Why did you release The Prophet after 20 years?
I decided to for a couple of reasons. First, nothing has changed. Sometimes the names didn’t even change. Iraq, Iraq. George Bush, George Bush. Also, a young comedian might take a look at it and how my comedy grew. For one thing, back then I was really speedy about my delivery — I could talk through whatever the audience could throw at me. I wasn’t big on silence, and I think I’ve learned to be.
On the album you have a lot of ire towards the first President Bush. Did you change your mind about him after eight years of his son as president?
Oh, I changed my mind after eight minutes. The son makes his father like look like Churchill. I’m serious. We had eight years with him, and there never seemed to be a learning curve.
The audio makes me imagine that it’s black-and-white comedy recording from the 1960s, like a Lenny Bruce show.
It’s funny, people complain about the audio, but it’s 1990 in a club. It wasn’t miked within an inch of its life.
Has your approach to comedy mellowed over the years since then? At the end of 2009’s Stark Raving Black you put aside your anger to talk about hope.
Mellowing? I think that’s dark, because I’m telling you that hope is something for people who are young, unlike me. In some ways it’s mellowing, in some ways, it’s getting darker.
How has “Back in Black” changed in the 15 years you’ve done it for “The Daily Show?” How often do you do the segments?
It’s changed over time. Initially I had more impact, then I had a producer who was a prick — not through Jon Stewart — so there was a period where I was acting it, rather than feeling involved with the process. It’s been tough lately because I’ve been doing more, and they have more correspondents. When I started, the show was like a skeleton crew. Now, we work out our availabilities. In the best of all possible worlds, it’s once a month, but it’s usually more like once every six or eight weeks.
How do you chose what to talk about? Sometimes, like your segment on Eat Pray Love last year, it seems like material you wouldn’t normally do in your stand-up.
I would do it in my stand-up if it fit in my stand-up. After I finish a comedy special, I put [that material] away and have to create a whole new act. Everything feeds into the act, but I like to find a through-line for it. The stuff on “The Daily Show” is usually an off-shoot of that, stuff that’s not on the through-line.
What’s your through-line in your current tour?
Partly it’s trying to figure out how to make this stuff funny. It’s the same thing over and over and over again. We have the same problems. Rick Santorum’s back — I did a ton of jokes on him before, and they all still apply. What else can I say about this stuff? The other part is that I present myself as the craziest person in the room. But now we have Sarah Palin, we have the Tea Party, we have this President who’s ineffectual in some ways — how do I get crazier than the craziness I’m seeing? Because the crazy I’m seeing, it’s profound.
Since so much of your performance style is based on rage, do you need to warm up ahead of time to get into gear?
Oh, that gear is well-oiled.
Since you do topical humor, how do you stay informed? Does it ever feel like drudgery?
When they start running for president in the 24/7 news cycle, that’s when it’s a grind and a waste of time. That’s when it becomes homework. People ask me, “Isn’t that when it becomes easy?” No, because then it’s harder to find the stuff worth paying attention to. I go to the business section now, which I’d never done in 40 years. I look at the New York Times, the New York Post occasionally and I look at CNN and weep for the state of American news. It’s like I’m in high school and the principal’s reading the morning announcements. I look at the Times editorial page. People tell me, “Oh, that’s where you come up with your philosophy.” Fuck you! Since it’s tough to find facts, those people are the researchers.
How do you feel about Occupy Wall Street? Their message doesn’t seem very organized, but it seems in line with your politics.
What really bothered me was, in the run-up to the Iraq War, people complained, “Why aren’t the kids protesting?” But today, with Occupy Wall Street, it’s like “Why are they protesting?” People on the right were saying “We’re gonna fuck over the kids if it goes like this,” and then the kids stoop up and said “Here’s why we’re getting fucked over.” It’s important to stand for something. Will it change the state of the United States? No, but it changes their lives for the better. When I was younger, I protested, and it changed me. When you’re young, you see things in black and white. But if you never look at the black and while of things, when you grow up, it’s harder to deal with the gray.
When I was researching you, I was surprised to see that your first movie was Hannah and Her Sisters. What was your role?
Woody Allen played the head writer of a TV show, and I was on the staff of the show. The amazing thing is, there’s a scene where Woody and I walk down the hall of the show. Except for Julie Kavner, most of the actors you see are on their first movie shoot, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus and John Turturro, all of whom went onto have really great careers. It was eight or nine days of shooting, and I had three or four scenes. I had a lot of hair.
I heard you were doing a comedy cruise, which doesn’t strike me as your usual environment.
It’s not really my environment at all. But so much of my job is traveling, packing and unpacking. This is a way I can be in a room and they can bring the countries to me. And sometimes I like just being on the ocean. It’s like the John Lennon song, “Imagine there’s no countries.” Imagine there’s nothing but water. I find it weirdly comforting.
@ Roxanne Dimacale
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