Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter have been linked for almost their entire comedy careers. They met in college at NYU, performing sketch comedy in the group that would later become The State, which in turn spawned its own MTV series. They appeared together in Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter, and the comedy trio Stella, embarked on a joint stand-up tour in 2006, and both released comedy albums in 2007. Their latest project was Michael & Michael Have Issues, a joint venture that aired seven episodes on Comedy Central last summer. It was a show-within-a-show concept, with the Michaels working on a sketch show of the same name and bickering relentlessly. Now, the pair embarks on a shared stand-up bill for “Michael & Michael Have Issues Live Tour,” which makes its way to the Pantages on Thursday. The disagreeable characters Black and Showalter play on MMHI and on the stand-up stage are exaggerated versions of themselves; still, after so much time together, there’s bound to be some tension. The A.V. Club found out what issues the Michaels of Michael & Michael Have Issues, well, have.
The A.V. Club: In other interviews, you guys have stated that you’re creatively really hard on each other. When did that antagonistic relationship begin?
Michael Ian Black: It started in The State, because we were all bastards to each other. And that has carried through our entire careers.
Michael Showalter: One of the things that is always difficult about a collaboration is that you don’t necessarily find the same thing funny. And so the challenge becomes, how do you tell the other person that you don’t think something’s funny? The best collaborations tend to be when you are willing to be told that. But there’s also ego involved, and so there’s a lot of frustration in knowing that you’re writing something, and the other person, on some level, needs to think that it’s funny. One of the things that was unique about The State right off the bat was that we told each other if we didn’t think something was funny. And that has carried through.
MIB: Our arguments are always creative; they’re never personal. It’s always just business, you know? If I have to break his knee or something, that’s just business, and you need to understand that.
AVC: Have you been upset to let certain ideas or jokes go?
MIB: All the time. But as soon as you let it go, it’s gone. You fight for it, fight for it, fight for it, and then when it’s gone, you just forget about it. It’s like an abortion, you know? You get pregnant, you love the baby, and then you abort it. It’s done.
AVC: How much of this process is influenced by the fact that you’re presenting versions of yourselves on the show and in your stand-up?
MIB: Although we’re playing ourselves, I still very much feel like I’m playing a character, and it’s the character of myself. What that means is, I have to understand who I am—and you can substitute “my character” for “I”—in the context of this television show, and in the context of this television relationship. So the conversation that Showalter and I are always having is, “Would I do this here?” That character is still evolving. Any project has its own voice, and you have to find that voice.
MS: Well, there’s an episode of the show where Michael Black and I buy pot for our producer for his birthday. And Mike and I argued about this a lot, because Michael Black, the real Michael Black, felt like buying pot for somebody—Mike, you can interrupt if at any point you think I’m being inaccurate.
MIB: Oh, I will.
MS: The real Michael Black felt like buying pot for somebody’s birthday—
MIB: Particularly somebody you work with—
MS: Right. Was a totally crazy thing to do.
MIB: That’s inaccurate. Not “crazy.” Well, “crazy” is sort of the wrong word. But I would say inappropriate.
MS: Like, preposterous. Okay? The real Michael Showalter didn’t think that, doesn’t think that. I don’t think that. I think it’s a somewhat—it’s a sort of a dumb gift, but it’s not crazy at all. It’s a little bit of a funny gift. It’s like buying a woman a vibrator. It’s a little naughty, a little silly, but not outrageous at all. And I can’t remember now exactly how it manifested itself as an argument in terms of actually telling the story, but eventually the compromise was—do you remember, Mike?
MIB: In the beginning of the scripting, we were on the same page about it. You and I both agreed it would be funny or a good idea to get it for him, and I think I was saying that I would never feel that way.
MS: It bothered you. It was bothering you.
MIB: It was really bothering me. Yeah. This is a good example of how we argued and argued and argued, when we just could have said, which I think ultimately you did, “Well, okay, what would your reaction be? And then let’s just write that.”
MS: Exactly. And then the end result was, “Okay, so you’ll just react to it exactly how you would.”
AVC: I forget what the question was.
MS: This isn’t interesting at all, but for what it’s worth, that was a big creative debate that somehow took us a really long time to get to the point of just saying, “Okay, fine, so you are allowed to go along with it, but still maintain that it’s a bad idea."
AVC: Have you guys gotten better at having these debates? Is it a skill that comes as part of the creative process?
MIB: It is a skill. Absolutely. I would say, in terms of difficulty, it’s somewhere between spin art and foreign diplomacy.
MS: As long as there’s no sort of arbitrary position being taken, if that makes any sense to you, that all I need to know in any creative disagreement is that the other person isn’t arbitrarily disagreeing.
AVC: You mean just to be disagreeable?
MS: Right. Or to be a naysayer. Or to have a kneejerk reaction. Or to—
MIB: I tend to disagree with you.
MS: No, that’s not true.
MIB: No, that was a joke. I was making a joke.
MS: I know it was a joke, but it’s also not true.
AVC: How have the new show writers taken to your process, to watching you have these arguments?
MS: Well, they do, but when Mike and I argue, it’s kind of surreal.
AVC: In what way?
MS: Because it’s what the show is about, so when Mike and I actually disagree, which is, unfortunately, all the time, it’s sort of art imitating life. Or vice versa. And so people kind of almost—it’s the Michaels being Michael moment. It’s almost like proof that the show is worth making.
AVC: Some of the ways you guys poke fun at each other seem to be repeated. Like, for example, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that Showalter eats a lot of sandwiches—
MS: I’m eating one right now. I am.
AVC: What other jabs at each other have made it into your comedy?
MS: There’s sort of a list of things that are accepted areas to make fun of the other person a lot about. And one of them is that I’m fat. That Michael Black is a fame whore.
MIB: And gay. Or gay-seeming. In Showalter’s case, sandwiches is the recurring motif. As is cats.
MS: Yeah, that I have cats. That I can’t have normal human relationships, except with cats.
A portent of things to come: