Michael Ian Black on the many versions of “himself”

Michael Ian Black on the many versions of “himself”

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Michael Ian Black’s IMDB page lists 53 separate film and television projects where the actor, writer, and member of the influential comedy troupe The State has appeared as “himself.” Many of these are the type of talk-show appearances a performer acquires over a two-decade-plus career, one of which includes his 2004 tryout to replace Craig Kilborn as host of The Late Late Show. But Black has also played a handful of caricatured versions of himself, as on the Comedy Central series Michael & Michael Have Issues. (Of course, there’s an additional layer of remove to those credits, since the actor was born Michael Schwartz and adopted the last name Black to avoid confusion with showbiz Michael Schwartzes.) On the occasion of Black’s newest gig where he’s credited under his stage name—TBS’ Trust Me, I’m A Game Show Host, a quiz show in which he and D.L. Hughley compete to persuade contestants that they, and not their co-host, have the correct answers—The A.V. Club spoke to him about playing several different guys named Michael Ian Black.

Trust Me I’m A Game Show Host (2013)—Himself
The A.V. Club: The last time you spoke with The A.V. Club, you talked briefly about playing caricatured versions of yourself: “I always feel like a character to some extent when I’m on stage or performing, even when I’m reading my own name.” Did it feel this way with Trust Me, I’m A Game Show Host? 

Michael Ian Black: To a certain extent, because it’s such an artificial environment. Hosting a game show is so bizarre and uniquely its own thing. Anytime I’m hosting something, I try to bring as much of myself to it as I can, but it’s always going to be incomplete. As a game-show host, what I’m thinking and what I’m experiencing doesn’t matter. My opinion doesn’t matter. So there’s a flattened reality to it. It’s fun to do. But it’s certainly not myself in totality—or even maybe a little bit.

AVC: So would you say this is the closest to your full self that you’ve brought to a project like this?

MIB: No, I think doing stand-up is the closest, because there are no rules and there’s no architecture. Hosting a show, even a talk show or a game show, there’s so much business you have to conduct. There’s so much guiding you have to do. You have to lead, in the case of a game show, a contestant through the architecture of the show. So there’s a lot of rules there, literal and implied, that you have to navigate. Whereas with stand-up, there’s none of that. You can be as freeform as you want to be. You can say what you want, how you want, at any moment without constraint.

AVC: And like you said, there’s no room to express opinion as a game-show host, whereas stand-up is all opinion.

MIB: With the game show, I can say to the contestant, “You’re an idiot,” and that might actually be my opinion. [Laughs.] But it’s a very narrow pinhole that I can express myself through. And that’s fine. As I said, it’s really fun. With D.L. Hughley and I, it was just purely about making jokes and banter and interacting with the contestants and I had a great time doing it, but it’s definitely a fairly constrained version of myself.

AVC: So where did you draw the line between helping the contestants toward the right answer and keeping the show entertaining?

MIB: Well, the way the show is structured, one of us is telling the truth and one of us is lying and we’re both trying to get the contestant to pick us. So to really play the game, it’s not so much about trying to get the contestant to pick the right answer as it is to get the contestant to pick me and what I’m saying—to believe what I’m saying, whether it’s true or false. There are times when you feel sort of bad, when you know you’re lying to the contestant, and you can see that they’re going to pick you and you feel bad. I did want the contestants to win money. But at the same time, my own ego demanded that they pick me because I care more about my ego than I care about their money.

The State (1993-1995)—Various
AVC: All of this hosting, in and out of character, did it originate with the On-Air Personalityon The State?

MIB: Yeah. In fact, as those pieces were originally written, instead of calling myself “An On-Air Personality,” I called myself Michael Ian Black. And the group was like, “You can’t do that because we don’t do that.” [Laughs.] “We don’t call attention to ourselves as individuals.” The compromise was that I would call myself “An On-Air Personality.” It was all about the idea of myth-making and creating a mythology around who we were as performers and who our on-air characters were versus who our actual personalities were, and to blend those two ideas and create confusion, or at least questions, in the mind of the viewers of what is true and what isn’t. And that was really deliberate. 

AVC: Who were your models for that persona?

MIB: For the character itself, I don’t know. But for the idea, it was early SNL—and John Belushi, specifically—in the way cast members would talk on air about John Belushi and his drug habits. I find it really interesting, as a viewer, to not know what was true and what wasn’t. As a result, the cast fascinated me because they seemed to be living their real lives on air. It made me like them more as performers, even when—and maybe because—they weren’t saying flattering things about each other. 

AVC: Do you think it’s easier or more difficult these days to cultivate that myth?

MIB: Oh, it’s much easier, because you have so many more avenues to do it. I mean, that’s all Twitter is. Twitter is about creating whatever persona you want to create and either sticking with it or changing it or evolving it or contradicting it, and I’ve done all that stuff. It’s such a deliberate thing to sit down and write a tweet. You’re putting yourself out there in a very deliberate way, and over however many tweets, you start to create a character for yourself. The characters that I have on Twitter have very little resemblance to me, the person who’s writing them. And I think that’s also true for someone like Rob Delaney who has created this juggernaut on Twitter.

AVC: The members of The State may have been wary of calling attention to themselves as individuals, yet there was On-Air Personality, there were sketches like the “Sleep With The State” contest. Did you feel like you became the de facto spokesperson for the troupe?

MIB: Not by choice. The way it worked was those “On-Air Personality” pieces led to those “Hi, we’re The State” pieces, which I always wrote because it was just a continuation of the same thing for me. The way it worked in The State, generally, was whoever wrote it starred in it. If I were to do it over again, I would probably put myself less in the “Hi, we’re The State” pieces. But I also think I was the most comfortable doing those. I’ve always been very comfortable just staring into a camera and talking. I think other members of the group weren’t really as comfortable doing that. It made sense that I would take those.

Stella (2005)—“Michael”
Wanderlust (2012)—Himself
AVC: What was it about the connection between yourself, Michael Showalter, and David Wain that you wanted to channel through the Stella stage show, the shorts, and eventually the TV series?

MIB: It was more a function of geography than anything else. By the time we started getting serious about Stella, much of The State had already moved to L.A. We were kind of the only three left. And we had a good working relationship, and we enjoyed being with each other—but there wasn’t anything inherent about the three of us versus anybody else in The State that would have predetermined that we would work together. When we did The State, we all wrote in different groups. There weren’t really cliques; we would all work with each other at different times and write with each other at different times and act with each other and whatever. There were sensibilities that matched up better with each other, but I don’t think I wrote anything with Michael Showalter for The State that made it to air. 

AVC: What’s unique about the Stella version of Michael Ian Black? 

MIB: It’s pure id. That was the fun of Stella: They’re three totally id-driven imbeciles who run around and gratify every single impulse that they have. They’re not even children—they’re amoebas. They’re just pure idiots. So the fact that we called ourselves by our names was more or less arbitrary. There certainly wasn’t anything honest about it. In my mind, it’s a little charming that we used our actual names. But there was nothing in the videos or the television show that reflected anything that had to do with ourselves. The only reason we used our real names is because when we did our nightclub show, we would host it as ourselves. So we started making these videos, and because we were still the host, we were playing ourselves. When it came time to do the TV show, it was encoded in the DNA of Stella that we never even thought of changing our names.

AVC: What you ended up writing for the TV show had deliberateness to it, but it seems like it evolved very organically—as if it arrived fully formed.

MIB: I wouldn’t say it came out fully formed. It evolved during the run of our nightclub show. When we finally brought it to television, we knew what it was. But there was a lot of thought behind it. In a weird way, it was the most analytical thing I’ve ever done. It was very highly structured, it was very deliberate, it was very written, and you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it, because it looks so anarchic. All of the anarchy presented was very, very, very controlled. And as a result, I’m really proud of Stella the TV show. I think it’s pretty much universally overlooked as a quality comedy show, [Laughs.] which is fine. I guess I’m more or less resigned to that happening. But I think that there’s so much good about it that came from all of that thought and from all of those lengthy and, sometimes, interminable conversations that we would have with each other.

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AVC: How did it feel to step back into those personas to play the news anchors in Wanderlust?

MIB: Great. I mean it’s something we all enjoy doing. It’s really fun for us. We’ve done it for so long, and we have such easy shorthand with each other right now that any time we have the opportunity to do it, we enjoy it. It’s just a good time for us. We’re always talking about going on tour. We just haven’t done it.

I Love The… (2002-2008)—Himself
AVC: Was there a sense from the start that it could end up being a recurring gig?

MIB: No. That was never discussed or even thought of.

AVC: How did your approach to the decades specials change as they went on?

MIB: They didn’t. I kind of codified it a little bit for myself, but the thing I did from the very beginning was the thing I did all the way through, which was very deadpan, monotone performance. It just seemed to work.

AVC: In that deadpan performance, did it feel like you developed a distinct persona for the I Love The… specials? Or was it just riffing?

