Are you feeling it yet? Christmas is just days away, and that means many of you (at least 25%, according to some polls) are depressed, anxious, angry at everything and nothing, or at best vaguely unsatisfied. The eponymous sad sack of A Charlie Brown Christmas summed it up best: “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” And that’s the irony, of course. Being profoundly unhappy is what you’re supposed to feel. That’s what makes Christmas such a great holiday. Those jackasses with their forced smiles and non-alcoholic eggnog, singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with tongues not in cheek, are missing the entire point of Christmas. It’s the only time of year when you can embrace melancholy without apology, and a profound disappointment in everything and yet nothing in particular isn’t a reflection on your bipolar tendencies but the impossible standards of an over-hyped holiday.
Which is why Lewis Black’s new book, I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas (Riverhead Books, $19.95), is so satisfying. If you’ve enjoyed Black on The Daily Show or any of his stand-up specials, you already know that his brand of comedic outrage is the perfect antidote to too much Christmas jocundity. But a book doesn’t really seem like the best medium for him. Even if every sentence is written in ALL CAPS, it couldn’t possibly duplicate the tension of watching Lewis in the flesh, where he’s always seemingly on the verge of screaming himself into a stroke. But Black Christmas isn’t about the hilarity of yelling. It’s about the quiet sadness of a clinically morose, late-middle-aged comic grappling with the regret and uncomfortable introspection that come with Christmas. Which is kind of surprising, given that Black is Jewish and doesn’t technically have reason to celebrate or even acknowledge Christmas at all. But he writes about the emotional tailspin of the season with a clarity that few Christian authors have. He understands that Christmas stings not just because the holiday is built on empty promises. It’s because those empty promises invariably lead to an epiphany that your life isn’t everything you wanted or hoped for. “I have no wife, no kids, no backyard, no minivan,” he writes about one especially sad Christmas morning. “But I have two bathrooms, by God. And they are fucking mechanical marvels of design and efficiency.” Even if you’re not a 62-year-old childless bachelor who finds small comfort in the technological wonders of his multitudinous lavatories, anyone who’s ever experienced the stomach-rattling despair of too much self-awareness during Christmas and found him or herself clinging desperately to straws can only respond to Black’s tale of woe by nodding furiously and saying, “Amen, brother.”
When I called Black, I asked him to recommend his favorite depressing Christmas songs as a soundtrack to our interview. He suggested “Little Drummer Boy,” which he finds unpleasant solely because of repetition. “They start playing it after Thanksgiving,” he says. “And by the time Christmas rolls around, you’ve already heard it 12,000 times.” He also hates/ loves the Bing Crosby hit “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” “It’s so good and so painful,” he giggles. “What’s that lyric at the end? ‘If only in my dreams?’ That poor son of a bitch!”
Eric Spitznagel: Your new book contains, but your own estimate, only two percent religion. Why so little?
Lewis Black: Well, because it’s really not about religion.
But it’s about Christmas, right? Isn’t Christmas at least loosely affiliated with religion?
Not that I’ve seen. It’s become so overwhelmingly commercial. It’s about our economy. When people come to my act any time after Thanksgiving, I usually say, “You shouldn’t be here. You should be shopping. Our economy depends on you! You should be out there buying stuff.” So yeah, I don’t think it has as much to do with religion than it does with the economy. Christmas is the only thing keeping our country from falling apart.
Isn’t it pointless to complain about Christmas being too commercial? It’s like getting upset that Easter has too many painted eggs.
That’s true. But it’s hard not to talk about it. It’s everywhere! I mean, all of those reporters standing in front of malls on Black Friday. How psychotic is that? It’s like the perfect time to go rob a house.
On the cover of I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, you’re setting fire to a Christmas tree with a menorah. Was that the first shot in this year’s war on Christmas?
I don’t think so. I hope not, anyway. If you look at my face, I’m turning away. I have no concept of what I’m doing. I’m clueless. And to be honest, if my publisher had any courage, I would have been sleeping. But they said I couldn’t do it with my eyes closed. And of course my response was, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me! I think it would’ve been so much better with my eyes closed. Because that just means I’m oblivious to the whole thing.
Isn’t that how the war on Christmas starts every year? It’s never intentional. The people who say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” aren’t meaning to insult the Baby Jesus, are they?
