It may sound obvious from two guys making a comedy series, but Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter want people to laugh at their new Comedy Central series, Michael And Michael Have Issues. That’s the point of comedy, right?
Yes and no. Since the duo debuted 20 years ago as members of the sketch troupe The State, laughing out loud has been only part of their comedic style. On The State’s eponymous show for MTV, the spoof film Wet Hot American Summer, and as the comedy trio Stella (featuring fellow State alumnus David Wain), the humor could be almost theoretical—based not so much on punchlines, but on irony, meta-references, and, uh, dildos. Their absurdist sensibility also heavily informed Stella, the trio’s short-lived show for Comedy Central, which aired in 2005.
Moving on from that, Black and Showalter shifted their comedic focus, and the result, Michael And Michael Have Issues, should produce plenty of actual laughter. The series follows Black and Showalter (who play themselves) as the feuding stars of their own sketch show—a show-within-a-show template that constantly shifts the balance between narrative and sketch. The series debuts on Comedy Central on July 15. As the first airing approached, The A.V. Club spoke to Black and Showalter about making people laugh, the lessons of Stella, and how their show is like turkey meatloaf.
The A.V. Club: How did Michael And Michael Have Issues come together?
Michael Ian Black: Well, when we were done with Stella, we were unemployed, and we still had a good relationship with Comedy Central, and so it just sort of evolved.
Michael Showalter: Speaking personally, we also really wanted to make a TV show and stay in that medium. I’ve enjoyed the experiences I’ve had in features, but I think I really, really, really love television, so I think there’s been a concerted effort to try to get a TV show back on the air.
AVC: How did the concept evolve?
MS: I think we basically agreed that we wanted to play ourselves—that’s something we’d been doing for a while in Stella and our standup. Then we also wanted to do sketch, so it naturally evolved that if we wanted to play ourselves and wanted to do a sketch show, we could either just do a sketch show, or we could do a sketch show that had a narrative element. So that’s what we landed on.
AVC: Were there similar shows that you had in mind?
MS: I’ve always thought the closest comparison is maybe The Larry Sanders Show, in that there’s a lot of narrative, but you also do see the show he is making. You get a very real feeling that the show he is making is real. And Mike and I, in doing the show—we’ve now done it, and it’s finished—we tried to do the show-within-the-show as if what we’d make if there was no narrative, so that, in theory, we could do an entire episode that was just a sketch show.
AVC: Showalter, you said in an interview with The Rumpus that in some of your previous projects, “A lot of the jokes had to do with the idea that we were even doing the joke at all. I’m interested in making people laugh for a change.” So did you go against instinct with this show?
MS: Only in that often in writing, we would come up against what we would call a “Stella moment,” let’s say, where the joke was maybe about something other than the actual joke itself, if that makes any sense. I think in Stella—and I love this about it—it’s funny because we’re doing it, or it’s funny because of the reference it’s making, or it’s funny because of some comment we might be making on a joke. So in this, when we have those moments, which there were many, we just made an effort to say, “In this show, we won’t do that.” I think in Stella, there were plenty of just joke-jokes as well, so its not like we had to teach ourselves how to do something totally different. I think we did just make an effort to make jokes that were just jokes.
AVC: Black, was it a change of mindset for you?
MIB: It’s like what Showalter said, it’s not so much a change in mindset as it’s like writing a different genre of song. As you know, I’m a very accomplished songwriter. I write in many, many genres. I ghostwrite a lot of Britney’s stuff. But I’m also able to write for Keith Urban, which I sometimes do. This is more of a Keith Urban piece—it’s gonna be a little more populist. I write Britney’s sort of darker, alt stuff.
AVC: Stella had this reputation of being an expensive series to make. Was that on your mind as you approached Michael And Michael Have Issues?
MIB: We were producers on Stella, and we’re producers on Michael And Michael, and we’re very mindful of trying to do things on a budget, because Comedy Central has limited resources, and we try to stay within those resources. On Stella, it was tougher, because the show was designed differently. It was more ambitious visually than this show, and that cost money—whereas this show was designed to look like shit.
AVC: On the show’s blog, you talked about its intense shooting schedule. Was it more so than stuff you’ve done in the past?