MIB: It was all just riffing. I didn’t know what anyone else was doing, and I was actually surprised, when I finally saw it, that more people weren’t doing what I was doing. I thought everybody was doing what I was doing, which was just shit on the whole thing and make fun of it. [Laughs.] I was very surprised how many people were earnestly reminiscing about the ’80s. It’s such a stupid thing to do [Laughs.] to, like, be honestly invested in nostalgia. It never even occurred to me to do that. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel that way. So I was just looking for jokes. Any place I could find a joke. I feel like a few of us that did that—Hal Sparks and Mo Rocca and myself—I feel like the show sort of shifted its tone in that direction after the initial batch, so people started joking around more. The initial one was kind of a mix of earnest nostalgia and a little bit of joking, and then it became mostly about joking and a little bit of earnest nostalgia. Honestly, I didn’t even know if what I was doing was funny in any way, shape, or form. I was just sitting in a room with a couple of other people for four hours at a stretch, opening my mouth and talking, and hoping something usable was coming out. I left a lot of those days going, “Oh, that was terrible. I didn’t do anything worthwhile.”

AVC: The people in the room didn’t give you much feedback?

MIB: Sometimes they did, but even when people are laughing that’s not necessarily a good indication of what’s going to end up on the air. You just don’t know.

Michael & Michael Have Issues (2009)—Himself
AVC: Some online sources have this originating as Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand—is that a case of the Internet being wrong?

MIB: Totally different. Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand was a topical pilot that I did for Comedy Central that I asked Showalter to work on with me, and he did. But no, it didn’t have anything to do with the series Michael & Michael Have Issues.

AVC: When did you and Showalter come up with this idea for the sketch show?

MIB: Probably during that process, because he was interested in there being a backstage element of Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand, which was kind of a talk show—stuff with us communicating backstage or seeing me communicate backstage with whoever. I think that impulse he did with The Michael Showalter Showalter, which is his web show, and then we sort of expanded on that idea when we pitched Michael & Michael Have Issues.

AVC: Was there ever any worry that you were making the Michaels in the backstage segments of the show too unlikeable? 

MIB: Not from my point of view. I’m always drawn to cantankerous characters and people who do unlikeable things and people who are cruel. To me, that can be really funny. I saw no need, particularly on a network like Comedy Central, for them to be redemptive characters in any way. I like how childish they were with each other and petty and jealous.

AVC: In all this time working in show business, have you come across a lot of people in real life who act like that?

MIB: No, actually. It’s such a stereotype of show business people, but in general I usually find they’re pretty lovely and generous. 

Reality Bites Back (2008)—Himself
AVC: This show made no pretenses about being partially scripted. Of the material that made the final cut, what was unscripted and what was staged?

MIB: Well, I never saw the final cut. I tend not to watch things I’m in, because my own fucking face makes me cringe every time I see it. But in terms of balancing reality show and comedy show and, I guess, game show—the premise was we’re just going to send up reality shows with an actual reality show featuring comedians doing really dumb stuff and I’ll host it, in my “snarky host” role. 

I was a little bit reticent about doing the job, because I thought it would be hard to pull off—I wouldn’t say reality shows are self-parodying, but they almost are. They’re so dumb that I thought it would be hard to really make fun of them in a smart way, but I was sort of surprised, because I felt like we did a pretty good job of it. The comedians were really funny, and I thought, for the most part, that they were taking the competition seriously enough so that you felt like it mattered to them—even though what they were competing for was so stupid. I felt like it ended up working, and I was sort of surprised that it didn’t catch on a little bit more than it did. What I’ve heard and from what I’ve read—and the little bit that I did see—it was funny.

AVC: Did you feel like the show seized on the natural competitiveness that exists between comedians?

MIB: I think if you put any people in a situation and tell them to compete, they will. I think people just love to win, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of comedians on Reality Bites Back or a bunch of, I don’t know, whores on Wipeout. I say “whores” in the sense of people who are just desperate to be on television. Not necessarily actual prostitutes. 

AVC: Although that can’t be far off.

MIB: They already did Gigolos. That’s a very good show. In the sense that it’s unbearably terrible, but stupidly compelling to watch. 

AVC: How much has your experience on Reality Bites Back informed your performance of Bill Tundle on Burning Love?

MIB: They were pretty similar, but only because I’m really only capable of doing that one thing. I don’t have a very large wheelhouse. Like, I can be a snarky Asshole, or I can be sort of mentally impaired. It’s very hard for me to just be normal human being.

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