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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. What am I thinking, writes Lewis Black in his new book. When you write about people's beliefs, you're really asking for it. Every page in here has the potential to offend someone, somewhere, in perpetuity, throughout the universe. That doesn't even count the critics who will say it wasn't funny enough, or serious enough, or spiritual enough. Religion, funny? You've got to be kidding. Of course he is kidding. At least we think so.

Lewis Black is a comedian, actor and playwright, best known for his appearances on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." In his new book, "Me of Little Faith," the Yale drama school graduate reviews the Catholic Mass, asks what does Heaven look like, takes on televangelists and has the audacity to rip the Amish. I mean, how would they find out?

If you'd like to ask him about God, gurus, the meaning of life and his spiritual quest, our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org, and you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Lewis Black joins us here in Studio 4A.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. LEWIS BLACK (Comedian; Author): Thank you.

CONAN: And as you can hear, a bunch of our staff members have taken the afternoon off to join us as well. We'll be taking questions from them as well. So what were you thinking? Religion.

Mr. BLACK: It was a mistake. It was a terrible mistake. I don't know what I was thinking. I was thinking, I was - in my standup, I was talking more and more about it and it's always kind of fascinated me. When I was a kid, there was a while there when I thought I was going to be a rabbi.

CONAN: Really? It was a Tuesday?

Mr. BLACK: It was a Tuesday through a Thursday. I did. We had a really great rabbi in D.C. where I was going, and so he was kind of inspiring and I really, and I had a really, for reasons that escape me, huge Hebrew vocabulary. I mean, I got - I was really good at it. But that's that kind of, I don't know what that is. I'm not sure. It's - I don't want to think about it. But there's nowhere to use it. It's gone now.

But you know, so that - it always kind of intrigued me, the subject. And then, you know, two book publishers basically said, you want to write a book about religion? And considering I don't consider myself - I was a playwright, but a writer-writer I don't consider myself yet. And I thought, wow, they're going to pay me to keep learning how to write. I've written one book and now you're going to pay me to keep learning? So it was good.

CONAN: So, your religion is basically the advance.

Mr. BLACK: Exactly.

CONAN: That's right.

Mr. BLACK: That's the impetus. Well, God was speaking to me.

CONAN: In the form of a check.

Mr. BLACK: Exactly.

CONAN: Did you go through it, the contract, and say, what do they actually mean by publishable manuscript?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. I - well, I basically was, how many words? is what I asked. And then there's a thing I should tell folks out there who are aspiring writers, which is that if when they say that there's a deadline and people tell you, oh, they don't really mean it, that's a lie. They really mean it. Apparently, when you sign it, you have to actually have it done at a certain time.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

CONAN: That's going to come as a shock to a lot of people.

Mr. BLACK: It is. But a lot of people apparently have gotten away with it. Not me.

CONAN: When you grew up, which brand of the Jewish faith were you raised in?

Mr. BLACK: I was raised in the Reform brand, which is the brand you're in when you're making the transition out of it completely. That's the one where, it's the same - it's the same rules, the same basic rules as the other two, but not as much. And certainly a lot of the ritual, but not like the Orthodox, not the dietary, you can kind of fudge on that. You live in Maryland and you're not going to eat shellfish, OK, you're psychotic. So there's certain things like that. But it was a pretty - they were very good in terms of their - the temple I went to, they taught well. I have to hand it to them. It wasn't like, you know, it wasn't a silly kind of a thing. It was actually pretty academic, in a way.

CONAN: Including all those words you learned, antidisestablishmentarianism in Hebrew.

Mr. BLACK: Yes. And well, I learned, and I also got an award for Hebrew excellence. I have three pins. I wish I'd brought one to give you as a gift.

CONAN: And yet, you don't describe yourself as a religious person today?

Mr. BLACK: No! The fastest way out of a religion is to be brought up in one, I think. And the lack of a laugh in here scares me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Really? No, I was a wonderful Episcopalian as a child and I'm even a better one now. I don't believe that. I think, I just got - by the time I was 15, I was really - that was it. The ritual didn't provide any kind of comfort. When I return to the ritual, it provides no comfort. I've had friends who've returned to the rituals and it seems to provide them with a comfort. It never has. There's always something that I either find irritating about it or it brings up a bad memory. It just doesn't - it just it never worked. I don't like sitting in a room with people and praying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I don't. It's not comfortable. I don't find it comforting. I find it comforting when there's tragedy and people gather, I find that comforting. But for it's Saturday, let's get together. No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Do you find any similarities between comedy and religion?

