Michael Ian Black
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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the comedy-nerd favorite Wet Hot American Summer, and of all the movie’s cast members—many of whom were in The State—Michael Ian Black’s ensuing career has been the most diverse. He’s performed and written for Stella and Michael & Michael Have Issues, penned the film Run, Fatboy, Run, acted in Reaper and Ed, published a book of essays called My Custom Van, published two childrens’ books, and just generally been around things that are funny. While his projects have been embraced by fans, few have hit with a larger audience; only Ed and the various VH1 talking-head shows he appeared on garnered widespread recognition. But Black’s latest project is one of his biggest yet: Very Famous, the comic’s first hourlong Comedy Central special, which was recorded at the Trocadero in March aired earlier this fall. In appreciation of Very Famous and in anticipation of his return to the Troc this Friday, Nov. 11, The A.V. Club spoke to Black about his use of “very famous,” playing caricatured versions of himself, and what really happened with Michael & Michael Have Issues.
The A.V. Club: The last time we spoke, you were also using the tagline “very famous.” Why has that stuck around?
Michael Ian Black: Because I have very few ideas. If you get an idea, you might as well stick with it until somebody calls you on it. Now that you’ve called me on it, I can retire it.
AVC: You mentioned that it was meant to be ironic. Do you still feel that way?
MIB: It’s certainly not meant to be sincere. Were it sincere, I think I’d be a very different person. I’m certainly a much more successful person and a much more famous person, but probably an even bigger douchebag than I already am.
AVC: What was it like recording your first-ever special? You’ve recorded an album before, but for this one you had to think about the taped performance first, audio second.
MIB: Right. Well, I knew for a while leading up to it that I was gonna be doing a special. So for a few months before it, I was actively constructing it in my head, going around the country doing shows and trying to figure out what it would be. Trying to construct, basically, a set I would feel good about. The first time I did the album, I guess I wasn’t as worried about it. Maybe because I know that nobody buys a comedy album, so I figured, “What difference does it make?” But I thought I’d like to do a good job with this. And so I worked pretty hard at constructing an hour of comedy, which, I guess, is the normal thing to do, but it was the first time I had done it in this way. So yeah, it was great. I mean, I’m not saying the special is great; I’m saying the process was great. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
AVC: I listened to the album before watching the special, and I was surprised how many visual jokes there were.
MIB: Well, I think my stand-up is often kind of visual. Not like Carrot Top visual, but visual. So I had to decide how much or how little to change what I was doing for the album. And I decided, ultimately, that the special was my primary focus and the album was my secondary focus, so I basically did it as is. Which isn’t to say that the album isn’t incredible. It’s in-credible! I mean, you didn’t say it, so I’ll say it for you. Steve Heisler says, “This album is incredible!” I’m sure there are moments of “I wish I could see that because it sounds funny and people are laughing, but I can’t see it.”
AVC: How much of the special was composed of ideas you had bouncing around your head for a while, and how much was built from scratch?
MIB: It was a combination of things that I’d been playing with and, in addition to that, a bunch of things that evolved as I was writing specifically for the special. It’s helpful for me as a stand-up to have some sort of goal that I’m working toward. Maybe it’s out of laziness or something, but it forces me to write more and to worry more about what I’m doing on stage. So it was really helpful knowing I was going to be doing a special in x number of months. It was good to have that deadline. It forced me to write a lot and throw out a lot and reconfigure a lot.
AVC: Having come from a sketch background as your introduction to comedy, how comfortable do you feel as a stand-up comedian now?
MIB: At this point, I feel fairly comfortable in terms of performance. I think having a sketch background actually helps a lot. Because my background is acting, and stand-up, in a lot of ways, is acting. You’re basically just doing a monologue every night. Like with acting, you’re trying to make it appear as natural and spontaneous as you possibly can, and there are times, of course, where it is natural and spontaneous and times when it’s not. And the great thing about stand-up is you’re not married to a script the way you are with a sketch troupe or in a play or whatever you’re doing. So I had that to fall back on.
AVC: Are you talking about a script in the moment when you’re performing, or you mean these are your words you’re writing for yourself?
MIB: Both. I mean, generally, my work I’m writing for myself, anyway. Or at least contributing to the writing. But with stand-up, you’re able to go off-script whenever you want and for however long you want. Having that freedom is great. Where I needed a lot of work was just figuring out how to write jokes. Like, literally, what is a joke? How do you write jokes? How do I write jokes that are specific to me? And I still don’t know if I have the answer to that.
