A Lewis 'Black Christmas' With The USO 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. 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.
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A Lewis 'Black Christmas' With The USO

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A Lewis 'Black Christmas' With The USO

A Lewis 'Black Christmas' With The USO

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Comedian, playwright and author Lewis Black has a new book out that takes a dyspeptic view of the approaching holidays, including the ever-earlier start to the season. So in an effort to postpone premature noels, we will stipulate that "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas" is his funniest and most outrageous book yet and focus on his last chapter, which describes a USO holiday tour to the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, where Lewis Black accompanied, among others, Kid Rock, Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

We'd like to hear from those of you who've seen a USO show, whether that was in Da Nang or in Camp Fallujah. Tell us your stories. 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Lewis Black joins us from our bureau in New York. And Lewis, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. LEWIS BLACK (Author, "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas"): Nice to be back.

CONAN: And you were somewhat surprised when you were called to be on the USO tour.

Mr. BLACK: I was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I was stunned. Really, what is going on? Do these people see my act? Do they have any idea who they're getting? But it was really - it was an extraordinary experience.

CONAN: And what - how much notice did you get?

Mr. BLACK: I had about four, five, six months' notice. Robin and I had met at a - at a show, and then about three weeks later he asked - he said he was putting together this tour and he wanted me to join him.

CONAN: And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff accompanies you on Air Force Two as you head out to the Persian Gulf.

Mr. BLACK: That's right. No, only the best, only the best. I was - yeah, Mike Mullen, who - Admiral Mullen, who's an extraordinary man too in his own right.

CONAN: And your act, well, everybody who's familiar with your act might be as puzzled as you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But you described sitting there in Air Force Two, the vice president's plane, as you're winging your way to the Persian Gulf, and this set up four seats. You are sitting next to Lance Armstrong, Robin Williams and Kid Rock are looking at you.

Mr. BLACK: Yes, three icons. Three iconic figures and I'm the laconic figure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Which of these do not fit with the others, yes.

Mr. BLACK: Really, exactly.

CONAN: And Mike Mullen's wife was also there.

Mr. BLACK: Yes. And she is - I'm - and she is really - I mean, she doesn't have to be there. I mean, you know, I mean, that's what's truly extraordinary. I mean, she being home, getting ready for Christmas, and she's - but she's right there, and it's very impressive because this is not an easy tour on any level, and the fact that she shows up, I think, makes a difference.

CONAN: Not an easy tour. You were supposed to make, what - how many shows in the space of seven days? In the space of a week you were supposed to do, what, 14 shows, something like that?

Mr. BLACK: Fourteen, 15 or 16. We were supposed to do, I think, 16.

CONAN: And ended up - one got canceled because of bad weather.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. One was canceled, bad weather, and we - but no, it's really -I mean, by the end Kid and Robin just barely have voices because, you know, you're also breathing in sand every day, and we're going through every type of, you know, climate change imaginable. And it's - but it's, you know, but the energy that that audience brings to you is overwhelming.

CONAN: Even at 10:00 in the morning in Kuwait City?

Mr. BLACK: Even at 10:00 in the morning, which is not my strongest comedic moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You also describe - there were a couple of interesting moments with the admiral's wife, one of which you noticed her in the audience at one of your shows and suspect that she's heard more profanity in 20 minutes than she has in her entire life.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. I think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: She really seems to, but I'm standing, she's she is the - I mean, she's such a beautiful, sweet woman, and I'm up there, you know, and 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. And I'd kind of and I'm going on and on, and then I look down and she's looking up at me with this kind of I don't this look of like, oh, oh, that's what he does. And but by about the third show, she was howling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So you've corrupted a good woman.

Mr. BLACK: Yes. You know but I think by the third show, after, you know, do that many flights, I think she caught on to the profanity thing.

CONAN: And then you are in the cockpit with her as the plane is coming in to Kabul.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. We're coming in on this plane and there are two landing strips. And the two you know, the guys flying, you know, like seemed like they're about 15 years old and they're going back and forth even you know, which strip we're supposed to be on? I think we're supposed to be on the one over here. We're supposed to be on strip A6912. And I was, I'm pretty sure we're supposed to be on B3795. And they're going back and forth, having a debate over this and the two of us are sitting there. And the plane is kind of going back and forth. Now she, basically, is now squeezing my arm as hard as a human has ever squeezed my arm as the two of us are in massive panic mode. And I don't know if they were just jerking us around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They eventually decide and you landed safely. But these are war zones that you're flying into. Did you ever feel like you were in danger?

Mr. BLACK: I got over that pretty quickly because I feel like it would be hard pressed I think that they'd be really, really hard pressed to say that during the USO tour we lost the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, four other major generals and Robin Williams and Kid Rock and Lance Armstrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Oh, it's one of the situations Lewis Black is going to show up in the fine print also.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah. It's one of the situations where, you know, I'm not even going to make the crease. So but it was really you know, and the other thing is we have the security - the detail that is around us when we're on the ground that are these I've never seen people I mean, they are, A they have they - I mean, they have this great love of the work that they do. And they're - I mean, unbelievable. They've just they I've never felt safer, really, anywhere. You know, I mean, I was in a war zone, I would pick I mean, if given a choice, I'd rather be around those guys in a war zone than live in New Haven, Connecticut, like I did in the '70s.

CONAN: We're talking with Lewis Black about one chapter of his new book. It's called "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas." And most of it is a very funny takeoff on Christmas. The last chapter is about his USO tour with Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong, Kid Rock and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Mrs. Mullen on a USO tour.

If you've seen a USO tour show, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Richard(ph) is calling us from Santa Barbara.

RICHARD (Caller): When I was 14 years old, during the Korean War - and I'm sure Korean vets won't call in because they're probably all married now. But a girl named Kitty Kallan made the newspapers, a Hollywood starlet, because she wore a mink bikini at a USO show and the soldiers loved it. And I guess the USO didn't because the next show, she didn't get to wear a bikini. So I gather that female beauty is a part of the USO. That's the first I ever learned about the USO. And I'll now hang up.

CONAN: Okay, Richard. Thanks.

Mr. BLACK: It's...

CONAN: And I've not mentioned who you describe as the most important member of the tour.

Mr. BLACK: You mean, Rebecca Spencer.

CONAN: Rachel Smith.

Mr. BLACK: Rachel Smith, gosh. Rebecca Spencer is this is I'm like a stroke victim is actually Robin Williams' assistant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I'm sure she was appreciated too.

Mr. BLACK: No, but yeah. Rachel is the was the former Miss USA and quite stunning.

CONAN: And...

Mr. BLACK: And still is.

CONAN: And still is, I'm sure. And was this a big part of the show?

Mr. BLACK: It was a small part of the show. It was mostly that has kind of gotten smaller and smaller and smaller because of there you know, there are women now in the service and it's and as result, it's changed.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the line. Let's go to Angela(ph), Angela with us from Hampton Roads in Virginia.

ANGELA (Caller): Hi, this is Angela. I just wanted to say I saw a USO show back when we were in Okinawa some 10, 12 years ago now. But also, I wanted to say my husband in the Navy is in Afghanistan now and I don't know if he's gotten to see this show. But I wanted to express my thanks.

CONAN: And when you were in Okinawa, was your husband based there or were you in the service?

ANGELA: Yes, my husband was based there.

CONAN: So in the Marines?

ANGELA: He is in the Navy but with the Marines.

CONAN: I see. So usually that's a medical officer.

ANGELA: Yes, that's what he...

CONAN: Okay.

ANGELA: And like I say he's there now and I just wanted to thank, you know, you guys for putting those shows on. And I know it means a lot to them.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we're going to be I'm going back with Robin this year, so I'll be there this Christmas.

ANGELA: Oh, that would be so great.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

ANGELA: Well, like I say, I just wanted to call in and say thanks.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

CONAN: Angela, thanks very much for the call. We wish your husband the best of luck.

ANGELA: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Traveling with Robin Williams, is he always on?

Mr. BLACK: No, he's not. It's he's on in front of the troops, I mean. But even when he hits the ground, he's completely on. When we're when we he come up to the troops, he starts going at 100 miles an hour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I don't know where he gets the energy. I think he's nuclear powered because he just never stops. When we're hanging out, he's not. He occasionally, he'll go into the mode. But he's - the first thing that I realized when I was on board with him, I asked - he was reading a book -finished a book about the history of Iraq and I asked him a question. And in 45 minutes later, he had finished giving me the history of Iraq.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: He's quite something.