Mr. BLACK: Oh, yeah. I think there's a lot. They both take place on the weekends, and both of them have a certain call and response. And I think laughter in the end provides a comfort for people. And I know that from the comics that I know that have been approached, and I myself have been approached by people who talk about they had a father who was very sick or terminally ill. I mean, it's amazing, and who listened to my material or other comics' material and it helped them. Or people who say it helped them get through a tough time. So I think, you know, I think organized religion could use some of that.

CONAN: A good laugh.

Mr. BLACK: Well, the concept of humor might help. They're a little stiff.

CONAN: Well, there were Catholic priests who would often get up and say hell and damn just to prove how liberal they were. That always got a laugh.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. And then they started playing the guitar, which really scared me.

CONAN: As a theatre major, though, you say you were impressed with the Catholic mass.

Mr. BLACK: I love the Catholic mass. Early on before they got panicked and gave up Latin, wow, that was the best. It was the best.

CONAN: Tough to work with your back to the audience like that, though.

Mr. BLACK: Well, they're moving around. They've got kids going every which way. And when you don't know what's going on, there's something special about it. You know, when you're trying to figure it out and you're just thinking, this is some way to communicate. And then they had the smoke, which was similar to the - I thought that was like signals like the Indians would have smoke signals.

They've got the water, the whole thing. The little room to the side that people with - confession booths, candles everywhere. It was a lot, I just thought a lot more theatrical than the way we Jews were handling it. And then the way certain Christian sects, they dropped all that stuff. That's the good stuff. I really did, I liked that stuff. And when we went to Europe, and I went to Europe as a kid, I - whenever I had the opportunity to race into a Catholic church to watch what was going on - because they seem to do it all hours of the day over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: You get to Italy and it's 24 hours. It's like, you know, that - the picture, you know, Jesus with his arms out, I used to call him. He's like the Coke logo here. He was everywhere in Italy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I got a bigger laugh on that 10 years ago, OK? Just so you know. You're allowed to laugh at this stuff. That lack of a laugh there is disturbing. Your look of shock is bothering me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: It's unbelievable to be in a room - and I used to say it in a worse way and get a big - maybe I should have made it nastier.

CONAN: Could have been.

Mr. BLACK: Next time I will.

CONAN: We're talking with - who else? Lewis Black. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. His new book is called "Me of Little Faith." And let's get - who is this? Brad on the line. Brad's with us from Pinedale in Wyoming.

BRAD (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering, what are your views specifically concerning Jesus?

Mr. BLACK: My views particularly concerning Jesus are that, I mean, chances are he was around. I think that's a real good possibility.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And - but whether he - I'm not - I don't buy the Son of God thing. It's - if I don't buy Judaism, I ain't buying the son of God thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAD: OK.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I sure am glad I cleared that up.

CONAN: Yeah. And we're so glad you're being so nice to our callers.

Mr. BLACK: Well, what should I have said?

CONAN: Well, you know, the little disk around the head, people find that attractive.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, but he asked what I thought.

CONAN: OK.

Mr. BLACK: I'm not supposed to - what am I supposed to, make this candy-coated for him? The little disk around the head is nice, but that's a painting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I don't know if you know that.

CONAN: Well, another subject on which you have very little to say is Islam.

Mr. BLACK: The - very little. Almost nothing. I may not even talk about it now. I wrote the book in part about my firsthand experiences with religion, and all of them are written - really every chapter's written from something that I experienced in one fashion or another. So when I write about Catholicism, it was my going to the churches, or my friend Jimmy Ushmore (ph) and I would have these long conversations, because we were going to the theater school and we had nothing else to do.

And then there was - when it came to - I don't know any Muslims, which is - I mean, it was kind of funny because when I wrote the chapter - I always knew I was going to write the chapter - that the chapter was going to be no more than three sentences and explain, basically, there's a group of folks, of Muslims, who don't seem to have a sense of humor. And I'm not going to say anything about them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: That it's better to just keep my mouth shut and we'll move on. And when they start laughing again, I'll get back to them.

CONAN: It seems like the word "fatwa" may have occurred to you somewhere.

Mr. BLACK: Yes, yes. Exactly. I just - the idea of going underground to sell this book didn't work for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Once they didn't like the cartoon - it's a cartoon, OK? You can get into bigger trouble with language.

