HumorMay 9, 2012

What's So Funny?

Stand-up comedian, actor, author Lewis Black began grooving a horrific swing 50 years ago. All he wants now is for Scarlett Johansson to drive his cart.

Probably the greatest asset a golfer can have is a sense of humor, which might explain why we're not surprised that lots of funny people--comedians and comic actors such as Ray Romano, George Lopez, Bill Murray and Jack Lemmon--have played this silliest of games.

But Lewis Black? A golfer?

As he might scream, "Really?"

Black, 63, who parlayed regular rants on "The Daily Show" into a booming career of sold-out performances, CDs, books, HBO specials, movie roles and more, bases his comedy on anger. Anger at big issues like religion and politics, as well as more mundane subjects like Starbucks, aging and 2 percent milk. He has become famous for his foul-mouthed rants and eruptions, near-apoplectic fits of sputtering rage that unleash some of the funniest, most poignant and most eloquent dissections of American life today.

He has been an actor, playwright (with a degree from the Yale School of Drama), theater owner and emcee. He turned to stand-up comedy in the late '80s and has appeared on "The Daily Show" since 1996. He has been nominated for four Grammy awards for comedy, winning two, been nominated for an Emmy and written three best-selling books. Plus he has had small but memorable roles in a number of movies and works with numerous charities.

Through it all, he has been an on-again, off-again golfer, trying somehow to channel, manage or sublimate the rage that's always bubbling just below the surface. Never very good, Black says he spent "10 or 15 years beating myself up, walking around the course screaming like a lunatic, always at myself. I occasionally do that now, but rarely."

(Note: Some of the language has been cleaned up a bit. Use your imagination.)

Your online biography says you like golf but golf hates you. What do you mean?

I think one reason people play golf is it allows them to obsess about something other than the daily crap. It takes your mind off that. It's not that "good walk spoiled" stuff. That's a crock. I'm good for a while, and then the brain starts to go. My friend [comedian] John Bowman says 10 percent of your brain is what does it, and the other 90 percent is there to screw with you. So after three or four holes I go, I'm probably going to hit it to the right, and then it's a wrestling match with my brain to shut up.

That sounds like your act.

It is. I was playing with [comedian] Kathleen Madigan in Florida and hit into some willows. I was maybe 20 yards away, and the wheels started spinning, and I fired the club in after it. I started to walk in, and she started screaming, "There are snakes!" and there was a sign warning "Crocodile Pit." I said, "I don't care, let them bite me."

How did you get into golf?

I was 10 or 11, and the recreation center in Montgomery County, Md., ran a summer program. They gave lessons, then we played a county course. I did it for a few summers. At age 13, I was bar mitzvahed, and my uncle gave me his old set of Wilsons.

My father worked at the Naval Ordnance Lab, and they had a nine-hole course on the property. You paid a quarter.

I started going there because I could get away from my family without hiding in the bathroom. From about the age of 14 to 21 I was able to groove an absolutely horrific swing. I did it all on my own. Now whenever I hear someone say on television that he taught himself, I say, "Really?" He taught himself that swing, and I taught myself a swing that I've spent my adult life trying to break out of, which I think I've done.

Did you fix it on your own?

No. Teaching pro A.J. Bonar gave me lessons. He showed me that a lot of golf instruction was hooey. He said it was really just a matter of hitting the ball, not all this "where you are in space" crap. The lesson was great because it was for people like me who don't play much. I'm talking about going from a 70-handicap to a 66, not from a 7 to a 4.

What is your handicap?

I think it's a solid 25. Or 30. It can fluctuate. I have six or seven pars a round, then bogeys and double bogeys, and then like three "go screw yourself" holes when I have a complete meltdown. It's Freudian in its own way, not in terms of mother and father but in terms of self-love.

Self-love is a big part of golf.

Do you talk about golf in your act?

I did a bit on a CD called "Anticipation" where I said the greatest moment for the golfer is the three hours before the round when he is anticipating that this will be the day it all finally comes together. There is no other sport where you start out worse than crappy and then you spend maybe 10 years and you're finally crappy. And then, five years later, you wake up and think, OK, today is the day I'm going to be more than crappy. What golfers should do if they really care about themselves or the environment is drive up to the first tee, look at the course, look at each other, and say, "Ha! That was a great day," then go back to the clubhouse and get drunk. Instead, they actually get up there and hit the ball. And, thanks to technology, the head of the club is now larger than a baby's head. A baboon in its final death throes could hit the ball with this club. But you take a whack at it, and it goes 75 yards into the woods.

in my head to take a stranglehold on me and destroy my swing."

