Michael Ian Black
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You have to hand it to Michael Ian Black: He knows how to make an entrance. "Hi, I'm Michael Ian Black—very famous," he says at the beginning of Reality Bites Back, the spoof-soaked reality competition he's hosting for Comedy Central starting July 17. That self-promoting tone carries through his new collection of humorous essays, My Custom Van… And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face. (Chapters include "Announcing the Imminent Arrival of the Handlebar Mustache Certain People Said I'd Never Be Able to Grow" and "How to Approach the Sensitive Question: Anal?") The words contain a lot of mock-cockiness, but of all the former performers from MTV's beloved sketch comedy The State, Black is most likely to be recognized. He's acted on Ed and Reaper; done stints on Stella, Viva Variety, and in the cast of Wet Hot American Summer; penned the Run Fatboy Run screenplay (with help from its star, Simon Pegg); and served as editor-at-large of Cracked magazine. Plus, he's an I Love The… golden boy, having appeared on almost all of the series' VH1 iterations. Recently, The A.V. Club chatted with Black about his disdain for David Sedaris, critics, reality-TV starlets, and people who mistake him for a member of Kids In The Hall.
The A.V. Club: What's your involvement with Reality Bites Back? Was the concept of poking fun at reality shows pretty fleshed out when they brought you on board, or was it something you helped develop?
Michael Ian Black: They figured it all out and then I think went through the list of people who they didn't want to host it, and then finally got to me. Once I was on board, they pretty much let me do what I wanted, which was to act like a smug asshole, which is pretty much all I'm capable of doing. So I was playing to my wheelhouse.
AVC: The show is a meta-commentary on reality TV. When did we reach the reality meta-commentary tipping point?
MIB: That's a far more thoughtful question than I have a thoughtful answer to. I will say this: I was concerned going in that it wouldn't necessarily be clear that we were mocking [reality TV], so much as we are straight-up doing it, because it's hard to be more debasing and humiliating than those shows already are. And I haven't actually seen it yet, so I don't even know that we succeeded. The people who are paid to say we did, say we did. But that's their job to say that.
The reason it was interesting to me at all was because I find it so upsetting and bewildering that somebody would willingly put themselves in a situation where they know they are going to be the subject of abject humiliation… for what? To be on TV? I've just never understood that equation. I mean, for me, the reason I'm on television is to fill the hole in my heart that can never be filled. But most people don't have that hole, or if they do, they try to fill it with food. So I don't know why some people feel the need to be on television—it doesn't really affect your life. I don't know if people think that's going to make their lives better in any way, shape, or form. Coming from someone who's been on television for the better part of a decade, it really doesn't. I mean, don't get me wrong—it's incredible.
AVC: But you slowly worked your way up, step by step. For these people, suddenly being on TV is like winning the lottery.
MIB: But the thing is, when you win the lottery, you get money. So that has a purpose. Most of the time, you don't win anything on reality shows. You're booted off, or maybe you win $50,000, or $100,000, which isn't really life-changing. I don't know that it's worth it. And with a lot of these shows, like The Bachelor and shit like that, where you're trying to be somebody's concubine, I've just never understood this.
AVC: So you wanted to be on the show because you felt it was a way to comment on reality TV?
MIB: Well, I thought it was a good opportunity to do a pretty satirical commentary about the status of our fame-obsessed culture. In addition to that, I just finished my basement and didn't know how I was going to pay for it. I'm not saying my desire to do a satirical commentary on the state of our culture trumped my desire to pay for my basement. It was probably the other way around.
AVC: After maintaining a steady stream of posts on your blog, writing a book seems almost archaic; why slow down?
MIB: Well, I guess I'm old-fashioned. I just feel like a book legitimizes you. Anybody can write a blog, but how many people can write a book? As it happens, tens of thousands. Many, many people can write books, I just happen to be one of them. It never occurred to me to put all of my effort into a blog—maybe I just don't know how I would do that. Having a book is cool; I just wanted to have a book.
AVC: As far as your literary feud with David Sedaris, which you've chronicled on your blog: Was he the target from the get-go?
MIB: No, it just sort of occurred to me to start a feud with David Sedaris, to draw attention to myself. He seemed like he'd be a good choice because he's so beloved. If you're going to attack someone, you might as well attack someone who's beloved. Because he's not an obvious target. It'd be like going after Tom Hanks. What's the point? Everybody loves Tom Hanks. Well, everybody loves David Sedaris, so he's got a fucking bull's-eye on his ass.
AVC: You had a contest asking blog readers to vilify Sedaris. What were some of the extreme replies you couldn't publish?
MIB: There was one that called him The Spedophile, and I though, "That's not really what I'm trying to do here." It was all supposed to be good-natured—I don't want to take this to a place of ugliness.
AVC: Has he said anything to you?
MIB: No, he doesn't know me, he wouldn't say something to someone he doesn't know. I don't even know if I would recognize him on the street, and I'm almost certain he wouldn't recognize me.
AVC: You've certainly been getting a lot of attention.