CONAN: Our guest is Lewis Black. His new book is "Me of Little Faith." If you'd like to join the conversation on what heaven looks like, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're upstairs in Studio 4A this hour with comedian and actor Lewis Black. He's got a new book called "Me of Little Faith." It's an exploration of his own spiritual beliefs and non-beliefs. You can read an excerpt from it on our website, at www.npr.org.

We know there must be a lot of Lewis Black fans out there, but please, save your praise, if you will. Today we want your questions on religion. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And this email from Amy, in Tulsa. Did you take on the atheists?

Mr. BLACK: No, I don't, because they're not really happy people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: You know? They're really - they're not. And I don't want to get into, you know - I just didn't really - I was talking about, you know, it was about belief. The whole thing to me was about faith and finding faith and belief. And the atheists just don't seem to have the energy for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I mean, I don't blame them. I don't know if it's a lack of Pilates, they don't go to a gym. But they just - and then so I didn't really see it as important to go into. It actually never occurred to me.

CONAN: Shooting fish in a barrel, maybe.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

CONAN: And the other question that a lot of people would have, you said earlier in the other segment, you didn't have a lot of views on Jesus, but you write a lot about seeing Jesus on tortillas.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, yeah. I mean, I wish I had. There was a new one recently that I saw, that was - I think it was Olbermann had on, the - he was on a potato chip. There's a crucifix and then there's a kind of a fatty bubble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Seriously, that looks, you know, sort of like if Jesus had kind of a paunch. And - but I - there was one of the first things that I - I read various articles during my standup act. And one of the first ones I found was a - that Newsweek had written this. And it was really the beginning, in a lot of ways, of my reading material in an act because it was easier than writing it.

And this was - the opening sentence, which was brilliant, is Maria Rubio was rolling a burrito for her husband's dinner one day last fall when she noticed that the skillet burns on the tortilla resembled the face of Jesus Christ or the visage of Jesus Christ crowned in a wreath of thorns. Since then, 2,000 curious pilgrims - then my favorite line, most of them Mexican-Americans - how do you know? - have traveled to her rural Lake Arthur, New Mexico, home to view what they consider to be a sacred icon. How good is that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: That's perfect. It's a perfect paragraph. And I didn't have to do a thing.

CONAN: And it killed a bunch of those words.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Rob on the line. Rob's with us from South Bend, in Indiana.

ROB (Caller): Hey, how're you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ROB: Lewis, huge fan of yours, man.

Mr. BLACK: Well, thank you.

ROB: I was just - first of all, I've got to say, as an atheist, we are happy people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Really?

ROB: Yeah, we are. Oh, yeah.

Mr. BLACK: Because you just cut the whole thing out.

ROB: But I wanted to get your take on Scientology. What do you think about that?

Mr. BLACK: You know, I don't - basically, anything Tom Cruise believes in I don't have time for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: But actually, I didn't write about it in the book because I had no - I was never really confronted with it except once, when I was drunk, and it was a good-looking woman, and I was thinking I was going to hit on her. And then the first thing out of her mouth was she said she was a Scientologist, and I snapped. ..TEXT: (Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And I don't really - I never really asked her any questions. I just was prejudiced. But now that I know where they come from, because the TV show that we're working on, "Root of All Evil" on Comedy Central, we're doing an episode - one of the episodes where we judge which is more evil, Disney or Scientology.

CONAN: What, this is like a bracket?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, it's - basically, that's what we do each week. I judge, two comics prosecute. And they're insane. There's no ifs, ands or buts. They're crazy. They're lunatics. All you've got to do is go to Wikipedia and read what they believe, how the Earth started, and wow. They make every other organized religion look like science.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROB: As a member of Anonymous, you're absolutely right.

CONAN: Rob, thanks very much for the call.

ROB: Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go to Steve, if I can push the button. I thought I was pushing the button. Yeah, there we go. Steve is with us from Cleveland. Steve, are you there?

STEVE (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'm here.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEVE: I just wanted to comment that I think I can - I've got a good sense of humor, I think, or I could be a killjoy, I don't know. But I think your work is, you know, iconoclastic. I think it's, you know, kind of militant iconoclastic.

Mr. BLACK: Militant? Militant?

STEVE: I think it has a degrading effect, yes.

Mr. BLACK: Militant?

STEVE: Yes, I think it has a degrading effect on our culture, like "The Simpsons," like the "Family Guy," like "South Park."