MIB: Actually, it was probably a little less so. Stella was absolutely brutal. Like I said, because it was so ambitious, we were constantly fighting the clock and behind schedule.
MS: And it was dead of summer. It was a hot summer. Stella was difficult because it was a very long shoot, first of all. I think we shot for over three months.
AVC: Michael And Michael was just six weeks, right?
MS: Six weeks. For Stella, we would shoot for two weeks and then take a week off, and we did that for 10 episodes' worth of shows. So every two episodes was three weeks of shooting. We wrapped after about 15 weeks—and it was really, really, really hot. Then, as Mike said, Stella was very heavily directed—which is to say, the shot list was the priority. So there was a lot of very complicated camera choreography, which made it even more grueling, because you were trying to get the shot right rather than necessarily focusing on the performance or whatever else. On most comedies, you just try to do what you can to cover it just so you can have the performances. For an actor, that’s way more preferable—just very simple coverage to make sure it’s all there.
AVC: So what you’re saying for Michael And Michael Have Issues is that it’s less about getting the art and more about getting the laughs.
MS: I would say that is a very apt statement. I would say that the word “art” has not come up once in the last six months. That’s not to say that it’s—
MIB: Not artful?
MS: Yeah, but that creatively, it’s compromised in any way.
MIB: The word “art” has never come up in anything we’ve done.
MS: Well, Stella. I do think Stella was a kind of an auteur statement. I did. I felt that way, anyway. The other crappy thing about Stella was that—well, I don’t want to say this, but now I have to, because I already launched into it—we already kinda knew the show wasn’t gonna get picked up about halfway into the shoot. We had to shoot for a month and a half knowing the show wasn’t taking off as we’d hoped. That, I think, added to it.
AVC: So the show had already started airing?
MS: We were halfway through shooting the series when it started to air, so we were shooting and delivering episodes at the same time.
AVC: But Michael And Michael is all done?
MS: Yes, this will be 100 percent in the can.
MIB: When people don’t want to watch this show, it won’t hurt our motivation for shooting it, because it will already be done.
MS: Right. We can just hide. We won’t have to go to work the next day on a sinking ship.
MIB: We will have already fled this ship.
MS: We’ll already be on dinghies rowing to shore.
MIB: Clinging precariously to driftwood.
AVC: How do you think debuting like this during the summer increases the odds of it finding traction?
MIB: It probably decreases our odds.
MIB: Yeah, especially for shows like ours on Comedy Central. There are a lot of college kids who watch, and I think they’re more inclined to watch when they’re in college.
MS: Word of mouth. Having people of the twentysomething crowd being scattered around hurts, because you want to have them all together, talking to each other about the show.
AVC: You’d rather have it in the fall going up against more stuff than the summer?
MS: Wednesday is the traditional Comedy Central launch night. Usually when they have a new show, that’s the slot.
MIB: That’s where the old saying comes from: “If it’s Wednesday, it must be Comedy Central.” Just to return to your question, although I think we’d rather launch in the fall, we’re doing our best to keep the network’s expectations in line with what we believe will be the audience for the show. Meaning, if it doesn’t explode out of the box, they take the time of year into consideration. But we’re fully expecting it to explode out of the box. And I don’t mean in terms of ratings; I literally mean it’s going to explode.
AVC: Have you ever had a sense of whether people will like something you’ve done?
MS: No. No. I will say that I think it’s very funny, and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t think it was true. I would be much more evasive. But it’s a very, very funny show. I don’t know if anyone’s going to watch it. I hope people watch it. But I’ve given up making my predictions on what shows will and won’t get watched.
MIB: I predict it will be at least as successful as Stella.
MS: I can’t even go that far! [Laughs.] I wouldn’t even make that bet. Sometimes people love certain things that make me think I’m in the wrong profession or the wrong country.
AVC: Black, you said on the blog that there was one sketch that you and what looked like Comedy Central were having a big disagreement about.
MIB: Well, I was making a point of saying that in fact there was only one, which is remarkable.
AVC: You said it’s good to have at least one of those. How so?
MS: What he meant was, it’s pretty much remarkable that there was only one disagreement.
MIB: We’re pretty much on the same page.
MS: If all we disagree about is this one sketch, that means we’re getting along very well with the network.
