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Lewis Black Is Still Pissed Off

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At the beginning of the year, Lewis Black went on tour with the intention of filming a new comedy hour in August at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York. Black is an honorary member of the board there, and hoped his performance would help bring visibility and money to the museum.

“That isn’t the way things worked,” Black told VICE. On March 13, the 71-year-old comedian finished a performance at the Four Winds Casino in Michigan. His opening comedian, Jeff Stilson, told Black that the set would be his special because of the impending lockdown. And that’s exactly how a performance from his “It Gets Better Every Day” tour became Thanks For Risking Your Life.

Although the special was recorded over six months ago, the material has aged well, given the glut of news, chaos, and devastation that the country has faced since. But Black told VICE you can tell how old it is from his temperament—if the special were recorded more recently, he’d be much, much angrier. While his physical anger is not there, the material is still irate, which is what fans have come to expect from the comedy veteran best known for being pissed off. Black credits his material’s timelessness to America’s own consistency.

“Nothing was gonna change in the way that America was dealing with stuff,” he said. “Nothing was gonna change in terms of our stupidity.”

The special’s title may now seem like a sarcastic jab at the president, but Black said it’s a nod to his last live audience before the shutdown.

While Black, a veteran of standup and former Daily Show correspondent, has spent his career shit-talking sitting presidents, he’s never received the feedback he does now: fans will say he’s either talking about the president too much or not enough. He told VICE he credits this to people living in “totally separate realities.”

But Black has been making jokes about Trump for 40 years, as he said in the special, noting they were basically neighbors in New York. “I knew him pretty well,” he said soberly. Then, he goes into a bit about the president’s face being orange; a joke he’d thought of just several days before recording. If the performance had occurred in August, the bit would’ve changed, Black said. In our conversation, he said he’d tie it to Trump declaring himself the winner of the election, essentially, by attacking mail-in ballots, as both are “glaringly obvious,” like “staring into the sun.”


VICE: This special is one you’ve obviously been doing for a while. But if you had until August to record it, how much would have been different?
Lewis Black: The basics of it would probably have been the same. I think the only thing that might have changed [was] the energy of the event that night. We all know, ‘Oh boy, we’re going to have to go home. This is the last big night out.’ People had the sense of that. The level of my anger by August might have been over the top. Just going through this utter chaos day after day, it would have just driven me into a place I call large barking dog syndrome.

In the special, you talk about cable news showing the viewer an event, and then talking heads come on to describe what they saw. With the first presidential debate, that was especially clear. What did you think about the debate?
I watched it but then afterward, it was too much even for them. It was appalling! It was so appalling that even on CNN, [Dana Bash] called it a shitshow. It was driving people over the edge. But, you know, then again, it’s the same thing. They come out and they sit there and Fox basically, I’m sure they basically said, “Well, you know, he really did what he had to do.” And MSNBC, “You know, Biden, he didn’t bite the bait.” What planet are you people on?

What I really thought was, I don’t forgive Chris Wallace. It’s not hard. You stand up when he’s doing this, and say, “We cannot continue this, Mr. President.” It’s a debate! It’s not a very good debate. I don’t know if any other country on Earth runs the debates the way we do. Two minutes? Seriously? It should be ten minutes. And the other person should have to have to fuckin’ listen to them. And so should the whole fuckin’ country. That’s the nature of democracy. You can sit down and listen for 10 minutes. And if you can’t you better have a goddamn good barbecue going.

You mention this in the special, there are ads like, “Person with no medical training: ask your doctor if you should be taking these drugs.” That kind of TV advertising is an age-old thing. What made you put that in now?
You pay a high price for medicine. And part of the reason you’re paying a high price is because we’re paying for them to advertise the medicine to us. It’s one thing to advertise aspirin or Advil, Tylenol or whatever kind of cold medicine you got. But to advertise major drugs in terms of someone’s mental condition, someone’s physical condition, life and death situations? And it’s gotten worse! Now there are hundreds of these ads now because there’s a certain vulnerability out there because people have way too much time to themselves. Because we’re not in the public square. We’re just on screens. So they’ve got a lot of time for their brain to go, so they can be probed in terms of that. You could’ve had this, you might be taking, I know you got AFIB, but there’s a better drug. I mean, what? Talk to a doctor! When did television become your primary physician?

