Michael Ian Black: Comedy’s Snark King

By | October 1, 2007 at 10:40 am | One comment | Features | Tags:

Michael Ian Black

Sure, he’s known for dishing the kind of dry humor that makes you suspect he’s kinda sorta fucking with you, but when you get right down to it, he’s just a really funny guy who’s decided to take a stab at stand-up. And is actually good at it.

You know Michael Ian Black.

Maybe from his sketch-comedy work on The State and Stella or more likely because you stumbled home drunk one night, heated up a microwave pizza and flipped on one of those VH1 I Love the… [insert bygone era here] shows in time to catch his musings on Rubik’s Cubes and leisure suits.

Perhaps simply hearing his voice (which gave life to the Pets.com sock puppet) is a reminder that you forgot to buy Buster his Purina Dog Chow.

Like his brethren (and token sister) on The State, all friends he met as an undergrad at NYU, Black has done pretty well for himself. He’s a well-known face (if not name) whose humor often seesaws between hubris and self-deprecation. He’s an author, blogger and screenwriter who hawks Sierra Mist with the likes of Jim Gaffigan and Kathy Griffin and a Connecticut-dwelling family guy with a 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. (Suri and Maddox, if you believe the CD, who both suffer from a deficit of imagination and intelligence.)

By all accounts, life is good for Michael Ian Black. Which begs the question: Why on earth would he try stand-up now? Punchline Magazine caught up with him just as his debut comedy album, I Am a Wonderful Man, was about to hit stores and before he embarked on his tour which begins Oct. 7.

Congratulations on your first stand-up CD. I couldn’t help noticing the big seminaked picture of you inside.
Fully naked.

Right, fully naked but tastefully covered.
Artfully obscured.

Is that your bearskin rug, or did you have to procure it?
That, unfortunately, was not mine.

I thought it was funny but then particularly interesting when I got to the bit on your CD about how you hate being naked in public. You say you’re the guy on the beach in the T-shirt. So whose idea was the picture?
It was my idea. Both things are true, meaning I am self-conscious about my body, but I also thought it would be funny to have a naked centerfold.

It is funny. It’s pretty brave, knowing it’s something that, I’m guessing, you weren’t comfortable with.
I just think if it’s funny, then you don’t worry about the rest of it. It wouldn’t be funny if I had a good body.

You talk about your kids a lot on your CD. You kind of make fun of them a bit. And say that they’re dumb. Do they know they’re part of your CD?
My son knows I do his monkey-fish-stick joke, and he knows that people laugh. But I don’t think he fully understands the context.

How does your wife feel about it?
Oh, she doesn’t care.

I was just reading your blog and I have to wonder, also, how she feels about your story about her being raped by a gorilla.
She hasn’t seen that.

Is it intentional that she hasn’t seen it?
No, she just doesn’t really care what I do, so she’s definitely not going to be checking out my blog. It’s actually a marriage of convenience.

You guys have been married for a long time though, right?
Eight years, almost nine.

Wow, congratulations, that’s very impressive.
It’s a dead marriage, you have to understand.

I got it. “Eight years. Dead marriage.”
Yeah, Eight years, seven and a half of which I would say have been dead.

Right, pre-divorce.
And the first six months weren’t great.

So why did you want to do a stand-up CD? Obviously people know you’re a funny guy, but for the most part, people know you for– well, you know what they know you for. The State– or a lot of ensemble stuff and sketch and stuff like that.
I’ve always been interested in the craft of stand-up comedy but never was brave enough to start doing it. So over the last couple years, I just sacked up and decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was.

And that meant starting to develop and perform stand-up comedy because it was something I always wanted to do but really hadn’t had the courage to.

And also, there’s something really great about, as opposed to working in an ensemble, about finally being able to just be myself, by myself onstage and not be responsible to anybody but myself.

I don’t have to say anything particular, I don’t have to be in any particular place, I don’t have to share. It’s a very wonderfully selfish way to perform. And it’s also a lot riskier. Because in the past if something went wrong, I could just blame David Wain. Now I don’t have that scapegoat. I mean, I’ll still blame him.