Mr. BLACK: Oh, don't compare me to the "Family Guy." Don't compare me to the "Family Guy." You can certainly compare me to "South Park." I understand, but you are a killjoy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: You are. Sir?

STEVE: What?

Mr. BLACK: You are a killjoy. You are.

STEVE: I'll accept that.

Mr. BLACK: I'm not degrading anything. There's a group of comics that you're not going to find funny. I understand that. But to say that I'm degrading the culture - in order for me to have the feelings that I have about certain things, I have to have a huge, huge amount of belief that things are going to be right, sir. And I take - I find it insulting.

STEVE: Well, I find your work insulting.

Mr. BLACK: In what sense?

STEVE: In the sense that it degrades people's traditions, things people believe in.

Mr. BLACK: Who? What? How do you know?

STEVE: What are you talking about? Christianity, Judaism.

Mr. BLACK: How? How? When? What?

STEVE: What are you talking about?

Mr. BLACK: What, did you read the book?

STEVE: I would never buy your book, and I can't believe people are asking your opinion on things.

Mr. BLACK: Well, and I can't believe that you are making a comment when you don't know what it is that I do.

STEVE: I've seen you on TV. I've seen your work, your life's work.

Mr. BLACK: Really? Name something.

STEVE: I mean...

Mr. BLACK: Name something.

STEVE: I've seen it on TV.

Mr. BLACK: Name something.

STEVE: I don't have to name something.

Mr. BLACK: Yes, you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: You can't call someone up, criticize them about their work and not really show any example of what you find...

STEVE: Your work on - how about your work mocking Judaism?

Mr. BLACK: I've not mocked - I don't mock Judaism.

STEVE: Of course you do.

Mr. BLACK: No, I don't! I make fun of Judaism. We're allowed to do that.

STEVE: No, there's people that make fun of Judaism. You mock things. That's why I said you're militant.

CONAN: Steve, I...

Mr. BLACK: Wow, Steve. You know what? If you wanted to ruin my day, you did a great job.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Thanks.

CONAN: And - appreciate it. Hecklers on the call-in show. That's...

Mr. BLACK: Well, you know, you asked for no praise.

CONAN: I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And it's nice to know they follow instructions every once in awhile.

Mr. BLACK: Wow, wow. In the whole time, that's something I've talked - Jon Stewart and I had this discussion. Jon did Tucker Carlson's show and snapped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And I talked to him about it because I know exactly what he was going through, which is what I just went through, where you literally can't find the traction to be funny anymore, because I thought - the first time he said militant, and I went, militant?, and I thought this is - I'm saying militant nicely. And then he said militant again in a way in which I went, holy God. He means it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: So then I have to respond with, militant! And then that was it. I'm just mad. And that's the worst thing that can happen to a comic. But what irritated me no end was to have nothing, was to say nothing to me about what my work, just I've seen you.

CONAN: Well, take this for what you will. I can't hang up on him. The computer won't let him go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Is that right? That's perfect. Well, then he's a virus.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go instead to - oops, and I just tried somebody else and hung up on them. Well, that's good. I apologize for that. We'll see if we can call you back.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, right. We'll get right on it. Let me get my cell phone out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's try David. David's calling us from San Antonio, in Texas.

DAVID (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air. Don't - say something nice, I suspect.

DAVID: Oh, why can't people have sense of humor? God does.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, thank you.

DAVID: My wife and I wanted to start a religion called the Holy Order of Naked Grandparents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Can you give me your number? I'm going to have the guy call you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Well, it's like, you know, God invented naked people.

Mr. BLACK: And what would the Holy Order do?

DAVID: Tell the truth?

Mr. BLACK: Very good. I might get an extra chapter with a picture of the two of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: First time we'd be interested in investing in a fig leaf.

DAVID: Well, you know, it's a little show. Well, anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: David, did you just call up to have fun with us or did you have a question?

DAVID: That was - I enjoy - I wanted to encourage him. Keep it up!

CONAN: All right.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, David.

