So, really, just who is the real Michael Ian Black? What sort of conversation might you expect to get were you to encounter him, one on one? Does he have a favorite color, and if so, is it green? (They say geniuses pick green). It’s hard to say, seeing as how Black is the kind of comedian who always manages to adapt a specifically calculated voice and remains strictly within the bounds of that character.
Nowhere is this more apparent then in My Custom Van, the first book-form literary effort of Black’s eclectic career in comedy. It’s difficult to describe a book – or any type of media, for that matter – that refuses to be bound by mere description, and Van is such that it fits into no prefab category but that of its own making. (Custom-made, if you will). The type of humor found in this collection falls right in with the random, irreverent kookiness that attaches itself readily to the comedic styling of Black and the fellow members of The State, his comedy alma mater.
Black’s book is equal parts parody and biting social satire. Even the wacky, indefinable one liners that characterize Black’s best known work – imagine the nonsensical ramblings of his State staple Captain Monterey Jack – are represented; this time, however, its played out on paper instead of a high school gym auditorium.
As with any collection of comedic essays, some of the stories work better than others. Some come close to falling flat, but still manage to succeed thanks in large part to Black’s innate sense of the surprise attack, taken in the form of the unexpected statement. (Picture lines of lush imagery followed by the blunt end of a sharp stick. Only poking at your ticklish spots, of course).
However, while humor that works onstage may often have trouble translating in print, the way in which Van really succeeds is that the essays seem to resonate as well when read silently as they would have out-loud and in character.
It’s not hard to imagine each of the book’s stories as skits that might have been used as State outtakes, and Black’s endless well of creativity is readily palpable. Perhaps it’s a good thing that his humor is defined by the art of the random, otherwise it would have been easy for this style of literature to run out of steam even before the foreword – written by Abraham Lincoln, naturally – had been completed.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about Van is that Black’s stories are at once obviously trademarked and uniquely voiced. Sure, it’s fairly easy to spot his snarky personality among each of the book’s 49 essays, yet there’s a remarkably different voice brought out to speak for whatever the subject matter at hand happens to be.
In wry, tightly spun pieces like, “One Day, I’m Going to Open a Scented Candle Shoppe,” Black demonstrates a knack for not only delivering his peculiar brand of jarring humor, but also for incorporating imaginative rhetoric and disarming sensory detail. Still others, like “Why I’ve Decided to Go Blonde,” are sharp commentaries on society— this one perhaps, a thinly veiled allusion to the struggle with transgendered identity.