On his WTF podcast, Marc Maron has an amusing conception of beloved ’90s sketch-comedy group The State as an assemblage of twentysomething pied pipers who hypnotized their young and suggestible MTV audience into following them down whatever weird path or detour their careers might take. In a fascinatingly tense conversation with Maron, Michael Ian Black is quick to point out that his fame is incredibly relative.
Black is arguably the most famous alumnus of The State and its suit-wearing splinter group Stella (Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain). From his early days on The State, he’s made being famous, vain, narcissistic, and relentlessly self-promoting the cornerstones of his decidedly meta persona as “Michael Ian Black.” He even named his second stand-up comedy album Very Famous. His first was the equally mock-hubristic I Am A Wonderful Man. Black may be a ubiquitous superstar in the corner of pop culture that The A.V. Club inhabits and a regular presence on cable and in television commercials, but as Black wryly, self-deprecatingly notes on WTF, to much of the country his career peaked with being “seventh on the call sheet” on the successful network television show Ed.
Nowhere is the nature of Black’s fame more apparent than in the way Comedy Central treated his last television vehicle, 2009’s short-lived Michael And Michael Have Issues. Black and co-creator, co-star, and fellow State alum Michael Showalter did everything short of financing the show themselves and paying Comedy Central to show it in order to keep it on the air. And how did Comedy Central reward them? By quietly cancelling the show after only seven episodes, then even more quietly releasing the show on DVD with an unfortunately appropriate image of Black and Showalter looking bruised, bloodied, and beat-up—yet upbeat—on the cover and nothing in the way of deleted scenes, audio commentaries, or any other bonus features. For all the thought and care Comedy Central put into the DVDs, it might as well have just stamped the show’s name on a white background and called it a day.
Where Black and Showalter’s previous Comedy Central show Stella was prohibitively expensive to film—in part because it had such cinematic production values—Michael And Michael Have Issues was designed to be as cheap and easy to film as possible. It boasts a writing staff of four (Black, Showalter, and the talented comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Jessi Klein, both of whom also co-star), takes place largely in an office, and, for the benefit of youngsters hypnotized ages ago by The State’s Dr. Caligari-like powers, features sketches in the style of the MTV cult show that introduced Black and Showalter to the world. MMHI was supposed to give the duo’s loyal audience everything it wanted: State-style sketches as well as the beloved “Michael Ian Black” meta-persona the comedian and writer refined during his countless high-profile appearances on VH1 shows with decades and the words “I Love” in their titles. (Black and Showalter even downsized their group from a trio to a duo out of deference to the public’s blinding hatred of David Wain, whom we all now can agree has usurped Jimmy Carter’s place as history’s greatest monster.) MMHI did everything in its power to be a surefire commercial proposition—except feature protagonists who weren’t borderline-sociopathic in their raging narcissism and inability to empathize with other people.
A masterpiece of passive-aggression and barely concealed hostility, MMHI is essentially about horrible people doing terrible things to each other under the guise of being best friends and co-workers. Like SCTV by way of Mr. Show, it chronicles the backstage antics at a sketch-comedy show hosted by Black and Showalter, with the pair’s longtime friendship providing a convenient, if not particularly convincing cover for their vicious mutual contempt. Scenes of passive-aggressive behind-the-scenes warfare alternate with sketches from the show-within-the-show and hosting segments where the duo speak directly into the camera to discuss important issues.
In the first episode, Black imperiously announces that he will not be available to talk to a high-school intern named Greg because his therapist has told him he’s too much of a “people-pleaser” and consequently has a problem saying no, though he’s not too much of a “people-pleaser” to actually talk to a lowly intern directly. (Instead, he uses his producer as an intermediary.) Black doesn’t just reject talking to the high-schooler himself; he also insists that he and Showalter are a “package deal” and neither will talk to the intern.
Showalter feels differently, so when Black discovers that his co-star might be getting a slight edge on him in the all-important realm of the high-school-newspaper entertainment press, Black lies down on the floor where Showalter is being interviewed so that he can both hear and see the conversation between Showalter and the intern. It’s a gloriously excessive, unnecessary gesture, since there is nothing to be gained by seeing the interview; it’s not as if Showalter is going to be giving the awkward young man a handjob while he mouths bland platitudes about his show.
Black is suddenly obsessed with winning Greg The Intern over. He invites Greg to dinner and sends Showalter the sort of taunting text messages a bitchy 12-year-old girl might send a rival:
HAVIN DINNER W/GREG.LOL.
SO MUCH FUN!
And then finally a photo of him with Greg The Intern with the message “GREG & BLACK BFF! :)”
In playing such vain, unrepentant narcissists, Black and Showalter give performances free of vanity and narcissism. They are gloriously unencumbered by dignity or self-respect and willing to make themselves—or rather their fictionalized doppelgangers—look like petty, jealous, insecure little bitches, as evidenced by this clip where Showalter, driven to rage by Black’s efforts to usurp his place in Greg’s heart, takes off his shirt for no discernible reason (revealing a formidable gut) and challenges Black to a fight. Black accepts, and rips off his shirt for equally nonsensical reasons, and the two engage in something that more closely resembles an amateur, deeply uninformed attempt at capoeira. This establishes a pattern the show would return to again and again: Black and Showalter engage in fierce passive-aggressive competition that eventually escalates into outright hostility and/or doing awful things to each other.