I do have to ask you, there's one moment in the book which I take as a very serious moment, and you're writing about your brother's death.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

CONAN: And what you felt when you were at his bed.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. I had returned, my brothers had gone home to - his condition was terminal. He'd gone home to his apartment to die there. And I'd visited him. And it seemed like we had more time, and we had a long talk that night. I left. I came back. I left, I got home, I got a call from my sister-in-law who said that he had - he wasn't doing well. Things look bad. I should come back. I came back, he - excuse me, a few minutes before had apparently had passed away. And they had said that I should, that someone should give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

So I without any hesitation began to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, at which point in time, as I was doing it, thought to myself if I bring him back, he is going to be really angry. Because he's going to be going, you know, he'd already been, you know, I've got to go through this again? Are you nuts? And I felt at that point as if, and I felt it for a long time that he was absolutely present in the room with me.

And that was really extraordinary. Because I'm not the type of person, as the caller before this caller had to say, that you would expect on any level to feel that way. And I did, and it was kind of overwhelming. Because I didn't have that sense of grief or longing. And I did later when I would, the weird thing was when I told people that he'd died. Then I had. But at that moment in time, when I was actually faced with it, I just felt like he was there.

CONAN: And that he was there helping you a little later in life.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, I think that I have no doubt that my career was such that I have licked pretty much every single centimeter of the ladder to success. Starting at the bottom and I had - it just seemed that there was - I was at a point in time there was certain things. I was on "The Daily Show," I'd been on "The Daily Show" for two years when he passed away. Things were beginning - I'd done Conan's. I'd had a couple of Comedy Central specials, but nothing was - it wasn't, things had started to pick up a little in terms of I had an audience, I'd been going around the country for 10 years, I had developed an audience that was coming to see me.

But in terms of the next step, there was a big gap. I mean, there were doors that would not open, and didn't seem to open, and within six months of him passing away I got - there was - no one had ever offered me a one-man show. I got the offer for an off-Broadway show and one door after another opened. Almost like - and it wasn't like the off-Broadway show was successful and that generated something else. The Times thought, much like the gentleman who called earlier, that my language, that I used too many bad words. And...

CONAN: Antidisestablishmentarianism.

Mr. BLACK: Exactly. And so we, so it wasn't that, but door after door opened, almost like one after the other after the other.

CONAN: We're talking with Lewis Black about his new book "Me of Little Faith." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Email from Rachel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Love your show, can't wait to read the book. So are agnostics funny?

Mr. BLACK: Agnostics are, I think, are funny. I'm basically kind of probably - I never in the book say that I am an agnostic, but that probably - I have - I don't know if I'm really an agnostic. I know there's something out there. The word agnostic is funny. It actually is the word, I think that you're trying to say when you have something caught in your throat, just before you, it comes out. It's agnostic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I think that's really what the word means.

CONAN: Yet that allows you to believe, well, damn near anything.

Mr. BLACK: Agnostic?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. But I'm not sure yet what it is, but I know - my feeling in the end was - was that if the reason you die is to understand the whole thing, and if you actually were to understand the whole thing it would be like putting your hand in an electric socket for 10 minutes. But it can't be that simple. It just can't be. It's nice to have the story. It just can't be that simple.

CONAN: Well, you argue religion is basically about death or about the fear of death.

Mr. BLACK: Well, I think, yeah, I think that the - I think that's really it. I mean, what else, why would you, if we were living forever, would you really go, who, you know, I mean, death really is, that's the one that gets people going.

CONAN: Death's the hammer.

Mr. BLACK: Well, when the plane's going down or you're walking toward death row or you've done copious amounts of drugs that I've seen people on, and they're kind of thinking, I'm going to die! And then you can see that immediately you're kind of checking in with God, asking, you know, it's the first thing you do when confronted with that. It's the first thing, you know, it's that thing of, you know, I'm going to live life to the fullest, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, you know. That whole thing of I'm going, if you don't take my life, Lord, I will do everything to serve you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: That, you know, and that lasts. And then the Lord didn't take your life, and two weeks later, you know, ha, ha...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email from Mike in Liberty, Missouri. I've started to think about comedians in the same tradition as the Hebrew prophets. They use theater to tell people a truth that the powers that be don't really want people to hear. Can you see yourself as a prophet?

Mr. BLACK: No. But only in the sense that it is 99 degrees, 100 degrees in Washington today, it's June 10th, and as a prophet, I will tell you that in mid-August it will be 282.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And it will be like that throughout the country, and the only good news is we won't have to vote, because we'll have all melted.

CONAN: Melted?

Mr. BLACK: Yes.

CONAN: That's - this must remind you of your youth. You grew up, as you mentioned, just outside of D.C.

Mr. BLACK: Oh yeah, this reminds me of youth. Except this reminds me of my youth in August.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And at least there's no thermal inversion today.

CONAN: That would make breathing so much fun.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, yeah, wouldn't it?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, man. That's the really - that's the amazing thing.

CONAN: It's funny. You find room for a rant against the airlines in this book about religion, but one of the things you point out is there's a big difference between your feelings about mechanical malfunctions when you're in the air or when you're on the ground.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, yeah. When I'm on the ground, just get it up. I don't care, let's give it a go. I don't want to sit on the tarmac. I don't care. What could it be, huh? So it's, we've got only ten gallons left as opposed to 18. I'm willing! I'm willing to take the chance, as long as you get me some peanuts and some Coke.

But when I'm up in the air, that is when you - I've actually only once, really, experienced something which was - I'm looking at an airline that shall remain nameless and - because it could have happened on so many flights. And the oil hit the window! Looking out, oh, look at the night sky, pshaw, all black! the window is all black and the gentleman on the - the pilot goes now, it looks - I would like to tell you all we will be bringing the plane down shortly, there appears to be a malfunction. And that was freaky.

CONAN: Lewis Black, more with him when we come back. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now we're still getting religion here in Studio 4A with comedian and actor Lewis Black. And taking your calls. If you'd like to ask him about God, gurus, the meaning of life and his spiritual quest, our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And the thought was, you know, that politics and religion, of course, very rarely have anything to do with one another, until we saw the parade of the pastors, on both sides, in the presidential primaries.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, we also had - it started with - this is the first time - I'm born and raised in this area in the '50s, so, I mean, when I'm a kid, I'm pretty conscious by '57, '58, '59, there's no discussion of religion. The only discussion of religion and politics was whether we're going to have school prayer. And that's a legitimate discussion that should be held. That's a great public discussion. And then we had the discussion of whether we could elect a Catholic. And then we had a Catholic running - reason to discuss it.

Now we arrive at this point in time, and I turn on the Republican debates and I had to, I was going, really? This is what they're talking, where they ask the question, they ask the question, do you believe that the Bible is the word of God? And I really, my eyes fluttered. I thought I was in a near stroke condition. There's just - we've reached a point - this is - it's unconscionable. We could be going to hell in a handbasket, and you are worried whether somebody reads the Bible?

On the list of requirements, at this point, whether somebody believes in God, with the amount of things that have to be accomplished in order for this culture to really get back on its feet again, it's like maybe 20th. I don't care, I have never cared. We've got to be - why is it that we think it's so important that someone attend church or a temple to be a good leader? Really, does that work? Is that really part? I don't care if they believe in Ronald McDonald.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I don't care if they've got a whole pantheon of dwarves, seven dwarves. They could be worshipping the seven dwarves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And go into their room and go, oh, since I don't really read the Bible, I come in here and I contemplate my dwarves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And I'd be fine with that. But it just, I would like. What about a - you know what would be nice for starters? What about instead of having those debates, to have a math test? I'd like to know how much they know math.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Let's get Julie on the line, Julie with us from Lenoir in North Carolina.

JULIE (Caller): Yes, hitting on the mention of your near stroke condition. I want to speak to that because I am a clergy person and my husband is also clergy and we love you. We enjoy watching you, and I hope that you do not mind that occasionally a prayer is lifted up on your behalf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BLACK: No, not at all.

JULIE: And we - to keep this rant going.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, that's very kind. Where are you in Lenoir? I live in Chapel Hill. I could use some guidance.

JULIE: Great. Look me up.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Julie.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

JULIE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email, actually this from our blog, from James. Hey, thanks for coming to Kandahar last December. It was a great birthday present. How do you deal with audience members that might be upset at certain lines? I can imagine religion would have a lot of trigger points. Do you just bull through or do you ever find yourself pulling back a little bit and changing direction?

Mr. BLACK: No, I bull through. But what I find is, is that when I first started talking about evolution and creationism, or intelligent design, or whatever they want to call it. When I started talking about it in - when I started to talk about it in the South I had to really sucker them into it. I had to really smile a lot more and kind of folksy it up a bit just to draw them in. And be nicer about it, in a way that's a bit different. But I never changed the - what it is with my, the basic performance. I never dropped stuff, unless I'm doing a corporate event or something, you know, where you're, you know, but you know, you don't swear on public radio. There's things you don't do. But or when I was performing, I was there for the USO, I mean, I was...

CONAN: In Kandahar.

