Lewis Black on Surviving Two Decades at 'The Daily Show'

'I do think Jon is moving on at exactly the right time,' says the perpetually-enraged comedian

Lewis Black, hosting his 'Back in Black' segment on 'The Daily Show.' Credit: Comedy Central

Lewis Black has seen more than a few changes at The Daily Show since his Back in Black segments began airing during the show's inaugural season in 1996. Host Craig Kilborn gave way to Jon Stewart; the program gradually changed from a smug TV-news parody to an institution that viciously mocked hypocritical politicians and the media establishment that covers them; and legendary correspondents like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and John Oliver all moved onto their own projects. The only things to truly survive all 19 years are the Moment of Zen, the theme song — and Black himself.

We checked in with the perpetually-enraged comedian to hear how he survived two decades at The Daily Show, and what to expect from the program once Trevor Noah takes over.

How are you doing?
It's another delightful day in New York. It's getting up to about 2,000 degrees outside.

Do you remember how you first heard about The Daily Show?
Lizz Winstead and Hank Gallo called me up. They asked if I'd be interested in doing a thing every couple of weeks on this new show. I went, "You're going to put me on TV? Yeah!"

How was the segment first conceived?
They just asked me to come in and do commentary. I'd give them three or four minutes and they'd say, "Keep that, drop that, this might work." I would just spout off about whatever was pissing me off.

How much TV exposure did you have at this point?
It's tough to say since it all kind of came at the same time. I had done Conan and Evening at the Improv. I'd done all the usual suspects, basically anytime I could get on TV.

Was Back in Black basically a version of your stand-up routine at the time?
Yeah. The only difference was I sat at a desk.

I did think The Daily Show would have a cultural impact, but who the fuck knows? If you told me Kim Kardashian would have a cultural impact, I would have said you were out of your mind."

So the character was pretty established, down to the loose tie around your neck?
That started from the beginning. I had an office job with the federal government and they told me I had to wear a tie. I put it around my neck and I'd tie it, but only push up the knot so far.

What did you think about The Daily Show during those early months? Did it seem like something that would have an impact on the culture?
I thought it would be like everything else, that I'd be on for 10 minutes and they'd throw me off. I was really below the radar at that point, but I thought it was a good idea. Anyone who had any interest in social, political satire had pitched something like that, so I knew it had a place on the dial. It was different than anything else on TV. Nobody had really tried it. The only model was That Was the Week That Was.

Right. It was pretty different than even Weekend Update.
Weekend Update is something that would go up and down depending on who was at the desk and who the writers were.  I did think The Daily Show would have a cultural impact, but who the fuck knows? If I saw Kim Kardashian and you told me she would have a cultural impact, I would have said you were out of your mind. If someone told me years ago, "You can invest in Starbucks. They're going to build coffee places all over the world." I would have just gone, "Really?"

I had no idea. I just tried to do as best I could. And I was a separate nation from the very beginning. I was the commentator. I wasn't in the office.

Did you always write the material yourself?
I wrote it myself with the aid of Lizz [Winstead, the show's co-founder] and Hank [Gallo, producer]. I wrote it. They edited it.

Did it surprise you that Craig Kilborn left after just a couple of years?
To be honest, nothing surprises me. What really stunned me initially was that in the explosion that took place between Craig Kilborn and Lizz, that Comedy Central in a sense stayed with Kilborn. That was the only shocking thing to me considering that she was the one that created the thing.

All that Craig Kilborn drama was so long ago now I feel like most people have completely forgotten about it. [In 1997, Kilborn made an extremely off-color joke about Winstead in an Esquire interview and was suspended from the show for a week. She left the show the following year.]
It was ridiculous. At the time, I was appalled, shocked. And Kilborn, he had a...what's that word they use? He had a snarky kind of thing. It was in the presentation. His main thing had been sports. I don't know why he left, but I don't think he had an interest in the content that was being delivered.

What were your initial impressions of Jon Stewart when he took over?
I knew him from stand-up. I always thought he was smart and bright and he got it. He was easy to work with. People always say, "It's difficult to learn stand-up." Somehow the business of stand-up, for many of us, was harder than learning stand-up. The business end always eluded me on one level or another. But Jon seemed to get it pretty quickly. That impressed me because there weren't many of us who got it.

How did you see the show change after Jon took over?
It was really a slow change. It took a while, so it was kind of imperceptible. The initial correspondents were doing these wacky things — talking to somebody in a trailer park that was worshipping a goat or something. It was a News of the Weird kind of thing. When Jon came on, it slowly changed as the correspondents started to cover politicians…Hold on, I'm getting a call. If I wanted to talk to you, I would have fucking sent your e-mail back already! Jesus…sorry.

Then Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert came in. They were just powerhouses. And just slowly over about two or three years, a pattern emerged that Jon was interested in going after.

How do you explain the fact that you're the only one to hang on all these years?
I think they forgot I was there. It's like the guy at the IBM offices whose been in his office at the end of the corridor for 30 years. Everyone forgot to look in. I also think there was a period where Dave Attell and I became the faces of Comedy Central. I did special after special. It had an impact. Also, my segment was popular.

In many ways, the Bush years were really a gift to the show.
Yeah. It was unbelievable. But it wasn't just Bush. It was anybody at that point because of the explosion of cable in terms of news and everything that came with it. Everyone was staring up everybody's asshole trying to find something. All of that came into play in terms of what Jon was trying to satirize. Also, at the time it didn't occur to us that we were right on the cusp of moving from an industrial age to whatever this age is that we're living in right now. And we were right in the middle of that when The Daily Show started.

Will your role on the show be the same when Trevor takes over?
I had a meeting with Trevor and I'm still part of the show. They're transitioning right now. A few of the folks are sticking around, but I'm kind of somewhat important as a lynchpin. We talked about stuff I'm doing on the road that might go to other platforms. Yada yada yada, all that shit. Then there's stuff he talked to me about that I really don't want to talk about, but I think he's going to feel it out and find some other way to go with things.

I imagine it won't be quite as focused on Fox News as the show is now.
Yeah, exactly. It all depends on the news cycle. That predicates a lot of what goes on. People keep coming up to me and saying, "Jon is leaving! What am I going to do?" I just say, "Well, you turn it on." Yes, Jon is leaving. People became very comfortable with him in the same fashion that they became comfortable with Cronkite or Carson. It's a loss, but they don't seem to realize what they'll gain by his artistic growth. It's the same with Colbert or Carrell when they left. They are all missed, but from the very beginning the driving force of the show has been the writers. They are the engine. As long as they maintain that quality of writing they've been able to maintain, Trevor's show will becoming something else. And it will still be funny.

Right. People focus so much on the host without realizing he's part of a huge team.
Yeah. I mean, Jon shaped it and gave it a direction. But you've got guys pouring out punchline, punchline, punchline. I keep saying to people, "You watched the show when Kilborn was doing it, for fuck's sake! And he wasn't a comic!" I do think Jon is moving on at exactly the right time. He's one of those people like Tina [Fey] or Amy [Poehler]. There's a group of people in comedy who are more talented than just the one thing they're known for.

Right. Also, 16 years is a long time to do anything.
It's a long time. Not long enough for me, obviously.