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Read Lewis Black Books for his Personal History… not for the Jokes

I’ve been a fan of Lewis Black’s stand-up comedy for a while. He has an ability to make righteous outrage so hilarious that I find my anguish vented and deflated when he’s done with me. His video comedy (which you probably have seen on The Daily Show) directed me to his books, Nothing’s Sacred and Me of Little Faith. My reaction to these books is not what I had expected.

To be blunt, Lewis Black’s brand of stand-up humor doesn’t translate well to the page. When Black wants to communicate a sort of primal scream on the page, he uses exclamation points (!) and ALL CAPS. Perhaps because I’ve been on the internet at all these past thirteen years, for me READING SUCH WRITING IS THE EQUIVALENT!!!! OF DRIVING!!! TOWARDS SOMEONE WITH THEIR BRIGHTS ON HIGH-BEAM!!! It has the effect of being off-putting rather than sarcastic. Anger has to be handled just right to be amusing in comedy: to be really funny, anger can almost never be directed straight at the audience, and it has to be leavened or sharpened or made absurd by something else the comic mixes in. For Lewis Black, that’s the visual aspect: his clownish eye-crosses or spastic movements or slapstick pacing make it clear that he’s being both absurd and self-deprecating, so you don’t get the sense of threatening straightforward aggression. On stage Lewis Black is also a master of timing, using sudden bursts of anger to twist a previous straight-faced statement into something else altogether. Timing is hard to read on a page and there’s no body language on a page either, so his ANGER just looks like ANGER!!!!

The non-yelling brand of Black’s humor as written seems kind of trite and cliched. Take Lewis Black’s piece on the difference between Christmas and Chanukah in Me of Little Faith:

Next to Christmas, Chanukah looks like a retarded crafts fair. To begin with, Christmas is celebrated with electricity. There are lights everywhere: on the streets, on the tree, on the house — everywhere, for Christ’s sake. And what are the lights saying? They’re saying, “We’re having fun! We’re having fun! And you’re not, ’cause you’re a Jeeeew!”

That’s just insecure. And how about this:

On the first night of Chanukah, Jewish families do something that can only be described as sadistic. They give their children a top to play with. That’s right, A TOP! A TOP! They call it a dreidel, but I know a top when I see one. You can call it the king’s nuts if you want, it’s still a top.

For God’s sake, a top is not a toy. A toy is something you play with. You stare at a top. All a top is good for is if you have toddlers and want to see how they are going to do in school. Just spin a top in front of them. If they stare at it for more than fifteen seconds, you are fucked.

I can hear the voice of Jackie Mason in this. Here comes the Jew joke. There goes the Christian joke. It’s bread and butter stuff, here are two groups of people and boy, are they different, and that earns a weak smile but not really a laugh from me.

I recommend these books nonetheless because Lewis Black has led a hell of a life and is really good at telling stories about it, especially when those stories abandon attempts at humor. They really suck me in. Did you know that Lewis Black was a community organizer in New Haven in the sixties and a political activist in Chapel Hill? Did you know that he’s a playwright who went to school to learn that skill? Did you know that Lewis Black has toured through a number of communes and colonies and cults, and hung out with their leaders and members? Do you know about Lewis Black’s drug-taking experiences and his first-hand thoughts about psychedelics? How about Black’s contact with avowed psychics? These are uncommon experiences for most Americans, most of whom disapprove. Black’s uncommon attitude about all of them stems from his up-close contact with them. It’s pretty darned interesting to read what he has to say because I’ve never read anybody saying them before and because he communicates a willingness to set bullshit aside and write with an honest appraisal.

I should say that I’m not taken in Black’s credulity in one regard, and that has to do with the psychics. In Me of Little Faith, Black exults for a chapter about a psychic named Michael who becomes his friend after contacting him out of the blue in a series of calls and stating things — like about his then-staggering career, or his brother’s recently diagnosed cancer, or a conversation he’d recently had about kids — that Lewis Black concludes he had no way of knowing about — NO WAY!!! Except that sure, of course there’s a way. Each of these subjects was about something social having to do with Lewis Black and his interaction with others. Ask a private detective how to find out about a person’s interactions with others.