I definitely script things out. I definitely write things down and try to write jokes. Often, they’re terrible. I often write terrible, terrible jokes. I often can’t distinguish between what’s funny when I write it on the page and what’s not. So I need audiences to help me figure that stuff out. And I think a lot of stand-up is trial and error—getting onstage and verbalizing the thing you were just playing around with in your head, or that you’d written down. And it is an organic process. That’s the thing. It’s been rare that I’ve been able to write something down, do it, have it work perfectly, and then not change a word. I don’t know if that’s ever happened. Maybe, as I progress and I get better at it, assuming I do get better at it, that’ll happen more often. But more than not, it’s me thinking of something, writing it down, trying it out and having this work and this not work, and just going up night after night and refining it. And the nice thing about it is that it never feels done. You never feel like, “Oh, mastered that bit. That bit is as perfect as it can ever be.” I haven’t gotten any of that yet. One of the things that intimidates me about doing a special is the idea of freezing something for all time. This is my stand-up. I had to get over that. I had to tell myself that this is really just a moment in time, and this is where you are in this moment and be satisfied with that. There’s so many great comedians, that to think I can compete in their arena just seems stupid to me. So I mentally removed myself from that and said that’s not important. What’s important is doing what you can do the best you can do it on this day and hopefully people will like it.
AVC: Do you feel that same apprehension about making something final when you’re working on a sketch show? Or you’re working within the other realms of TV?
MIB: No, because there’s so much terrible comedy on television. So many terrible TV shows. I always think, “Well, this TV show at least won’t be as terrible as some of the others that have been on.” But with stand-up, like these one-hour specials, they’re a big deal in a stand-up’s career. I just didn’t want to put out a half-assed product. I didn’t want to feel like I hadn’t done my job when I got done with it. Not that you ever want to feel that way with a TV show either, but maybe because I was all on my own it felt more personal. It felt like the stakes were—not higher, but different. And because it was the first time I was doing it. I don’t know. I was kind of apprehensive about the whole thing.
AVC: So does this seem more personal for you than other things you’ve done? Because in a lot of other projects you’ve worked on, you’ve played various versions of yourself. Were you more like yourself in this stand-up special than anything else?
MIB: It’s definitely moving more in the direction of me. I don’t think I would ever put my total real self onstage. Not out of fear, but just because my total real self is incredibly boring. It’s mostly just, you know, looking at the fiber content of various cereals. It’s just not that compelling. So I always feel like a character to some extent when I’m onstage or performing. Even when I’m reading my own name. This probably fees like less of a character. The least character-y that it’s been.
AVC: Do you think that character is consistent across mediums?
MIB: Oh, no. I mean, I was Michael Ian Black on Stella. And that guy was retarded. Not to use a word that has fallen out of favor, but he’s just a total retard. And the Michael Ian Black that was in Michael And Michael Have Issues had similar life circumstances to me, but really was not me at all. I don’t know. I’ve always been amused by the kind of mythology of people and the characters that they play when they’re playing themselves. I’ve always found that funny and interesting. So I don’t have any problem about using my real name and saying I’m Michael Ian Black even when I’m not. I think I was me in Reality Bites Back, and that’s just a smug asshole with my name.
AVC: What is it about the “playing a character of yourself” idea that fascinates you so much?
MIB: Well, as a kid, I watched a lot of Saturday Night Live and became interested in John Belushi and that original cast, and how they used to talk about themselves, and specifically how they talked about Belushi. You know, they talked about him as this wild man, and as this drug addict, and as this crazy person. And I was always really interested to know which of that was true and which of it wasn’t and how much it was exaggerated. And that idea of creating a self-mythology that you present to the public. As a fan, I always found that really interesting. So I guess I’ve had no problem creating these guys’ personas for myself, thinking that it would be endlessly fascinating for the millions and millions of people who adore me. As it turns out, it hasn’t been that fascinating, and there aren’t millions and millions of people who adore me.
AVC: You have a lot of credits on your IMDB page as playing the character “Michael Ian Black.”
MIB: I’m sure. On Tim & Eric, they wrote me as Dr. Michael Ian Black. I don’t know why, but they did. Most actors are generally just playing versions of themselves, anyway, even when their character names are different. I mean, Tom Hanks more or less plays Tom Hanks, it seems like, in every movie that he does. And we love him for it. So I don’t know. I think it’s also the idea of reality television and that’s sort of intruding upon the larger culture and it’s very hard to distinguish fact from fiction now. Maybe it always was.
AVC: Well, reality television was never real.