MIB: That was exactly my point, except for the fact that they’re all dirty motherfuckers. Oh, I should not have said that.
MS: Our main executive that we work with at Comedy Central is Jim Sharp, who was the producer of The State, so there’s a long history there. There’s shorthand with him, too. At this point with Comedy Central, we are very familiar with everybody over there. There’s no real game-playing or anything like that.
AVC: Have you been surprised in the past about what passes and what doesn’t? Danny McBride of Eastbound And Down said HBO had no problems with the host of filthy jokes, but one AIDS joke was totally not cool.
MIB: Well HBO and Comedy Central are obviously two very different worlds. Comedy Central is a lot more restrictive, and we find ourselves having to work around their protocols pretty regularly. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, you get into business with them and you understand that that’s the reality. They have certain standards that they expect to be met. All we can do is push the envelope as much as we can. It’s not like we’re deliberately setting out to do that, but a lot of times, what we think is funny comes up against what they don’t want to be said on their television channel.
MS: I just think it’s funny, and it’s not just Comedy Central, but that this is just censorship stuff in general: this idea that you’re not allowed to graphically describe or refer to genitalia, as if there is like a big secret and no one has it. The fact that you can’t say the word “vagina,” as if people don’t have one, is endlessly amusing to me. But we also have a very good relationship with the standards-and-practices people at Comedy Central, in that what they’re trying to do is help us do it within their guidelines, as Mike said.
AVC: Well, there was that Comedy Central executive quote regarding Stella, when he saw the old shorts before it became a series: “It’s great, but can you do it without the dildos?”
MS: I think we all have our answer, don’t we?
MIB: We definitely brought the dildos back for this series, in a big way. There’s this one dildo that’s enormous, and it’s in every episode. You don’t see it, though—it’s just up Showalter’s ass.
AVC: Were there any sort of unexpected setbacks, or anything that went particularly well that you weren’t expecting?
MIB: I would say I was surprised at how well the shooting went. Going off of how rough-and-tumble Stella was in terms of the production, this actual shoot, I think, went much smoother than either Showalter or I anticipated. We stayed on budget, we made our date—meaning we stayed within the amount of time we were allotted—and there weren’t huge compromises that we were making. The credit for that goes to our production staff for doing a great job and making sure everybody was prepared. It was surprisingly smooth. It was still difficult, because shooting is always difficult. But it was smoother than I anticipated.
AVC: Were you shooting an episode at a time, or—
MS: We shot all seven episodes in a jumble—one big turkey meatloaf of episodes.
AVC: Does that make it harder to stay focused?
MIB: Actually, no. It wasn’t that hard. We had the advantage of having written them as well, so we were pretty familiar with the stuff. It’s not like our acting is so good we need to—
MS: I really enjoyed it. It was fun to kind of not really ever know where you were at any moment. It was sort of like one day, we’d be shooting a narrative scene from one episode, and then a narrative scene from another episode, and it kept things interesting. Plus Mike and I were directing the episodes together.
AVC: Do either of you have a personal sort of barometer to tell you whether this show works?
MS: The show works.
AVC: Well, whether it’s catching on?
MIB: The barometer is the Nielsen Company. Their job is to be the barometer.
MS: It’s as simple as that: the ratings. There’s a number we know we want to get, and if we are anywhere near that number, then we’ll probably feel pretty good about ourselves. And if we’re not, then that’ll be a bummer.
AVC: Say it does catch on like your fellow State alumni’s show, Reno 911!: It’s popular, but it’s still sort of a cult favorite. Would you still be satisfied?
MIB: On Comedy Central, it’s hard to really break out of that anyway. It’s a niche network.
MS: If we did as well as Reno, I’d be thrilled. They’ve done six seasons on Comedy Central. Personally that’s what I’d like to do: I’d like to have a job for a little while. Yes, if it could succeed on Comedy Central as well as Reno has, then I’d be overjoyed.
AVC: Finally, a status update: You’re working on a Stella movie script, right?
MS: We haven’t been lately.
MIB: Yes, we are.
MIB: It’s in the works.
AVC: And you were working on a State movie script at some point, right?
MS: All that stuff is kind of brewing, and I think in the fall when all the various DVDs and things come out, then all the planning and conversations will start up again.