And then there’s this passage regarding a horoscope in a book by Sydney Omarr he’d picked up:

Since I was born under the sign of Virgo, I figured I’d leaf through the booklet. Couldn’t hurt, I thought. Seeing how my ex-wife was a Leo, I immediately looked up the romantic compatibility of that sign with Virgos. Here’s where my eyes popped out of my head. The booklet said that the coupling of those two signs would create a rocky union but that under absolutely no circumstances should a Virgo marry a Leo born on either July 23 or July 24. This would lead to disaster.

BING-FUCKING-O!

My ex-wife was born on one of those days. Coincidence? My dick….

Okay, so let’s do the math. There are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, and Sydney Omarr — with his charts and graphs and whatever — nails one of the two days that my wife shouldn’t be born on. What are the odds? That is more than dumb luck. That’s unbelievable.

No, it’s not unbelievable. The proper set of days to compare against is about 30, the typical number of days in an astrological sign. The passage Black writes implies that the astrologer Sydney Omarr had written up profiles on Virgos’ compatibility with all other signs. But Lewis Black was only looking up information on Leos, which narrows the number of possible days down to 30 — there are no Leos born on February 12. Omarr names two of these days. What are the odds, Black asks? 1 in 15. That’s not unbelievable. It’s a lucky guess, not entirely inconceivable.

It’s the same trick used by carnival barkers who promise to guess someone’s birth month within two months. Wow, sounds like a one in six chance, which is a pretty good odds, isn’t it? But it’s actually a five in twelve (or almost 1/2) chance, since March and April and June and July are within two months of May, and then there’s May itself. If the barker charges you $2 for the bet and the prize for guessing wrong is some 80 cent trinket bought in bulk, the barker is bound to make money over the long term. We tend to calculate odds incorrectly, just like Lewis Black did, and that’s why we’re suckered in.

Like the barker, an astrologist wins in the long term. Here’s the connection to Sydney Omarr — did Omarr make any other predictions about Virgos in that book? You bet he did… after all, as Lewis Black notes, it was an entire book about Virgos’ love lives. A whole book. But Lewis Black didn’t mention any of those other predictions, because they had not, as he describes the feeling on the next page, “given me pause.” If Sydney Omarr makes just 15 predictions with a 1 in 15 chance of being true, chances are there will be one that makes you go, “Oh. My. God. How did he know that?” In the entire book that Lewis Black picked up, I bet Sydney Omarr made hundreds of predictions, guaranteeing that he scored multiple zingers for every person picking up the book. As long as those readers gloss over the bullshit predictions, Omarr will come out looking like a million bucks.

That’s why I have some problems with Lewis Black’s credulity on psychics. But regardless, his account of meeting with and interacting with these people, and the cult leaders, and the commune participants, and the street activists, and the purple rainbow drug-induced floating visions, are gripping. Read the books (Nothing’s Sacred is my favorite) and judge Lewis Black for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll end up asking yourself, “How do I get me a life like that?”

1 comment to Read Lewis Black Books for his Personal History… not for the Jokes

  • Like the barker, an astrologist wins in the long term. Here’s the connection to Sydney Omarr — did Omarr make any other predictions about Virgos in that book? You bet he did… after all, as Lewis Black notes, it was an entire book about Virgos’ love lives. A whole book. But Lewis Black didn’t mention any of those other predictions, because they had not, as he describes the feeling on the next page, “given me pause.” If Sydney Omarr makes just 15 predictions with a 1 in 15 chance of being true, chances are there will be one that makes you go, “Oh. My. God. How did he know that?” In the entire book that Lewis Black picked up, I bet Sydney Omarr made hundreds of predictions, guaranteeing that he scored multiple zingers for every person picking up the book.

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