You sound like you’re enjoying yourself on the CD. It definitely is a little bit, I don’t know if tone is the right word or voice, but it definitely seems a little different than the other stuff you’ve done.
It is a lot of fun. I’m having fun doing it and hopefully it comes across on the album. It’s a joy for me to do it, when it’s going well. When it’s not, it’s a disaster.

What happens when it doesn’t go well?
It usually goes pretty well. I can’t remember the last time when it was just a terrible show.

That’s pretty amazing. Most comics have war stories.
Yeah, but, you know, I’ve done plenty of things in the past when I was terrible, but with the stand-up, I’ve just been doing it enough. I’ve been doing comedy enough that when I made the transition to stand-up it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch.

I kind of knew what I was doing on the stage. It took me a while to find my stand-up voice and I’m still working on it, but in terms of being a babe lost in the woods, that didn’t happen for me.

Are most of the people coming out fans of other things you’ve done, like Stella or Wet Hot American Summer?
There’s a cadre of fan that is aware of all of that stuff, and some people know me from VH1 and whatever. I don’t care why people are there as long as they have a good time.

Those VH1 shows are awesomely fun to watch and I’ve always wondered if they’re as fun to do.
They’re actually kind of difficult to do. You’re sitting there in a room for four hours at a clip and you have to be funny for four hours and that’s not easy. It’s hard to keep the energy up and it’s hard to have something to say about– you know, Smurfs. When you don’t necessarily have anything to say about Smurfs. But you kind of have to think of something.

There’s a lot of self-deprecation masked in gigantic ego in your comedy, like the title of your CD, I Am a Wonderful Man. And in your act you talk about how you’re a huge celebrity and you’re overwhelmingly rich, but you have kind of blown up. Does it ever actually go to your head?
(Laughing) Uh, believe me. There is no danger of anything going to my head.

Why do you sound so sure of that?
Because when you’ve had as many miserable failures as I’ve had, which is to say, just about everything I’ve ever done, there’s just no chance of me getting too big for my britches.

But what failures? I mean, I guess we hear more about the successes, but I can’t really think of anything other than The State not getting picked up.
Everything I do can be viewed through two different prisms. The State could easily be looked at as a failure in many ways and also as a tremendous success.

Wet Hot American Summer, you know, great movie that nobody saw in the theaters. Stella, which I think is a terrific show, canceled after one season. I made a movie that MGM bought which was a huge success and then shelved, which was a huge failure.

What movie was that?
It was called The Pleasure of Your Company, and then they retitled it to the worst title in the world, Wedding Daze.

Ah, right. D-A-Z-E, I believe.
Yes. So there’s been a lot of that stuff. There’s been a lot of ups and downs. Anybody’s who’s been in this business more than a hot minute knows that it’s more about endurance than anything else.

The people who have big egos tend to be the people who’ve only known success. And those tend to be kids who are like 22 years old. But check back with them in three years and see how they’re doing. It’s a very humbling business. I honestly don’t know anybody who I would say is arrogant or has an ego.

I wonder if the fact that you have been humbled or that it’s been ups and downs– it seems like you’re doing a ton of different stuff. I mean, you’re still writing a column for McSweeney’s right? What’s the draw there? It’s like this ultrahip, intellectual, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” kind of site.
For me, especially lately, I just ask myself the question is it fun or not. If it’s fun, I do it. If it’s not, I don’t. It’s really as simple as that.

I really am just trying to do things that I find fun. Otherwise it’s a drag. So, that’s all I’m trying to do. I like writing, and I like writing specifically for McSweeney’s. And, you know, those kinds of projects can lead to other projects, whether you’re wanting them to or not. Those McSweeney’s pieces led to me writing a book that will come out next year.

Michael Ian BlackIs that the children’s book?
No, I’ve got two children’s books coming out and then another book.

It’s fascinating to me that you wrote children’s books. I think that sounds totally cool.
Well, it’s because I have kids. I wrote a book called Duck Butt, which is just a compendium of animal butts. Sort of a silly little…

That you drew?
No, I didn’t draw it, I can’t draw. It got pushed back because of this other book that’ll come out January 09. And then I’ve got a book that doesn’t really have a title yet, but it’s tentatively called Purple Kangaroo, which’ll come out in 0-10, I guess is what you would say.

But before that, my grown-up book, which will be called Michael Ian Black Is a Celebrity (Very Famous) will come out in June 08. If everything goes according to schedule.

