A Lewis 'Black Christmas' With The USO

Lewis Black i i

Lewis Black performs for Comedy Central at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Charles Sykes/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Sykes/AP Photo
Lewis Black

Lewis Black performs for Comedy Central at the Beacon Theatre in New York.

Charles Sykes/AP Photo

At first, comedian Lewis Black didn't believe it when the USO asked him to join a Christmas tour to entertain U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He tells NPR's Neal Conan that he was "stunned" to hear from the USO.

"Have these people seen my act? Do they have any idea what they're getting?" he says.

But in his new book, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, he writes that it changed his life — if not his views of Christmas.

Black uses the book to dig into his dyspeptic view of the ever-earlier holiday schedule, but his last chapter, about the holiday tour through the Persian Gulf, takes an unexpected turn. The tour featured a variety of celebrities including Kid Rock, Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. The group flew to the Persian Gulf on Air Force 2, the vice president's plane, and Rock, Williams, Armstrong and Black shared a row in the same cabin — "three iconic figures, and I'm the laconic figure," Black cracks.

He remembers it wasn't an easy tour. The schedule was grueling: 16 shows in a week's time (though one was canceled on account of bad weather). By the end of it, Black says Rock and Williams "just barely had voices, because you're also breathing in sand every day, and you're going through every kind of climate change imaginable."

Cover of 'I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas'
I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas
By Lewis Black
Hardcover, 192 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List price: $19.95

Read An Excerpt

But the energy from the audience of servicemen and servicewomen made it all worthwhile.

Still, the tour was not without its uncomfortable moments. Black recalls one audience member in particular — Adm. Mullen's wife — who he says was uncomfortable with his act, particularly his frequent use of expletives.

"She's such a beautiful, sweet woman, and I'm up there, you know, I'm really talking to the troops and I know that they've heard the language before, and I know that they use the language," he says. "I'm going on and on and I look down, and she's looking up at me with this look of 'Oh, oh... that's what he does.'"

But by the third show, he says she was "howling" with laughter: "I think she caught on to the profanity thing."

There were still some rules Black had to follow to perform on the tour, including toning down his own feelings about the wars.

"You can't talk about the commander in chief," he says. "That's the gig." He was, however, allowed to talk about Democrats and Republicans.

Black says that being on the bases with the soldiers left a lasting impression.

"I was overwhelmed by the level of ... service and duty. These guys and women are unbelievable," he says. "You really realize quickly ... that they had been dropped there without any real instruction, and all of the work that was done there was done, as far as I can tell, was done by the soldiers on the ground. They had to figure out how to deal with this. And you watch that, and your level of appreciation increases tenfold."

Black believes that gave him and the soldiers common ground — no matter what his politics.

"My problem has always been with authority," he says, "and I'm sure if anybody understands that it's people in uniform."

Black heads back out on tour with the USO this Christmas.

Excerpt: 'I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas'

Cover of 'I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas'
I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas
By Lewis Black
Hardcover, 192 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List price: $19.95
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

My career, Dear Reader, has been a strange one, with twists and turns as weird as anything cooked up by Stephen King or the writers of The Hills. But playing Scrooge, that was truly an odd one. As far as I know, no one I have known in my forty years in the professional theater ever even considered the possibility of my playing Dickens's most famous Christmas-hater. (Or if somebody had thought of the idea, he’d mentioned it to someone else and the other person had died laughing.)

If the casting wasn’t strange enough, the play's producers were offering me a small fortune to play the role, in huge theaters around the country. (The reason I mention that they were willing to pay me a bunch of money that felt to me like the kind of money you get in pro sports is that at the time the economy was tanking — badly. A Christmas Carol starring Lewis Black as Scrooge — it sounds like the producers were Bialystock and Bloom from The Producers. Theoretically it makes a bit of sense. I mean, who better to play Scrooge than a bitter, angry Jew?)

As ludicrous as the whole idea was, it didn’t stop me from picking up the script and looking at it. (And who knew what might follow if it worked? Lewis Black as King Lear? Lewis Black as Macbeth? Lewis Black as Mama Rose in Gypsy?) As I read, I was shocked to find out how big Scrooge's part is. Somehow I remembered it as just a bunch of "Humbugs" with an occasional "Bah" thrown in to spice things up. Nope, Ebenezer yacks a lot. More than is really necessary, to be honest. He goes on and on and on and ON, in order to show everybody what a prick he is. I might have had a stroke memorizing all that shit.

Fortunately for my few remaining brain cells, the show never happened. The producers couldn’t find a cast that could help me sell enough tickets for the thing to make financial sense.

Which is why I’m sitting at lunch yelling at my editor about Glenn Beck. "You know, I didn’t end up playing Scrooge."

"And that’s my fault? Come on, Lewis. This is better than being Scrooge. You can write about him. You can talk about how you would have been the definitive Scrooge. How you would have been remembered for your work, like that actor Booth was."

"Because he killed Lincoln."

"No, the other one. Shirley, I think her name was."

"I wouldn't have been the definitive Scrooge."

"Then tell them why you would have been a lousy Scrooge. Tell them whatever you want. It's your book."

"I don't want to write another book. I don't have to write another book. Writing is hell. It's brutal. It's hours of sitting by myself in front of a piece-of-shit computer, spewing out my guts  and then dealing with you and your whiny notes.  'You need a better joke here. I don't understand this paragraph. This doesn’t make sense.'" "I don’t give whiny notes."

"All notes are whiny."

"Lewis. Listen to me. If you write another book, the public might begin to believe you are a writer."

Son of a bitch! Now he got me. I've always wanted to be known as a writer. It's why I went to graduate school, for crying out loud.

And then I realized: This guy's not my editor. He's a crack dealer for my self-esteem.

"I don't know if I can do it."

"Of course you can. You're a writer."

"Stop it. It’s like you're rubbing the inner thigh of my brain."

"Think about it. Take long walks. Let your mind run free. We'll have another lunch soon to talk about it some more."

Another free lunch. God, I love free lunches. "Okay."

So now he's hooked me. How does he know I'll write a good book about the holidays when I didn't even think I could write another book? And why would I want to go through the tortures of the damned to finish it?

I didn't take long walks, but I thought about it. And after a while I told him that I couldn't write the kind of Christmas book that everyone else writes, and that even if I could, I wouldn't want to. Then I told him what I thought I might be able to write about.

And you know what that idiot said? He said it's a book.

I hope he's right, because here it is.

Reprinted from I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas by Lewis Black by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2010 by Lewis Black.

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