What's harder, comedy or golf?

Golf is actually harder.

Are there similarities?

Yes. Repetition. I watched as Peter Kostis held the club against Paul Casey's head, telling him to keep his head down as he hit 50 shots in a row. I was watching Paul and thinking, I couldn't do that. As much as I love the game, you have to be devoted to it. It's the same with comedy. I've been doing it for 20 years, 250 nights a year, but when I take two weeks off it takes a couple of days before I can go, OK, there it is. It's repetition.

When do you find time to play golf?

It's a binge-purge kind of thing. When I play, I binge. If I get a week off, I'll go to a hotel that has a golf course. I like to come downstairs and go right onto the course. I'll do that five days in a row. I'm not a 36-hole-a-day guy. Even when I could have been a 36-hole guy, I wasn't. Now is the time we drink! That's why we play the 18.

Do you want to play the big-name courses?

I've played Spyglass Hill. I would like to play Pebble Beach at some point. I keep waiting for them to call and ask me to that little pro-am thing, but I'm not big enough. I've played Pinehurst No. 2 a lot. I played Oakmont a long time ago: It was brutal. The thing that's true is I can be crappy anywhere: I don't need to be on a really hard course to be crappy.

What do you think of presidents playing golf?

Do they deserve the time off? I think they deserve it, yes. It's as close as I can think to punishing them. For whatever foreign-policy or domestic-policy mistake they've made, they will have an almost psychic kind of pain when they swing through the ball for the third time in the trap.

Are there politicians you'd like to play with?

I don't like being around them; I don't think it helps my act. I can't treat them as human; I have to treat them as characters.

Two words for you: Tiger Woods.

Phew! I can't imagine being raised by his father. He was like a Jewish mother to the 100th power, only it's not academics, it's swinging a golf club! I can't imagine being under that kind of pressure. His father prepared him for everything except the celebrity. What drives me nuts is when he gets angry and bangs his club after a shot.

But it's OK for us to do that?

We're allowed to. To them, it's a sport. To us, it's life itself.

Obviously, you watch golf on television.

I watch too much. It's cheaper than Ambien. But it's also one of the ways you learn. And some of these kids are wild. Some of them seem to really enjoy the game.

Is there anyone you'd like to play golf with?

Scarlett Johansson. She could just drive the cart, and I'd be happy. And if I could get a larger cart, Mary-Louise Parker, too. That would be perfect. At my age, any two women could hold me up when I'm putting.

Do you play in charity events?

This is my 16th year with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. When Rosie O'Donnell's manager called 16 years ago to say the CF Foundation was having a three-day tournament at Pinehurst, I said, "I'm in." He told me I'd have to perform, and I said, "I don't care what they want, I'm in." Then he says, "So you know, there's no money in it." To which I said, "I'd pay them for three days at Pinehurst." I've become like their mascot. We've played Sawgrass, Pelican Hill, Pinehurst No. 2. You want to play Pinehurst No. 2? Go in the basement, get a table of any kind, try to hit the ball off the floor onto the table, and if you can get it to stick on the table, you can play Pinehurst.

Are golfers athletes?

Real golfers? Yes. People like me? No. But don't get me wrong, my joy is seeing someone near my body type play the game. Craig Stadler or Kenny Perry. Or Angel Cabrera, who used to smoke. A lot of guys, one of the reasons they play is so they can smoke cigars and no one will bother them.

What do you wear when you play?

I wear a large codpiece. It helps focus my eyes down on the ball. No, I don't go crazy. I wear shorts, khaki or dark blue. I'm thrilled there are people spending $300 on a golf shirt, but for $300, a shirt should do something that makes you not sweat.

Does golf make too big a deal about being quiet?

Quiet doesn't help me. It doesn't even help me when I'm putting. What quiet does is allow the voices in my head to take a stranglehold on me and destroy my swing. I try to think, There's water on the left, but I'm not going to worry about it, but in the silence my brain goes, But that's where you're going to hit it because you always hit it there. In the silence, if there's a problem on the right, I know that my shot will make a beeline to the right side of the fairway, and if there's a problem on the left, I will hit a spectacular hook.

Should galleries be quiet for the pros?

There should be another league where people get to yell and scream. It'd be fun to take a bit of the stuffiness out of the pro game. It's like that depressing ad for The First Tee. The kids say golf taught them this and that. I get it with the military: A guy joins the military because he needs discipline and has to find himself. But don't tell me golf helps you find yourself. I've been playing my whole life, and I'm still looking for myself.