I don’t think so. The whole thing defies logic. You know what I think? It’s all going to stop someday. Cause eventually we’ll become a mature society that realizes that it’s fine and nobody’s stopping you from celebrating Christmas, you fucking moron.
You actually believe that? You think we’re heading towards a mature society?
I do. But it’s a long, long way away. It may not happen until after an asteroid hits the planet and kills everybody. I do think we’ll get to a point someday where we realize that just because somebody believes something that’s different, it’s not a challenge to what you believe. It’s really not. Our different ideas and religions are what makes us vaguely interesting.
You’re a Jewish guy who wrote a book about Christmas. Aren’t you exactly what Rick Sanchez was so paranoid about?
What? Jews in the media? (Laughs.) Let me tell you something, if the Jewish-run media was really that strong, I would’ve had this book published like 30 years ago. My career would have come together a lot faster. Jew-run media my ass!
So you’re going on record saying there’s no Jewish-run media?
I don’t know, maybe there is. Maybe I just haven’t been going to the right temples.
I was expecting Black Christmas to be a comical rant, similar to what you do on The Daily Show. But it’s actually more of a bittersweet reflection on regret and loneliness.
Don’t tell anybody that! You’re going to ruin me! (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s true. That’s the one reaction I’ve heard the most. People are like, “It wasn’t funny!”
Seriously? I don’t agree at all. I think it’s hilarious. But it’s more Charlie Brown Christmas funny than Dave-Barry-column-about-Christmas funny.
Thank you. That’s the tone I was going for. I set out to write a book about being single disguised as a Christmas book. Because it’s the most family oriented holiday, and every year it just serves to remind me that I never had children and how alone I really am. It’s my own self-inflicted misery.
For most of the book, you’re either talking yourself out of having kids or trying to talk yourself into it. Have you made a decision yet?
I think I just have to accept the way the cards were dealt. I’ve had the opportunity to be the parent figure to enough people, a lot of up-and-coming comics and performers, so I’ve at least been able to fuck up other people’s kids. It’s far too late to have my own biological kids.
Not really. You’re only, what, 62? Tony Randall had a kid when he was 79. Saul Bellow had one at 84.
Jesus Christ! 84? Seriously? Bellow did it at 84? I don’t even know how that would work.
I think the basic biology is pretty much the same. There are just a few more liver spots.
I don’t think I could do it. Physically, it sounds like such an uphill battle. At 84, I don’t know… I’d have to leave it on the rug and then she’d rub herself on it, if you don’t mind me saying.
Wow! That’s… Jesus, Lewis. That’s an image that’ll stay with you.
Yeah, I’m really sorry about that. I regret saying it already. That may be too much for anybody.
Once somebody brings up semen on a rug, I have no idea where the interview goes from there.
I can come up with something better. Having a kid at 84 is like…. it’s the desperation shot in a basketball game, when there’s a second left to go in the fourth quarter and you’re shooting from across the court.
So what you’re basically saying, in a very convoluted way, is that you don’t want to be a daddy.
I just don’t feel driven to do it. And I don’t think it’d be fair to a child. Maybe in another generation, or the generation after that, they’ll be able to have kids in their 60s. Norman Lear had a kid either in his late 50s or early 60s. I’ve seen them together, and Norman still looks phenomenal. There’s no sense of that age difference. But I get a feeling that with me, with the way I’ve lived, it’s going to be… (Laughs.) I don’t think the kid needs to be looking at the picture of Dorian Gray.
Let’s talk about Santa Claus. You’re fascinated yet repelled by him.
I am, yes, very much so. There’s something about Santa that’s two steps away from being a clown, which is very freakish and scary to me.
And yet you’ve played Santa. You’ve put on the red costume.
Twice! I was Santa in the movie Unaccompanied Minors, and for a TV show I did about the holidays for the History Channel. That’s when I really started to grasp the whole weirdness of it. You’ve got a kid asking, “Here’s what I want for Christmas,” and then Santa saying, “Oh yeah, you’re going to get that.” But the kid’s not going to get it. These department store Santas are all compulsive liars. That’s what they’re paid to do. If you’re a rational human being, it’s more than you can bear. You’ve got to be a drunk to do it, if only for the courage to put on the suit.
