Michael Ian Black has done stand-up and sketch. He has performed in, written and directed in the moving pictures, and is probably the comic the youth of America are most likely to point to when asked to name an influential figure in pop culture. But did you also know that, in his high school yearbook, Black was voted most likely to have a stranger’s pet named after him?
Okay, well, that last part isn’t true, if you insist on being technical about things. But it is an honor that I, in a moment of fan-ish insanity, bestowed upon him, who has long been one of my favorite comedians (and, indeed, hairstyle idols).
But we’ll cover that unusual terrain later. Pet tributes aside, 2011 has proved a pretty outstanding year for Black, who is currently in the midst of hosting duties on Snark Week, Comedy Central’s even more ferocious answer to Shark Week. And topping off a week’s worth of snark baiting is the comedy craft-master’s inaugural one-hour stand-up special, Very Famous premiering Saturday at 11 pm EST on Comedy Central, in which we find our hero waxing philosophic on skydiving, his kids’ crappy Halloween costumes, and lots of other custom dishing, MIB-style. Coupled with an album release, Michael Ian Black: Very Famous is a snap shot of a career comedian with talent and energy to burn – a witty, wonderful delight of a monologue that will no doubt give fans of Black’s sketch and film work an awesome glimpse into the unique kind of comedy that only Black seems capable of producing.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to catch him on the road as he tours around the country with Meghan McCain, while the unlikely duo researches a book on what makes America tick. We caught up and rapped about the 10th anniversary of Wet Hot American Summer, his infamous take on Team Coco and what action he’d like to take now that he knows there’s a Michael Ian Cat out there.
So firstly, can I ask you what your initial impression of the Wet Hot American Summer project was when Michael Showalter and David Wain first brought it to you?
Well, I didn’t really think so much about what it was, other than the fact that they were doing something and I wanted to do it, too. I really….I didn’t care what it was. I knew it was a camp movie, and I knew it was set in the ’80s, and that was plenty for me.
Did you read the script over and get any kind of sense of, you know, how big it was going to end up being?
Oh, I’m sure I didn’t read the script. I’m sure they gave it to me and I said “Whatever. Let me just do it.” I certainly don’t remember reading it. Why would I read it?
I don’t know! What was your most vivid memory of a day in the life of that project, as far as shooting or anything like that?
Just being in mud. Standing in and walking through mud. It was all mud, all the time. It was rainy, every day. And uh, so there was mud everywhere, and it was just a constant struggle against mud.
Can you tell me a little about the gay love scene you had with Bradley Cooper? Was it as awkward to shoot as I think it was?
It was probably less awkward than you think it was….as awkward as it was. If only because once we started making out, which was certainly awkward….you know, I think we really got into each other.
Is he a good kisser?
Um…I honestly don’t know how to judge that. He’s certainly an attractive man.
This is true.
Um, it was–it was kind of…..it was very professional, as odd as that sounds. We did a lot of professional lovemaking that day.
Have any fans ever mentioned anything about the movie that made you view aspects of the project in a different light?
I don’t know. I mean most people just say they like it, or love it…or that they judge friendships by it. No one’s ever come up to me and said ‘Hey, I saw you in Wet Hot American Summer and I hated it,’ which would just be a very rude thing to do. Although, there are certainly people who hate that movie, but none of them have ever come up to me to complain. Or ask for their money back.
Have you personally come to interpret parts of it differently than you did ten years ago?
No…no, I interpret it today exactly as I did ten years ago, which is ‘this is a really stupid movie.’ And I think my interpretation is the correct interpretation.
How did you feel when you heard about the Wet Hot American Summer art show?
Oh, I was sort of pleasantly surprised. And I thought to myself, that is real commitment to an obscure film–that they mounted this entire art show based on it. I didn’t see it, ’cause it was in Los Angeles, and I don’t live there. I saw some things online, and they were great. It was really really great, and I thought, ‘Oh, I should purchase one of these,’ but then I didn’t.
Did you have a particularly favorite piece? One that stood out to you?
No, I can’t even remember what any of the pieces were, as awful as that sounds. I was just sort of glancing at them quickly and thinking that they all looked terrific. I think there was one of Ken Marino that sort of stands out. It looked crazed or something. He’s wearing this Jew-fro wig and looking crazed, and I remember that made me laugh.
Yeah, I know the one you’re talking about. He had very strain-y neck muscles and bulging veins….Okay, well, changing gears a little bit, I want to talk about the Very Famous stand-up special, which is premiering on Saturday. I know that the motif of Very Famous has recurred in your work for several years, especially as a title. So, what are the origins of that?
I think I find it very funny to self-mythologize, and inappropriately self-mythologize. I find grandiosity funny and I find a level of mediocre fame kind of funny. One of the most annoying questions I will get sometimes from people who maybe recognize me, is ‘are you famous?’ And that has always struck me as a very funny question, because obviously if you have to ask someone if they’re famous then clearly they’re not. And I fall in the camp of ‘clearly he isn’t.’ There’s something funny to me about sort of inflating myself and saying ‘clearly, I am.’ And if you have to say you are, if you have to say ‘Michael Ian Black: Very Famous,’ then clearly you’re not very famous at all.
Is there some kind of recurring theme that runs through Very Famous?
Um…gosh, I wish I thought of it–my work–in terms of “themes.” And as anything other than a collection of jokes trying to desperately fill an hour.
Is there anything about the special that you think might surprise long-time fans when they watch it? I think people primarily know you not necessarily as a stand-up, per se, so is there any kind of surprise element in there that might cause people to see you more legitimately as in the stand-up field?