And the other thing that I would add now: they started pounding people with gambling site ads. FanDuel and whatever other ones they’ve got. I’m certainly not a psychiatrist, but I think one of the reasons that people gamble is to alleviate anxiety. And so you’re banging them with these ads, one after the other, and it’s just not right. You can’t do that to people. No one stepped in and said, “Now’s not the time.” All it boils down to—and it’s part of the theme of that show—is there are no adults in the room, and there haven’t been for quite some time.

Are there events, where you’re like, ah man, if I had recorded now, there definitely would’ve been a specific bit or line, that you couldn’t since you recorded already?
The hard thing for me is, in order to record it, I need an audience because I really do write in front of an audience. So there are things that I would have liked to talk about. I have a garbage bag filled with things piling up. I’ve been asked if I want to do certain socially distant shows. And I think it’s great that people want to do ’em, and hats off. I can’t [do socially distanced shows.] I can’t because it’s like coitus interruptus [laughs].

I’m in that high-risk category. So I can’t just travel around and continue to do shows. I’m not gonna put myself at risk in terms of that. I’ve got other things like, essentially, it was the summer so I had it off anyway. I was in lockdown for 10 weeks, I wanted to get my brain back. And plus the fact if you’re not doing a show, three or four nights a week, in terms of what I am doing, things just got more rapid. This occurred, then you want to talk about this in the next 16 other things to talk about? And what I try to find when I’m putting together the special, which is what I really tried to do when I’m out there performing each night, is a through-line. So given three things happen and another four things happen, do I drop these two, which do I keep which are important, which say something which mash up together? Well, which are the through-line? I just don’t get to do that. Every so often I’ve felt like, being able to say to you that what he said, ‘I’m the winner,’ that to me is as good as it’s gonna get. [laughs]

How do you filter out what might become an old news riff by the time a special comes out?
There are certain things I’m going to do that are never going to get beyond the time. They’re just there. They’re going to disappear in the night. A lot of what I’ve done will disappear as time goes on. But what I try to do, so I can leave something behind—what Carlin achieved—is to put it in the context of here’s the story, here’s what happened. Certain things that are my favorite bits are things in which, the Dick Cheney bit in Red White and Screwed, the stuff I do about him is telling the story of him. The set up is the story, the facts of the situation [in this case, Vice President Cheney shot his friend in the face while quail hunting]. And so by giving the sense of the context of giving you a story that hopefully has an arc, what you’ve done is transcend Dick Cheney. There’s a bit about Dan Quayle. It’s not just about Dan Quayle. I don’t even know if that’ll [pass] the test of time because it’s almost like listening to music from 1910 when you think of a Dan Quayle. Do you follow what I’m saying?

Yeah. Material like that now seems especially difficult. There are so many things that you could attack Trump on. But if you are talking about a guy who’s like wearing a propeller hat and reciting Mein Kampf, and only just talk about the propeller hat, that’s not going to age well.
[laughs] True. All the stuff that I do that has some legs to it, is stuff that I’ve framed within the context of a story, and the story hopefully takes it out of the time period.

What’s interesting about all of the news, that I never really liked talking about presidents. [laughs] I have no interest. One of the things I’ve learned out of this, it would’ve probably eventually [made] the act—this is not going to be funny, because I haven’t worked on it—During the course of my life, I think all presidents have been given a kind of power that is ludicrous. Ok, you’re a president of the United States. You have a third of the power. That’s what you got. You respect the office. You don’t really have to respect the man. But I don’t have to think, Oh boy! Because all of them have overstepped their bounds, and been allowed to overstep their bounds. And I’m tired of it. Everyone has led to the next one doing a little more.  A lot of it has to do with Congress—during my lifetime—devolving, it’s two bowls of shit looking in the mirror at itself.

“Thanks For Risking Your Life” is streaming on Apple TV, iTunes, and Pandora right now.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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