmas, but you seem to take it very much to heart.
Well, you’re kind of awash in it from the very beginning. You go next door and see what your friends got for Christmas, and you realize you’re being cheated as a Jew not getting that stuff. And of course if you go out, as I did, with a number of Irish-Catholic girls, it’s always around you. There are Jews who do seem to really just avoid it, but my family never did the “let’s go to Chinese dinner” on that night. We’d always try to scam a meal or something.
So you were on the border of Christmas, trying to get in?
Not really trying to get in, just that we didn’t avoid it. We just kind of accepted it. Considering that it’s all around you, unless you’re living in a ghetto.
If you did marry one of those Irish-Catholic girls, would you celebrate Christmas?
I did for a bit. I did a couple of times. My heart’s not there. But taking my theater training, I can fake it.
Right — I didn’t know that you went to Yale Drama before I read the book!
Yeah. That’s an eye-opener. I have a master’s in playwriting.
What did you take away from that in terms of your comedy career?
In terms of the book, I learned how to sit down and be able to write. And I think I learned structure. I learned the importance of words.
I’ve heard it’s the boot camp of graduate playwriting programs.
Yeah. Stupidly so. I think that one of the great things about going there is you learned how not to teach it. You don’t need to brutalize somebody; there’s no need at all. Once they accept them into the program, they’re gonna get fucked, unless they’re a head case … You know, there’s a way to criticize while letting the person know they can achieve their goal.
Wow. Every time I hear someone around your age talk about Yale Drama, it sounds like they’re still having battle flashbacks.
I used that symbol in the first book! I went to Yale School of Drama like many folks went to fight the war in Vietnam. I was a complete innocent.
So you tell a pretty incredible story in the book, about raising a baby for a year who turned out not to be your child. Have you gone public with that before?
I’ve told it to friends and stuff, but I’ve never talked about it.
What made you decide to come out with it now? It’s a very moving chapter.
Because I thought it was important to, in part, explain how I ended up being single without just delving into the psychiatry of it. And I felt it was important in terms of telling how I saw women at that point. And in terms of trying to say what I said at the end, which, I think, is one of the things that actually is important because I’ve never read it anywhere, and that is: We’d all be a lot smarter to learn how to be single first before we get into relationships. I think that is really why I told the story.
You say being single is something that’s tough for people to wrap their heads around, that everyone’s always trying to get you to be with somebody …
My friends have kind of stopped that. But I was in relationships for a long time, and then I found myself being single most of the time. And it was an eye-opener.
What would you like the world to do differently to make room for single people?
Let these people shut up. It’s much like religion: Just because I don’t believe in what you believe in, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you’re doing. I think it’s great that you found somebody, and I haven’t found somebody. So, in the meantime, I’m not a slut. I think it has to do with our sexuality, too — the Puritan streak that runs through this society that just never ends.
You mean that people aren’t comfortable with the idea of somebody sleeping with anyone they want to sleep with?
And also, you’re not really supposed to be sleeping with anybody until you’re married. That it’s immoral. Which it isn’t. I mean, we just really have trouble with our bodies. We just don’t get it. That thing now where people see their body in a different way than their body really is — whatever that’s called —
Body dysmorphic disorder?
Yeah! I wonder how many other countries really experience it, as we do. We’re not very comfortable with our sexuality. And I’m somebody who tried to get comfortable with their sexuality, and it took fucking forever. It’s just too loaded at the beginning. I mean, when you’ve got people trying to just teach the basics of safe sex and people protesting, you go: We’re in a nuthouse!
And now we have Christine O’Donnell.
Oh, yeah. Anybody who goes thirteen years without masturbating, I put in the act. It’s priceless: How does she even know she’s there? If I didn’t touch myself, I wouldn’t know I was around!
How do you feel about this time in the world and politics? Is this the craziest time you’ve seen, or have we lived through worse and my generation doesn’t know it?
I think this is the worst in terms of internal politics. It’s kind of a — this is pushing it, and they’ll read it wrong, and fuck ‘em — but it’s similar to that period of upheaval when the civil-rights movement came to be. People were burning down cities, and people were enraged on a whole huge level. And I think this time, in a sense, it reflects that time period. Only what we have now is a kind of a white reaction to it.
But what I find troubling is the leadership doesn’t foment it; they just don’t deal with it. We don’t have, across the boards, the kind of leadership that is necessary at this point in time in terms of the problems we have to deal with. And those problems start with, say, the gay community getting all this backlash. Or, the president is black — well, I guess that means black people are equal now, so we’ll go after Muslims on another level. Five years ago, we were not in the middle of this Islam-backlash thing. And then education, and health, and pensions — the system’s in a complete state of chaos. And also, we’re going into a sweeping economic change as to how we go about financing our lives. And I don’t think the leadership is properly dealing with it. At all. And that’s where your generation is fucked.
We feel fucked, so that’s comforting …
Because the whole idea was that Obama was gonna make the big difference, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I just knew. And I’m disappointed in his inability to put his foot down about certain things. Not just in getting laws passed, but just, “Please, enough is enough” speeches. “No, you can’t say that. No, you can’t do that.“ You know? That thing about the mosque — all you’ve got to do is go over the Constitution. You have an example of what it means, in terms of the freedom of choice, and people being allowed to worship, and that’s the deal. And then all of a sudden they go, “Well. Except for … ” You have to put your foot down!
You talk a lot about giving to charity in I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas and giving to compensate for excesses in your own life. Do you think more people should have that attitude: feeling just guilty enough to give something back?
A lot of what I consider to be charity should be a part of what we do when we pay a tax. When you’re fund-raising for schools, then something’s wrong. We seem to have lost some sort of sense of what the common good is, and if you don’t have a sense of what the common good is, then at least give to what you think your specific goods are. I get bombarded all the time by all sorts of organizations, but right now it’s just more important than it was.
You point out in the book that giving to charity also means getting constant pictures of starving children in the mail.
There was a group — they called yesterday, I can’t remember what it is. Oh, it was for Pakistan, it’s the International Relief Fund, someone that I give to every year, so they have my number. And I said, I’ll give you the money, and you send me this one thing, and I’ll respond to it, and then I don’t want anything else. I send you guys a check every year without you even sending me a letter. So stop it! Just send that, and if I get anything else, I will never send you a dime.
You’ll have to let me know if it works.
What really works is when you move. Don’t leave a forwarding address. That works. And if you lose a few friends along the way, fuck ‘em. It’s better than getting all that shit in the mail.
That said, you come across as a rather sensitive guy in this book. Are you afraid of ruining your reputation as a curmudgeon?
What I’m really afraid of is that people will go, “Oh, what a disappointment, he wasn’t a laugh riot in this book.” The book was written to show that there’s more of me than just That Guy. That’s the basis of That Guy, and that’s the reason That Guy’s screaming all the time.