After being chastised by their producers, Black and Showalter then unite against their real enemy: Greg The Intern, whom they fire for no real reason, but not before making him get them lunch. In MMHI, Black and Showalter are only interested in other people to the extent that they can feed their egos and senses of superiority. They’re essentially petty, small-minded little girls in the bodies of middle-aged men, and their co-workers and producer barely tolerate them.
The next two episodes, “Biederman’s Birthday” and “Matchmakers,” revolve around Black and Showalter coldly betraying each other and their coworkers under the guise of helping them out. When Black and Showalter learn that it’s their producer Biederman’s (Josh Pais) birthday, they decide to score their uptight boss some weed to mellow him out. This process involves lurking conspicuously in the park where Showalter convinces Black to approach a mustached, jersey-wearing middle-aged man under the exquisitely misguided logic that anyone who so clearly looks like a cop couldn’t possibly actually be a cop. Black is of course arrested, at which point Showalter runs away, explaining Black’s absence from Biederman’s birthday party the following day by telling everyone that Black’s autistic daughter threw up on a test and Black had to go to a PTO meeting—despite it being summer vacation. (When his coworkers protest that she isn’t autistic, Showalter mumblingly offers, “She’s very autistic. She does fingerpaints and stuff like that.”)
“Biederman’s Birthday” also features one of the funniest of the show’s Mr. Show-style “host” sections, an anti-drug spiel that makes a convincing argument that everyone should use drugs, all the time, for an endless variety of reasons. If you really need to cram for a midterm, for example, Black argues persuasively, “Drugs are going to give you a hug and never let go!”
Even when Black and Showalter set out to do something nice, it goes horribly, disturbingly awry. In “Matchmakers” they set up their long-suffering producer Marla (Klein) with an endearingly geeky new co-worker before learning that the earnest young man broke up with Marla because she wanted him to pee on her. Black and Showalter are horrified, but not so horrified they don’t share that information with everyone they work with.
MMHI’s structure affords it the freedom to run sketches as short or long as needed, but the sketches themselves are something of a mixed bag: Tonally, they’re much broader than the Michael-vs.-Michael backstage stuff, thanks to a laugh track, cheap-looking sets, and equally cheap-looking wigs and costumes, but they seldom last longer than a few minutes, so they never quite have time to wear out their welcome. Some of the sketches are quite sharp, like a bit about a sweatpants shop that caters to the specific, sad needs of its primary demographic: people who have given up on life and are content to luxuriate in their own sadness, ennui, and hopelessness.
In MMHI, Showalter and Black speak their own private vernacular of passive-aggression, insults thinly and unconvincingly masquerading as compliments and subtle but unmistakable digs. In an episode where Black and Showalter jockey to see who can perform last at a college gig, for example, Showalter condescendingly describes the difference between his stand-up and Black’s stand-up thusly: “[Black will] come out and do the same set he’s been doing for the past four or five years and it’ll be great. It always makes people, like, laugh on the inside. And then I’ll shed light on the human experience, which is what I always do.”
When Michael and Michael are not treating each other like jerks, they treat each other like monsters: When Black cajoles and bullies Showalter into staying at his house and Showalter roughhouses good-naturedly with Black’s son, Black sanctimoniously tells Showalter that unlike him, he does not hit children, before kicking Showalter out in the middle of the night because he doesn’t feel “safe” around someone so abusive. Not to be outdone, Showalter retaliates by smearing shit all over the home Black shares with his wife and family. (Being a family man rather than an unlikely Casanova like Showalter somehow renders Black even less sympathetic and than he would be otherwise, since we inherently expect more from fathers and husbands.)
Michael And Michael Have Issues explores a lot of timely, darkly resonant themes: narcissism, ego, professional competition, jealousy, and the ugliness and futility of passive-aggression. It’s a comedy built on tension, hostility, awkwardness, and subtle sadism, and is seldom less than funny and often hilarious. The last episode is the weakest, largely because it revolves around other people being horrible to Michael and Michael (in this case the stars of a rival sketch program played by H. Jon Benjamin and Rob Huebel) rather than the stars being horrible to each other.
Because it was cancelled after only seven episodes MMHI never had an opportunity to jump the shark or soften its nasty edges. It feels exactly like the show Black and Showalter set out to make, a brutally unsentimental look at the dark side of friendship and professional competition. In that respect, it scored a substantive creative victory even as it died a quick, weirdly unmourned death. (Unlike Stella, it does not seem to be developing much of a cult following.) Even very famous pied pipers, it appears, have their limitations.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success