Well, I think the idea of the special is to introduce my fans–and the world, the global community–to me as a stand-up comedian. Because it’s true, people don’t really know me in that milieu, so I’m trying to carve out some new ground for myself. And, you know, for me, having not come from a traditional stand-up background, it’s been really fun and educational for me to learn how to do that. It’s been a great learning experience for me. And so, yeah, it’s mostly just about saying: ‘I do stand-up too.’ And I’m brilliant at it.
Do you find stand-up more enjoyable than you do other forms of comedy? Or is that really not a fair comparison?
It’s a fair comparison; it’s enjoyable for different reasons. It’s enjoyable to have that freedom on stage, to go wherever you want and do whatever you want and be sort of walking the high-wire. That aspect of it is certainly enjoyable. But, you know, it’s also enjoyable to work in collaboration and to work from script….you know, it’s a very temporal thing. Stand-up is there one second and then it’s gone, and obviously with television or film it’s a little bit longer lasting. But there’s something nice about it, there’s something nice about every show being unique and every show being one-of-a-kind. I enjoy the fleeting nature of it.
Okay. Can I ask you about–there was a blog you had written–
No, not at all?
I don’t even know what you wanna ask me, but of course you can.
Well I reread your blog about Conan O’Brien last night and I was kind of surfing the different reactions to it. It struck me as a very brave, bold thing to do at a time when, you know, that was sort of against the grain of what the popular opinion might have been. So I was very impressed that someone had gone there. Were you expecting the reaction to it to be as strong as it was?
I don’t even remember the reaction. Was it strong?
It was. There were a lot of comments on it, there was a New York Times story and other stuff.
Oh. I didn’t really remember. But I do remember that it was a little bit annoying to me that…I’m trying to collect my thoughts… I’m a fan of Conan. And I admire Conan, and I respect Conan. I’m no particular fan of Jay Leno, although I respect him too. But what struck me was the absurdity of the outrage directed at Jay Leno and…the kind of martyrdom that Conan O’Brien seemed to be enjoying. And I just felt like nobody was saying that, nobody was stating the obvious, that we didn’t need to feel bad for Conan O’Brien.
As difficult personally as I’m sure it was for him, the outrage that accompanied his tenure at The Tonight Show, and just the spectacle of it all, just seemed crazy to me for all the reasons that I stated. I just thought his fans were going overboard and I thought they were making him into something that he isn’t. So yeah, just sort of pissed about it. To the extent that anytime anything I do ever gets a reaction, I guess I’m surprised–but I don’t particularly remember the reaction to that–it was a long time ago, and I’m old.
It seems to me that of all the members of The State you’re probably the most political. Would you think that’s an accurate assessment?
I don’t know if I’m–well, I guess I’m political now, I’m writing a political book, but I’m not much of a political comedian and I don’t insert myself too much into that world, mostly because I just don’t think I’m good at it. You know, when you have people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher out there, it just seems pointless to kind of dip your toe into those comedic waters. Although I guess I am, at the moment, because I’m writing this book.
Yeah, and I wanted to ask you about that, because you’re a pretty vocal liberal but you’re working with Meghan McCain. How have you found that experience? Has it been more collaborative or has it been kind of…contrasting?
Well, at the moment we’re doing research for the book. We’re touring the country talking to people–and that’s why I said you’re calling from a familiar area code. So the actual writing of it hasn’t really begun yet. Although, as a person, I could not love her more. She’s just great. I mean, we’ve been living together basically for the last three weeks in our RV, and we’ve gotten along fantastically. We definitely have points of commonality, and a lot of points where we just disagree. But that’s sort of the point of the book, which is not that we should all agree with each other, but that we should at least be able to hear each other. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re on a grand listening tour of America, as politicians might say.
Are you aiming for a kind of goal with the project? Like, is there a certain message you want to accomplish with it?
Yeah, I mean I think our goals are very honest. I think all we’re really trying to do is save the country.
Yeah, that’s attainable, I’d say.
Yeah. I mean look, am I trying to save the world? No. That would require tremendous hubris. All we’re trying to do is save America.
One country at a time.
That’s all we can do.
Yes. So, you started doing comedy professionally back when you were in your 20s, and I know in a couple of weeks you’re turning 40. So, looking back, how do you think your voice has evolved over the span of 20 years?
You said my voice.
Oh. Um…I started in a very strong tenor. And now, I really feel like I’m entering my baritone phase.
I see…very clever.
Ah…thanks so much. Thanks so much for the condescending ‘very clever!’
Um…that’s a good question. You know, I don’t know that I had a voice 20 years ago. I don’t know that I had any idea who I was, comedically, when I started. I was working with a group, and the group had a voice. The group had a very distinct voice. There were certain things that I gravitated towards and certain things that I didn’t. I guess, if anything, I’ve moved away from, you know, more sort of purely conceptual and absurdist stuff, into more personal and honest stuff.
But I’m sure I will swing back, at some point–and maybe sometime soon?–because I love that stuff, too. I think I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about comedy, in the past 20 years, which of course, you know, we have to. But I haven’t come to any conclusions other than…nope, no conclusions at all.
Gotcha. Well, before I let you go, I have to make an embarrassing confession to you. I have a cat, and when I was living with my old roommate we were watching I Love the ’80s one day. He has a similar striping pattern on his forehead that kind of looked like your old haircut at the time when that show was airing. So, we ended up naming him Michael Ian Cat, and that is his name to this day. I’ve been told to get your reaction on tape.
I think that’s a tremendous name for a cat…and…I want to be there when you finally euthanize that animal.
WHOA…I don’t have a comeback for that one. But I hope you’re more flattered than creeped out, because he is a great cat, and a very good tribute to you, I think.
I’m very flattered, thank you.
You’re welcome. Do you have anything else you want to add before I turn off the tape recorder?
Just lovemaking. Just lovemaking, in general.
Mhm. That’s a good addition. That’s a good way to close out this interview, I think.