What’s that book about?
It’s a collection of short comedy pieces, like my blogs and the McSweeney’s stuff and other stuff. It’s like Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes or a Sedaris book. Without all the genius. Or, you know, with a lot more off-color things.

It’s funny that you said off-color. I feel like the tone of comedy in general has changed a little bit over the past couple of years. Like those VH1 shows for example. Everything’s snarky these days.
I feel that way too. I mean, I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but I feel like I sort of helped fuel that.

No, I understand that.
It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t anything I was trying to do and now that it’s out there in that way, I don’t like it anymore. And I don’t feel like my album is that. At least I hope it’s not.

That’s what I meant about it feeling a little different.
Yeah, well, I’m not that guy. I didn’t want to be that guy. When I was doing those shows, that tone emerged as something that was funny and that was working, so I stuck with it. But it’s just one thing that I do.

I hope it’s not the only thing I do. And in terms of the tone of comedy, I do think that there’s a real split between what’s considered high-brow and low-brow comedy. You can look at those supposedly funny New Yorker pieces– and they’re never funny, as kind of high-brow comedy. Or even somebody like David Sedaris, who gets credit for being a high-brow author. And they’re funny on a certain level. And then you contrast that with real lame-brain, low-brow stuff– like, I don’t know, any number of movies…

Like American Pie stuff?
Yeah, I guess. Any sort of gross-out movies. And I think a lot of that stuff is funny and I think the high-brow stuff is funny, but I feel like there’s a kind of middle ground that isn’t really being explored too much. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do somewhat in my writing.

But I guess I feel like in prose in particular there’s not a lot of honesty in terms of voice, in terms of the way that people talk and what they talk about, and that’s what I’m trying to do. So when I say off-color, like, I was just working on a piece that’s going to go in my book called “Taco Party” that’s just basically a rant of the narrator going, “Hey, you’re invited to a fucking taco party. It’s going to be fucking awesome.”

And it’s just the repetition of the word “fucking” and what they’re talking about in relation to this taco party and how incredibly fucking awesome it’s going to be. And I feel like that’s the kind of piece that I find really funny but that a lot of people would not find funny because they think it’s base or off-color. And in my mind it’s not at all. It’s a reflection of the way people actually talk. There’s a kind of honesty that I feel is missing from a lot of comedy, so that’s what I’m trying to get at sometimes with my prose.

Are you more comfortable in prose than you are onstage or on film? Like, is there one place you feel is most natural to you?
No, they’re all just different parts of the same thing. I like all of it. Hopefully they’re all things that I can do well enough. In some ways I think the thing I’m least comfortable with is acting.

People obviously know you for comedy. But when you think of your role on Ed, that was mostly comedy but you had to delve into other stuff, too. Would you ever go completely in the other direction? Would you do a dramatic role?
I would love to do a dramatic part, but I don’t know that anybody would take me seriously in it. Like, I just watched Mr. Brooks, with Dane Cook in it. I understood why he was doing it but it was hard for me to get into him doing it because it’s just how I think of him. He’s a goofball. So I just think that would be the problem. It would be great to do, and I would love to do it, but I’d be surprised if anybody hired me for it.

You thank a few of the guys from The State in your liner notes, and I just saw David Wain’s The Ten; you’ve got a small part in that. You guys seem like this really supportive group of friends that kind of just show up for each other, and I’m wondering if it’s really all as it seems or if it’s ever a mixed blessing or it’s competitive.
Well, it’s definitely competitive, no question. But it’s also supportive. It’s both. These are all the people that I feel closest to in the world. We owe each other everything. We grew up together, so those relationships are really strong. Those bonds are really strong and I don’t anticipate that changing.

I think we’re all really happy for each other’s successes and I think at the same time those successes drive everybody else. We definitely want to keep up with each other. So, if Tom [Lennon] and Ben [Garant] are writing A Night at the Museum, I’m like, Well fuck, now I gotta do something. It definitely keeps you motivated. But I don’t begrudge them their success at all. I’m thrilled for them.

