Lewis Black isn’t one for silent nights and heavenly peace. The comedian, actor and playwright has made his name at full volume, delivering hilariously funny and blisteringly loud monologues on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and in a series of acclaimed HBO specials, parts of which you could hear in the next room even with the sound turned down. In 2008’s Me of Little Faith, Black directed his ire at the whole of organized religion, but with his new book I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, he narrows his focus to a handful of religious holidays whose meaning has been lost – and in the process, he unwraps some witty truths about Christmastime, humanity and himself.
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I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas takes a lot of detours on the way to Christmas Day—into politics, parenthood, even men’s fashion. Is the book you wanted to write close to the one you wrote?
Actually, it’s pretty close. It was always a book about being single and Jewish on Christmas Day, the most “family” day of the year. I didn’t want to write another book of just essays. I kind of wanted to try to write something more complete.
What’s gone wrong with Christmas? Do you think that people don’t understand the holiday, or do they simply not want to get it?
I think they’re so flooded by all of the stuff that they have to do in order to make Christmas what it used to be, that they’re really almost exhausted by it. I mean, really, it’s already started. It starts too early. A week ago I started getting the spam e-mails saying “Christmas is coming,” and no, it’s not. You start to feel like someone who wants to go surfing in the midst of a tidal wave.
In the book’s final chapter you take a Christmas USO tour to Iraq and Afghanistan, and it reads like the work of a natural-born travel writer. Have you considered writing a travel book?
To be honest, I’ve thought about it. That’s something I’d really thought of doing, especially if I could get these idiots to pony up for it. There are places I don’t really want to go, but I would like to go if I could write about them.
How different is the process of writing comedy that you can’t refine through performing it?
It’s really different. I don’t write anything that I perform. I just kind of think about it and go out and do it, and I let the audience, in essence, edit it for me. This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable writing the comedy itself because you’re the audience, you know. You reach that point when you’re writing something when you go, “Fuck, am I insane? If I said this to somebody, are they just going to come out and say, ‘You have to go now?’ ”
As for this book, someone said to me that the USO tour chapter should come at the end. That idea was dead-on. The other great note I’ve gotten is “be funnier.” That’s always a good guide.
Of the comics who have written great books—George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, for example—which one has wielded the most influence on you, strictly as an author?
Those two, for sure—though, probably, my biggest influence is Kurt Vonnegut. Not so much his style, but the way he always tried to get to the point as quickly as possible—to find the humor, find the essence and move on. When I was about halfway through this book I went back and started reading Vonnegut again, and I thought, “Holy fuck! This is where I came from!”
You rail against a lot of holiday traditions in Black Christmas, but how will you feel if this book actually becomes a tradition itself?
That could be a good thing. I think it could work like insulation does in a house. It might be able to help get people through it without getting to that mealy abyss that we’ve all been to during the Christmas season.
Watching A Christmas Story again and again...
A Christmas Story! You know, he’s another big influence, Jean Shepherd. That movie is brilliant. If I’m really depressed, I can watch it twice through. How sad is that?
I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas
Riverhead / Nov. 2, 2010 / 9781594487750 / $19.95