MIB: Well that was the idea: to start a fake feud, to express mock outrage, and hopefully that would translate into sales. And now it's getting attention. Is it turning into sales? No, not at all. But at least now people associate me with David Sedaris is a way that they never did before. That's got to be worth something.
AVC: You've done TV, stand-up, film, writing. Which medium has the harshest critics?
MIB: I think people hate me pretty much across the board, which is nice. I mean, it's a pretty evenhanded loathing among a certain amount of the critical population, which used to be about 80 percent. So now I've gotten to the point where I just don't worry about it that much. It used to be very upsetting, now it's only mildly upsetting.
AVC: Upsetting in what way?
MIB: Well, 'cause it hurts my feelings. It always feels personal because the work is so personal. When you're writing something, and you're putting yourself out there, or you're performing and someone comes in and savages that, then of course it feels personal. It doesn't feel like it's just business, because there's no business—it's not like we're conducting business, this anonymous critic and I. It's just that this person is tearing me a new asshole. It doesn't feel professional, it does feel personal. I guess I don't really take it personally anymore. I've developed a thicker hide.
AVC: What if they love what you're doing?
MIB: Same thing, I don't take it personally. My feeling is, if you're not going to take the criticism seriously, then you can't really take the praise personally. There are times where I agree with the critics who dislike something, and there are times when I don't. And times where I agree with someone who likes something, and times when I don't. I take it for what it is, and sometimes the criticism is actually useful and constructive and actually informs what I do, but most of the time, it's sort of mindless, or they're receiving something on a different frequency than I was sending it. They're just not getting what I'm doing, and that's fine. The thing about comedy is that everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor, and they do, to them. Everyone finds their own shit funny, so it's entirely understandable that something I find funny, someone else might not. But it's worth saying that plenty of people like what I do.
AVC: You've held so many roles over your career. At this point, when does something truly stand out for you?
MIB: Any time I am involved in something from conception to execution, that's obviously a lot more personal, and I'm going to be more invested in it than something where I just show up for a couple days, shoot, and leave. Ed was that way. I was a regular character on it, but I didn't feel proprietary toward it. You know, if someone said "I like Ed," my instinct would be to say, "Yeah, they do a great job." It didn't feel like mine. Even Run Fatboy Run, which I wrote, by the time it came out, I was so far removed from it that I didn't feel proprietary toward that, either. It feels like their movie.
AVC: You made a joke online that Comedy Central is one of the only networks that will hire you. You've been on a few others, but not a ton. Are you finding it hard to branch out?
MIB: No, but I haven't really tried. It's just more like I know people over at Comedy Central. It's sort of a half-joke. I think they are inclined to want to do business with me, and I think they think I can do something for their network, and I think it's a good home for me. But I don't think NBC is banging down my door to have me be on any of their shows. I don't know why. I have a very hard time seeing myself in this business, meaning, I don't have an objective sense of who I am in the industry. I generally feel like a nobody, which is why I say "very famous," which is obviously ironic. I don't know if people really know me in this business. And if they do, the phone certainly isn't ringing off the hook with tons of offers saying, "Look, I'm dying for you to be in this or that, or work with us on this or that." It just doesn't happen.
AVC: How hard is it to make that happen?
MIB: I don't think it's impossible, I just think it depends. My career's very fucking weird. There are a small amount of people who know who I am, and a large amount of people that just have no fucking idea, and I don't blame them. I wouldn't be paying attention to me either.
AVC: And that bothers you?
MIB: Of course I'd rather be better known, not just because I want to be famous, but because it's a lot easier to work. I mean, my goal is to work. That's the goal of most actors or performers: to work and keep working, and do the best you can, and keep growing and changing, trying to improve your craft. And for the longest time, I didn't even know what my craft was. I didn't know if I was an actor, or a comedian, and I think now, finally, I have sort of carved out a niche for myself, sort of a brand that I'm in the process of developing. And the book is a reflection of that. There's starting to be a kind of comedy that I'm associated with, in a more specific way than just a comedian. And I think the descriptive term that they would use is "hilarious." The hilarious kind of comedy.
AVC: It must be challenging to break away from being known with the rest of the State crew.
MIB: Yeah, it is. And I shouldn't complain. I've been working in this industry basically since I was 21 years old, almost without pause. It's just that you get to a certain point, and you're sort of like, "Okay, I've been this cult figure for the last 10, 15 years, I'd like to either get a slightly larger cult, or move more into the mainstream." Just because that feels like the trajectory of a career, because you want to keep moving forward. I don't necessarily want to be this fringe guy for the rest of my life.
AVC: Speaking of guys who became famous when they were young, are you sick of all the comparisons of The State to Kids In The Hall? And more specifically, the comparisons between you and Bruce McCulloch?
MIB: What's funny is, I often get stopped on the street for being in Kids In The Hall. I get recognized as much for being in Kids In The Hall as for anything I've actually been in. And so now it's gotten to the point where I just say "Thank you," and keep walking. Because if I say that I wasn't in Kids In The Hall, they'll just tell me to shut up.
AVC: There's a book out now in which "very famous" people write six-word memoirs. What would yours say?
MIB: "Michael, he once was a puppet." Or would it be better to say, "I once was a sock puppet?"