Your part in The Ten is pretty small. Is that the kind of thing where David Wain calls you up and says, I’ve got this little part that I want you to do, and you’re there, you’ll do it?
In that case, he just wanted me to do anything and I was in the middle of editing my movie, so I couldn’t. And I was just like, I’d love to be in your movie– what can I do that I have time to do? And he said, I have this little thing you can do if you want.

A soliloquy. Very impressive.
Yes, as you can see, I am a gifted actor.

You’ve got Run, Fatboy, Run, which you wrote and David Schwimmer directed, coming out. Tell me a little bit about that.
It’s a very sweet romantic comedy about a fat guy who runs a marathon. It’s just that simple. Very easy story to grasp and I think handled very well. The great Simon Pegg stars and hopefully it’ll do well.

It’s been doing very well in England where it opened a couple of weeks ago and I’m hoping that success translates overseas. But I mean, it’s not something you would necessarily peg me as having written because it’s a very mainstream traditional comedy.

Why did you want to do something like that?
I did it as a kind of exercise. It was literally like, Let me see if I can do this, if I can write a traditional Hollywood comedy. And, so that was it.

It seems like a big payoff for an exercise.
I guess. Financially it wasn’t. It’s still a small movie. It was a British production. You know those Brits haven’t had any money since the war.

And then um, Kids in America, with Topher Grace and Anna Faris.
Yeah, that was another case of somebody just called me up and asked if I wanted to do it and I said sure. Any way I can get acting work.

That seems to be happening a lot, like you’re at a point in your career where people are coming to you.
Not as much as one — and when I say one, I mean me — would like. Certainly not as much as I would like. Yeah, it’s starting to happen a little bit. I get a lot of offers to host reality shows and things like that. Not a lot, I get some offers to host things like that. I always politely decline.

Do you hate reality TV?
I don’t watch enough of it to really have an opinion. And I guess the reason I don’t watch it is I don’t think I would like it. From the ones I’ve seen, I haven’t really gotten into it. Michael Showalter, on the other hand, is a fanatic about reality television.

Oh really?
Yeah, he loves that shit.

Well, I guess there are different kinds of reality TV. There’s the Survivor kind, and then there’s like, The Hills.
He likes all the worst ones. I mean, he’ll watch The Bachelor.

Ew.
I think he’ll TiVo The Bachelor.

Awesome, we’ll put that in here. He’s going to tour with you right?
Yeah, we tour together. He’s got a CD coming out, too– in November.

Does that help, having a friend on the road with you?
It makes touring really fun as opposed to being by myself all the time or working with a random stand-up. It makes all the difference. We have a great time.

It must be kind of hard being away from your family.
That’s the only downside, being away. But being on the road I really love and I’ve always liked it. I love driving from town to town and eating at Denny’s and staying in shitty hotels and doing shows at night. To me that’s really fun. And in between all that, we play poker.

You’re quite the poker guy, I’ve heard. You really cleaned up on Celebrity Poker.
I did all right on Celebrity Poker, yeah. I’m a student of the game. But I don’t have the kind of money that would allow me to fully indulge my vice.

That’s probably a blessing.
Um, yeah, it’s a good thing.

Let me just finally ask you, if this whole comedy thing hadn’t panned out, and I know you said it’s still a struggle and it’s still work obviously, but what would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
Do you mean what am I qualified to do? Because the answer is nothing. Or what other field would I have ventured into.

Michael Ian BlackI guess we should go with the second question since I already have an answer to the first one.
(Chewing) Maybe political science. Yeah, something like that. Because being on a campaign is a lot like being on the road.

Who would you be campaigning for?
Right now? Maybe the black guy. Whatever that black guy’s name is. I like him.

And what are you eating?
Dried pineapple.

Delicious. Ok.
That’s my new joke, that I’m rooting for the black guy to win.

He seems all right, that black guy. The woman seems all right, too.
Yeah, I don’t know anything about that woman, but I like the black guy.

For tour dates, check out Michael’s official MySpace; go to Amazon.com to buy Michael Ian Black’s new album, I Am A Wonderful Man.

About the Author

Carla Sosenko

Carla Sosenko is a writer and editor from Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, Self, Jezebel, The Hairpin, The NY International Fringe Festival and some other places. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, where she majored in choppy sentences. Carla thanks you for reading her words and kindly asks you to read more of them at carlasosenko.com. Follow her @carlasosenko. She thinks you rule.