Mr. BLACK: In Kandahar, yes, and there it was, you don't talk about - and I knew before I got there that you don't talk about - you don't make a criticism or jokes about the president. He is their commander in chief. You don't do that. I know and understand that. But otherwise, full speed ahead. And I've been very - most people are lucky in the sense that having found my audience, unless they bring someone who just, you know, doesn't get it, generally, I don't get much backlash from the audience about what it is I'm talking about.

CONAN: Are you going to do a double act with Ben Stein, you figure?

Mr. BLACK: Never. I will never work with him. He's from Silver Spring...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: We're different. We are really different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And we're close in age, to a point. I think he's much older than I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get Mike on the line, Mike's with us from Niles in Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Lewis. Here's my concern in regards to the way religions view things strangely, that you can be a truly evil person but take Jesus as your lord and savior and then end up in Heaven. But some poor guy in India, who can be as good for his entire life, no, he's condemned to Hell. Many religions have certain little features that are odd like that.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, but what they don't seem to get is by condemning him to Hell, they don't realize that the Indian is going to be coming back as - he could be coming back as their son.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Mike.

MIKE: Well, thank you, and I'm looking forward to the book for Father's Day. Barbara, I know you're listening, buy it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's one...

Mr. BLACK: I couldn't have bought that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Your uncle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This is Phil in Wichita, an email. Not having read your book, you seem to poke fun of religion. Do you feel any sense of spirituality?

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, I do. I mean, that's why I wrote the book. I wouldn't really have in a lot of ways. Because I was trying - look, there's a million books written about people who don't like religion and there's a billion books written about people who found the light after, you know. I did cocaine for six years and then all of a sudden one day I woke up and there was Jesus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: My father - I've got to tell this story I should have put it in the book. No, I'm just digressing, but so I wrote the book for the people who were stumbling toward the light, people who've had experiences you can't put in either the real experiences that I can't put into anything. I just can't rationalize it. There's something else going on for these experiences to have taken place. But it just reminded me of a great story.

My father tells this story of returning to - he visited an old friend of his. And this friend they must have been - my dad is 90 now. But he's visiting him, he's 80, 79, 80, in Oklahoma. Norman, Oklahoma, and it's his roommate from college. And he goes to sit down with him and they have a talk and my friend says to my dad, points at the chair across and says this is where Jesus sat down and talked to me that day, Sam. And my father said, you know, for the rest of the conversation, I really didn't know what to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: This is a guy I really liked, and he went on and on and on about how Jesus came there, and who am I to say that he didn't talk to Jesus? And all he said, I just kept staring at the chair, hoping he'd show up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Lewis Black. We've got a question from here in audience in 4A.

Unidentified Man: Speaking of stumbling toward the religion or such, can you comment on your - a god that can think of something like an earthquake or Hitler or a really cold beer in D.C. on a temperature day like today, how can you...?

Mr. BLACK: The thing is, is that that's why I think when it comes to - that's where I think people were- it's one of the things people have trouble with organized religion, you know. There's only so much of - as much that whatever the God is, it's not that paternal kind of a God. In part it's where- if you take somewhere between Yahweh, who was really mean, really mean, and the God of the New Testament who seems pretty nice, even though he took his only begotten son, but brought him back. If you take that as the yin and yang of it, the - you kind of have a sense of, you know, maybe it's a schizophrenic God and that's another chapter you can quote in your book.

CONAN: In your book, yeah.

Mr. BLACK: But that's the tough one. And that's why I think I believe that something is there, I just don't believe we can really. That Hitler - once you get out of here, Hitler makes sense, and that's a hell of a way to put it and I'm sure we'll get cards and letters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BLACK: That's the kind of thing, that'll be the soundbite. Lewis Black said Hitler makes sense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Oh no. We were going to have him in Temple Hoo-ha, we can't have him now. He said Hitler made sense. When you lead - it's that thing that you read, I've read it in a number of guides and a number of religious philosophers who say, you know, first they'll say, what about the child who is born this way or this? Or the accident, what about that? But once you get away, once you have a quieter picture, it'll make sense. I'm not sure it will make sense, but I do know there has got to be something out there and I am calling it gloom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Lewis Black and we just learned which of the dwarfs he worships. Dopey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lewis Black's book is "Me of Little Faith." It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Adam, Adam is with us from Pacifica, California.

ADAM (Caller): Hi, guys. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

ADAM: I loved that last statement, by the way. That was actually a really good thing to hear on the radio.