What’s wrong with the suit?
It’s fucking brutal. It’s like putting on a wetsuit you’d wear to go deep-sea diving, but you’re just wearing it around the house or going to Bikram Yoga. That’s exactly what it is! Dressing like Santa is wearing a rubber suit in a heated room. And then you’ve got those cherubs sitting on your lap and you’re like, “Really? I’ve got to deal with you?” You’re sweating like a pig and you hate yourself and those fucking demanding children and it’s just awful.
But there is something positive about the experience, if not for you. As you wrote in the book, Santa is preparing kids for “disappointment and despair.”
Absolutely. The first thing they find out is that Santa isn’t going to get them any of the gifts they asked for. That’s the first punch. And the knockout punch is finding out that he’s not real at all.
What about Christmas trees? In Black Christmas you seem enraptured by them, but also a little annoyed, especially by the Rockefeller Center tree.
I like indoor Christmas trees. And I like people who decorate their homes with lights and all that crap. I think it’s a healthy outlet for them. If they weren’t covering their lawns with twinkling lights, they’d be doing something that was really, really creepy.
Tracking stuff they shouldn’t be tracking. Counting the shells of their ammunition. Planning Civil War re-enactments. I have no idea what they’d be up to, but it wouldn’t be good. When you think it’s a sensible, non-crazy idea to blast your house with lights so that people you don’t know will drive out to your block and admire your effort, god knows what you’d do for attention otherwise.
I talked to Paula Deen over Thanksgiving, and despite being a lard advocate, she insists that her blood pressure is below normal. You are to off-the-charts stress what Paula Deen is to a butter-heavy diet. So I have to ask… how’s the blood pressures these days?
The saddest thing is my blood pressure is exceptional. It’s everything else in my body that’s probably rotting. But honestly, my blood pressure really is staggeringly good.
Do you know the number?
The last time I checked, it was something like 124 over 80. As close as you can be to the good number.
Okay, I’m confused. It’s bad enough that Paula Deen can suck on sticks of butter like popsicles without health consequence. Now you’re telling me that you can get irrationally upset and scream till the veins start popping on your forehead and you’re still the picture of health. What are we supposed to believe?
It’s about moderation. If I did what I do on stage and on The Daily Show all the time, I’d be dead. But I save it. I’ve got stress like anybody else, and it builds up during the day. Like I’ll be trying to do something on the computer and I’ll get stuck so I go to the help section. And it just enrages me, because why even call it a help section at all? There’s nothing in any way “helpful” about it. It’s just there to make you more fucking confused and frustrated. But I don’t do anything with that stress. And then when I go on stage three or four nights a week, I’ll get rid of it.
So it’s not an act? You really are that pissed off?
Sometimes. I can’t get legitimately angry, because then an audience will just walk out on me. But it’s at least 80% real anger. You have to go right up to the line of anger. It’s why I don’t drink before I go onstage. When I do cross that line, and I lose a little bit of control because I’m so fucking furious about what I’m talking about, I make sure that the audience knows that I’m aware of it. I immediately make a joke about having gone too far.
Even if you’re not a stand-up, that sounds like a great way to deal with stress.
Maybe. You mean just save it up all day and wait for your moment?
Yeah. Just hold on to all the frustration and disappointment, and wait for the right time to unleash everything in an explosive tirade.
Sure, that could work. I would say turn on the TV and pick something at random. It doesn’t have to be the news. It could be a show you hate, a reality show that really drives you around the bend, like I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. One of those fucking shows that makes you lose faith in humanity. And then let it all out. When the girl says she’s stunned to find out that she’s in her eighth month, you’re allowed to bellow at the top of your lungs, “Are you kidding me?!” I think we’d be all better off bellowing. My mother bellowed. Everybody in my family who’s emotionally healthy has bellowed. They watch football games on TV and scream at the set.
My grandmother did the same thing. I learned the word “cocksucker” from watching her scream at the TV during basketball games, and she lived into her late 90s.
That’s where all of that yelling and screaming really belongs. And then you leave the house and go outside into the world and you don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. You can have your idiot thoughts. You can have your Rick Sanchez moments. But you keep them to yourself. We’ve got a functioning society, and we don’t need your hostility gumming up the works. So get it out of your system and get out of everybody’s way.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)