MIB: I don’t know what’s real anymore. I’m just on my own trip here.
AVC: Can you tell me a little bit about what happened with Michael And Michael Have Issues? There seemed to be some real animosity between you guys and Comedy Central near the end, yet you’re working with them on this special.
MIB: Well, I think one of the reasons I’m doing a special for them now is that they feel guilty. I honestly think they feel bad. I think they feel like they kind of fucked us over, and I would be loath to disagree with them. You know, I have a lot of good relationships with people at Comedy Central. I’ve known a lot of them for many, many years. So I’m trying to be as diplomatic as I can about it. About saying that they fucked us over. ’Cause they did. It wasn’t so much that they cancelled us—although, I think, as objectively as I can, that it was a mistake. Because if you think the show was good, the ratings were fine, those are generally only two criteria that you use to pick up the show. I guess you could say the reviews. The reviews were good. It was on budget. There’s nothing you could point to at that show and say, “This doesn’t deserve to be on our air.” If you had a checklist of criteria for picking up a show, it would have checked off every box on that list. Arguably, the only thing would be ratings, and arguably, that’s the most important thing. But the ratings, as I said, were fine. And on a network like Comedy Central where you’re only doing six or seven episodes in a season, to evaluate your audience based on those six or seven episodes seems a little shortsighted. Particularly when you’re premièring something in the summer when nobody’s watching your network. And when your whole network’s ratings are trending down, which they were at that time. I don’t know if they still are. I’m not paying attention.
AVC: I think Tosh.0 single-handedly saved that.
MIB: That’s probably true, and that’s another show that was almost cancelled. And the only reason it wasn’t was because it was so much cheaper than the other show that they just felt like they couldn’t lose money if they kept it on. And then it evolved into a hit. The knock on Comedy Central, rightfully or wrongly—I say rightfully—is that they do not stick with any of their shows. They throw things on there, they perform however they perform, and then they pull ’em off. And you know, as an interested party in what Comedy Central does, I would argue that that’s a mistake. And I’m not saying anything to you that I haven’t said to them, and that millions of people haven’t said to them. It’s a mistake. Internally, they say it’s a mistake. And then they keep doing it.
MIB: I don’t know why. You’d have to ask them. I don’t understand their programming strategy. My best guess is they just like to swing for the fences every time. They’re just hoping for homeruns every time they put a show on the air, and you know, that’s just not gonna happen. You need doubles and singles. You need other shows to build a lineup. To build a whole programming block. And then some of those shows that you initially thought, “Oh, they’re just gonna be these solid, small performers for us” can grow and turn into bigger hits. But you have to get behind them and you have to support them. I’m just speaking generally. I’m not speaking about our show, specifically, but I think our show was certainly a victim of that mindset. So that was obviously very upsetting to Michael [Showalter] and I because we felt like we had over-delivered on what we had promised them. We really thought we gave them an excellent, excellent show. We thought we gave them a show that was everything we said it would be. We thought it was smart, we thought it was funny, we thought the writing was good, and we thought, moreover, that it had a lot of room to grow. And I guess they just didn’t see it that way.
Now, the way they cancelled us was worse in that they waited until the very end of our contract to pull the plug, which was six or eight months or something after we finished. And that’s a long time to be sitting on our hands and a long time to be told, “Don’t worry about it. We’re gonna pick you up. We’re gonna pick you up.” Or, you know, they didn’t use those words, specifically. They were alluding to it, certainly. And to be told to come in and write scripts and then to be unceremoniously shown the door was painful. So, you know, I don’t have a personal problem with anybody there. I do have a professional problem with them. They know it. Does that mean I’ll never work with them again? No. I would be reluctant to get into a television series deal with them. I would need—I don’t know. It would be hard to go into another development situation with them.
AVC: When I spoke to Norm MacDonald, he was actively saying that he didn’t like his special, that he only did it because they told him to, that he didn’t care, etc. He said all this in front of Comedy Central’s publicists, and they didn’t seem to mind. Clearly, they’re still happy to be in business with people who have problems with them.
MIB: Well, I’m speculating now, but I would think there are a lot of comedians out there who are very weary of Comedy Central. And I think Comedy Central needs to be very careful if they move forward about alienating the entire community. Because everybody talks, and everybody sees what happens to people like Norm who are really well-respected people. You look at that and you go, “[Sigh.] Do I really want to get into business with a company that just doesn’t support their own programming or doesn’t seem to believe in their own programming?” They find themselves in a difficult situation and I wish them luck. I hope they figure it out for themselves. I don’t know how they’ll do that, but I hope they figure out something. Because it’s a network that should be a home for comedians. It should be a place where comedians feel like they can do their best work and that they’re going to be supported and unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case right now.