CONAN: His or mine? I don't know which, but go ahead.

ADAM: My question was kind of Bill Hicks-inspired, I guess. When you pass, would you prefer the mainstream version of Heaven, or would you prefer Hell to that?

Mr. BLACK: Well, the mainstream version of Heaven, no, I can't - it's like being in San Diego, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: It's so nice, I've never really functioned well with that. Because, you know, San Diego, it's so nice there, so when you're depressed, it's actually your fault.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I just can't, you know, be running around with everybody smiling and beaming. I just - there's got to be a point where that would just be irritating. But I don't want to go to Hell. That kind of sucks, too.

ADAM: Yeah, that's true.

Mr. BLACK: You know?

ADAM: Bill Hicks, when asked, he said, I'd go to Hell because that's where all the cool music's going to be.

Mr. BLACK: Well, probably. Or sadly just piped in. There's another room somewhere and we won't be able to find it.

CONAN: Thanks, Adam.

ADAM: Thanks again.

CONAN: Again another question from here in the audience in Studio 4A.

Unidentified Woman: So if you were in charge of Heaven, what would the requirements for admission be?

Mr. BLACK: Just that you tried. You know, you gave it a shot. I'd love to see what people said. I'd like to be in charge, just read the applications. Yes, I slept with her accidentally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You know, somehow I can see Morgan Freeman. Lewis Black, I have a hard time seeing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, but I can be his assistant.

CONAN: Yeah, it's true, the clerk.

Mr. BLACK: Exactly. I'll just read the application and say yay or nay and pass it on to him. He can have the final.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - let's go to - if I can push the right button, Larry, Larry with us from Sheridan in Oregon.

LARRY (Caller): Yeah, good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

LARRY: Just wondering if you see any parallels between yourself and George Carlin, with the religious views and his Catholic upbringing and your Jewish upbringing, et cetera.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, I think the difference between us is George is really, wow, he's different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: George has no quarter for religion at all. I think he - I think George is pretty much an atheist and that's what Catholicism can do to a young man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: He would - George would probably - two things that George and I probably disagree on. I play golf, which just appalls him. And once he reads this book, I'm afraid I'm going to get a call that's, you - I read this book because you wrote it. It's not that funny.

CONAN: He gave you a blurb on the back page.

Mr. BLACK: I know he did. He's going to try to take it back.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Larry.

LARRY: OK, good day.

CONAN: And I do have to ask. There is one statement in the book that I just found astounding, but I think you did, too. There's a 20-percent chance we live in virtual reality?

Mr. BLACK: Isn't that unbelievable? What is the Times and that was in the Times. And that was a total accident. It's one of those things where you are actually working on something and you stumble on things that kind of. I didn't go out to look about - I was just looking at the Times one day and it was this article that this guy said that there's probably - there's a chance. It's the British, I guess it's the British because they have a lot of time and he was - he had said that we might be the creations of someone somewhere on a computer. That we are just the creation of a - we're like, we've been a world that was set up. That that is us. And that just really, that slowed down my whole day.

CONAN: Somebody took "The Matrix" seriously.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, really took it seriously, and what's irritating is, I don't need that kind of stuff to think about. It's why I don't do drugs anymore. You start thinking about that and I guarantee you you're going to get upset.

CONAN: There's a road you can go down because, what if that guy is the creation of somebody else's computer?

Mr. BLACK: Well, that's exactly it, and the guy who's created him and the guy who's created him and the guy who's created him. The whole thing makes me. I just - it makes you dizzy.

CONAN: Get you in an M. C. Escher painting.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

CONAN: Here's an email from Joseph in Columbia South Carolina. We just have a few seconds left. I'm a longtime fan of Lewis Black. I feel like his comedy is mostly about pointing out the insanity of modern religion. Do you feel you have the responsibility to point out those insanities, because few else will?

Mr. BLACK: No, it's just because I feel like I can. I don't really. Because in the end, I'm going for a laugh and that's it. It's like, when it came to, like, writing about certain things, like Catholicism, in terms of humor, what I found is there's so many comics I know that were born and raised Catholic who are just so much funnier than me about those things. But in terms of overall things, yeah, there's something I thought I could be funny. That's usually - I like to fall into my own little slot and try to hide there. My little virtual-reality slot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lewis Black's new book is "Me of Little Faith." He joined us here in Studio 4A. Thanks so much for coming in.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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