CONAN: We're talking with Lewis Black. His new book is "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Dave(ph), Dave with us from Evansville, Indiana. Dave, you there? Dave?

DAVE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.

DAVE: I just wanted to thank Lewis Black. I had the opportunity to see his show with Chris Rock and Robin Williams and Lance Armstrong at LSA Anaconda. I believe it was a Christmas show. I believe it was 2008.

Mr. BLACK: 2008.

DAVE: And it was really entertaining. And you know, it really helped to pick everybody's spirits up.

CONAN: I was going to ask, Dave, you know, is there some cynicism about these USO shows or are people enthusiastic?

DAVE: Oh, very enthusiastic, you know. I mean, you had people - unfortunately, not everybody can go, but those that can go, you know, we try to help, you know, videotape, cameras, pictures, whatever, you know, whatever it took to help those that didn't make it get to enjoy it.

CONAN: All right, Dave, thanks very much.

DAVE: Yeah.


DAVE: It was really something. It was an awesome show.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Kathleen(ph), Kathleen from Athens, Ohio.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi, Lewis Black. You are one of the most hysterical people I've ever heard. When you are on the Stewart show and you did the skit about Beck, you know, calling everybody a Nazi and then you said Mother Theresa had a mustache, Hitler must - had a mustache, Mother Theresa must be a Nazi or must be Hitler. I had to pull myself off the floor.

But anyway, how do you keep your own personal feelings about the war, about the Bush administration getting us into the war, how do you keep those out of that show?

Mr. BLACK: Because that's - my job is to entertain them.


Mr. BLACK: That's my job. And you can't talk about - you know, when I was there, you can't talk about the commander in chief. That's the gig. I was allowed, and I did evenhandedly talk about Democrats and Republicans. That I could do.


Mr. BLACK: And it's - and really, it's almost as if the politics - when you're there, the politics of the situation don't even enter into the equation because it's - I was overwhelmed by the level of - I mean, and this - I must sound like a moron, but until you really see the level of service and duty and - these guys and women are unbelievable.

And the fact that it was - the fact that they were dropped there, you really realize quickly, you know, that they had been dropped there without any real instruction, and all of the work that was done there was done really, as far as I could tell, by the soldiers on the ground.

I mean, they had to figure out how to deal with this. And you watch that and your level of admiration increases tenfold. And in a way, I think, you know, my problem has always been with authority, and I'm sure if anybody understands that, it's people in uniform.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kathleen, thanks very much for the call.

KATHLEEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we've been talking with Lewis Black about the last chapter of his book, "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas." There are several other chapters ahead of that which are about Christmas. And Lewis, I should point out, you're a Jew.

Mr. BLACK: Yes, I am. A lapsed Jew, but I am a Jew nonetheless. I - my editor came to me and said I should write a book about Christmas and I said, my - that was my reaction. I said, really, a book about Christmas written by a Jew? Then, I realized not a lot of Jews that I knew of had written about Christmas. Then, I had realized that I did have a perspective by being Jewish and being apart from it, and that I had participated in that holiday in so many ways for so many years. And then once I had to think about whether what the book would be about, I realized I could actually write a book about being single and disguise it as a Christmas book.

CONAN: And it's achingly poignant.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

CONAN: And we - mostly the descriptions of the vast amounts of food and wine consumed on Christmas Day at other people's expense and bringing no presents.

Mr. BLACK: And bringing no presents and then feeling guilty that I'm living like that and did I give enough money to America's harvest that year.

CONAN: And there's a heartwarming moment at the end when Lewis Black learns a lesson - I'm not going to give it away. But you can read all about it in "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas." Lewis Black, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. BLACK: Neal, I really appreciate it. Thank you. Always a pleasure.

CONAN: Lewis Black's new book is titled "I'm Dreaming of Black Christmas." You can read about the time producers offered him a small fortune to play the role of Scrooge in a production of "A Christmas Carol." That's at an excerpt at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

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