AVC: You mentioned on Twitter at one point that you had TV AIDS, or something to that effect.
MIB: I think I said I am TV AIDS. I haven’t figured out a way to be on television and not get the show cancelled. So I would say AIDS is actually less life-threatening than I am at this point. You can live with AIDS now. For years! You can’t necessarily live by putting me on your television show.
AVC: Is this something you’ve had to come to terms with?
MIB: Yeah, of course. I’ve come to grips with it a long time ago. I had a lot of disappointments, particularly with Comedy Central, because I also thought Stella was really great and special. But whatever. I’ve moved on and obviously they’ve moved on, too, because they’ve cancelled many television series that didn’t feature me.
AVC: Do you feel like you would have to really go out of your way to do another series with anybody at this point?
MIB: No, not at all. Of course not. I mean, my job is to make television shows and whatever else people will let me make. No, I am currently thinking about a new television show and hopefully something will give me the opportunity to make it.
AVC: Are you talking about The Black List, which you pitched to E!, or a different show?
MIB: A different show.
AVC: What’s happening with The Black List?
MIB: It didn’t get picked up. That was another network that said “No, thank you” to my talent.
AVC: At what point does it start to feel personal?
MIB: I think it felt, in a way, more personal in the beginning than it does now. Because I feel like, in a weird way, I know who I am. I know that I’m capable of being funny. I know that I’ve had 20 years in this business at this point, doing what I do with varying levels of success. You know, I’m not gonna change. I’m always gonna be who I am, and I can only do that. So if it’s not a good fit for whatever network I’m with in that moment, so be it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a reflection of my ability.
AVC: As of this interview, you’re about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Wet Hot American Summer in Brooklyn. What has been your experience leading up to the event—the notion that this work, of all your work, has endured?
MIB: I think all performers, when you’re in it long enough, you live with your body of work. You just carry it around with you. So I’ve been carrying around, for example, The State for 20 years. And I’m still happy to talk about The State and I’m still happy to do things with The State, I’m still happy to be associated with The State.
AVC: On a live episode of WTF With Marc Maron, you went off on a rant against Marc. How much of that was how you really felt, and how much of that was you ramping up your emotions for the stage?
MIB: Marc and I have a relationship that I think a lot of people have with Marc. [Laughs.] So I have a relationship that a lot of people have with Marc or maybe had with Marc, which is kind of defined by his seething resentment toward all other people. We broke into the alternative comedy scene at roughly the same time. He was a couple years older. And he always resented people from The State because he felt like we were sort of intruding on his turf. And as a consequence, he was kind of a dick to us for many years. And yet, we were still friends. You know, you have those friends where they’re just kinda dicks to you, and yet you like them anyway. That’s how it is with Marc. So the way it was onstage when I did his podcast was, I would say, 50/50 kidding around and being serious. Our relationship is better now than it was earlier. And I think both of us have matured a lot. Both of us have mellowed out a lot. And with all his success with the podcast, I think he’s feeling a little better about himself. I think his podcast is tremendous.
AVC: What was the impetus behind your idea for the podcast Mike And Tom Eat Snacks?
MIB: It was just that Tom Cavanagh and I, we were on Ed together, have remained friends, and we always said it would be great to do something together, but we didn’t have anything to do. And a podcast just seems, literally, like the easiest thing to do. “We could do this. It would be easy. And then we could hang out.” That’s all it is. It’s an opportunity for us to hang out once a week. But it was also specific in that we both do like snacks. We both have opinions about snacks. Other people have opinions about snacks, and we knew it would be a springboard for talking about whatever else we wanted to talk about. It gave it just enough focus that we felt like it wouldn’t just be a rambling half-hour or hour of meaningless content. But there’s still plenty of room for meaningless content in the podcast. But let me tell you something: Since I started eating snacks critically, I’ve really developed a whole new appreciation for the snack game.
AVC: Really? In what way?
MIB: You know, I’m very appreciative of a company that makes a good snack now. I used to take it for granted. I don’t anymore.
AVC: It’s an elusive thing, a great snack.
MIB: It really is. There’s a lot of things that have to go absolutely right for a snack to succeed. And there’s so many pitfalls along the way you can fall into. So for the Snickers of the world, the Häagen-Dazs, the ice creams of the world, I tip my hat to you.