Generally speaking, nothing says “inessential” quite like “celebrity-written children’s book.” Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Katie Couric, Julianne Moore, Jamie Lee Curtis, Julie Andrews, Gloria Estefan, Whoopi Goldberg, B.J. Novak, Spike Lee, Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes… the list of stars who’ve delved into that world goes on and on. Scholastic even has a series of books called Little Bill, written by Bill Cosby, most of them available for a penny on Amazon. In a lot of cases, the authors get it out of their system after a couple books, but actor/comedian/author/podcaster Michael Ian Black has quietly reached the half-dozen mark with his latest, Cock-A-Doodle-Doo-Bop, out today. Illustrated by Matt Myers, it’s about a jazzbo rooster who decides he no longer wants to “perform” his signature call every morning, and the surprisingly high stakes of his decision. But make no mistake: No one learns anything in it. For Black, writing kids’ books is less about shaping young minds—Black has an unpublished one that expressly discourages kids from eating vegetables—than making kids laugh for a few minutes. The A.V. Club talked to him about that, the minimal effort he exerts to write these, his upcoming non-kids’ book, and the problem with Dr. Seuss.
The A.V. Club: To a certain degree, writing a kid’s book is a celebrity cliché. Like yesterday, one came into the office written by Nathan Lane and his partner about their dog. How did you start doing this?
Michael Ian Black: I came to it with a certain amount of trepidation and anticipatory cringiness about the whole “celebrity writing book” cliché thing. But I figured I’m not a big enough celebrity for it to count as a “celebrity” book, so I thought I could get away with it. Because that would be a total douchebag move. But I started it because my kids were young, and I would read to them every night and I thought, “I could write a book that’s at least as terrible as this and get it published.” So I was like, “Maybe I should try that,” mostly because I thought it would be a very lucrative thing to do—and it turned out I was very wrong about that. It’s not lucrative at all, unless you’re, like, Mo Willems, then I think it’s very lucrative. But I’m not Mo Willems. So it started as most things start for me: an avenue for greed. But then I found out that I enjoyed doing it, so I kept doing it.
AVC: What’s your process like?
MIB: My process is surprisingly straightforward. I find myself with little to do over a stretch of time and I say, “I should write children’s books today.” Then I sit down and write a children’s book, and if it takes more than, realistically, three hours, I feel like I’ve done something wrong.
AVC: Has it stayed the same over the course of the six books?
MIB: Oh yeah. I used to joke that it took me 90 minutes, which isn’t that much of a joke, but realistically probably like three hours. Which is not to say that if I write a children’s book, it’s going to get published; I’ve written many of them that my editor is like, “This is terrible. There’s no way I’m going to publish this.” Then I don’t get offended because I spent almost no time working on it.
AVC: What are some of the ideas that didn’t make it through?
MIB: Well, there was a kind of serious one that I actually spent a lot of time working on that was about a birthday party and [Laughs.] the first recognition that one day you would die. It wasn’t quite that straightforward. [Laughs.] It wasn’t that straightforward, but that was the subject. Then my editor was like, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” There was a rhyming one that I liked a lot that he didn’t like. He was like, “Nobody likes rhyming books.” I have since found out that’s actually true.
AVC: Really? There are a lot of them.
MIB: I know! That’s what you’d think, but if you look at what does well and what’s out there, it’s not that many rhyming books. But it was great; it was called Don’t Eat Your Vegetables, and it was encouraging kids not to eat their vegetables. He didn’t think it was going to work. I might rewrite that one. That one was excellent. There have been others.
AVC: Your birthday idea isn’t far off, though. There are a lot of very serious children’s books out there. I have a 3-year-old who loves to read, so she will grab stuff from the library, and it’s only when I come home that I realize that it’s a book about your grandmother dying or something. We saw one at the library a few weeks ago called Alex, The Kid With AIDS. There’s a ton of those kinds of books. Have you ever encountered any of those on your own?
MIB: I don’t really read children’s books or deal with children’s books, so I don’t have any relationship with them other than my own.
AVC: You had young kids.
MIB: But my kids are all older now. When I started, yeah. We had a bunch of dumb books. I mean there’s books about a horse, or losing a pet, or losing an appeal at the Supreme Court. There’s all sorts of books for kids on any subject you can think of, so my approach to it is write something really silly and stupid, because that’s probably what I’m best at.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like you feel obligated to put a lesson in this book.
MIB: I feel no obligation to teach my readers anything, to impart any sort of wisdom, to teach any sort of lesson, to instill any sort of morality. All I’m trying to do is make them and their parents laugh.
AVC: I’ve read all of yours except for Chicken Cheeks and I’m Bored—
MIB: You have not read I’m Bored or Chicken Cheeks? I mean, I’m Bored is my magnum opus; if you haven’t read that, then you don’t understand the canon.
AVC: [Laughs.] I have it requested at our library, so it’s coming. But of the four I’ve read, your comic sensibility still comes through. Do you think much about about how to finesse your voice into the books?
MIB: Not really. If you look at my book My Custom Van, it’s a bunch of silly essays. The children’s books aren’t that much different than that. They’re just silly—they’re almost sketches. They’re just silliness without any F-bombs. I mean, there’s still a few. That’s my brand. I’m not going to sell out, you know what I mean?
AVC: How did you end up with the particular illustrators, because they’re obviously critical?
MIB: That’s the beautiful part of the children’s book world, and it’s something I didn’t understand at first. Once I write the manuscripts—and I use the word “manuscripts” very loosely—my editor does most of the work. He’s the one that has relationships with illustrators and finds them and approaches them. Then what surprised me about the children’s book world is that the author and the illustrator really have no contact and very little communication. I put a lot of trust in my editor, Justin Chanda. He’s been really brilliant at pairing me with illustrators. I really wish I could draw, because I think it would be much more creatively fulfilling—plus you’d get that bit more of money—but I can’t. Somebody suggested I should just try and draw it anyway and see how terrible it could be, and I’m thinking about doing that.
AVC: The illustrations in Cock-A-Doodle-Doo-Bop look like paintings.
MIB: They’re great. That guy is amazing—it’s just so richly illustrated. It will never not amaze me that people can do that. The illustrators work so much harder on the books than the writers do. I mean, that’s so much work doing what they do, and it’s terrible for them.
AVC: I’ve always wondered how that division of labor breaks down, because you can bang out the manuscript, but it probably took Matt Myers a really long time to do all those illustrations.
MIB: Oh yeah. If I revise a children’s book, if I’m spending three hours on the first draft, I’m probably spending 30 minutes revising it. I mean, come on! But to redo a painting? That’s hard work.
AVC: What kinds of books were your kids into when they were younger?
MIB: I think they both liked really silly books. I mean, kids love to be silly, they love to laugh, so I think it was natural for my kids to like the sort of books that I write—and it’s the only kinds of books I’m capable of writing. Silliness has a big part in their literature, and it’s not necessarily the best thing when you’re trying to put them to bed, to be constantly trying to make your children laugh, but it’s certainly the most fun thing.
AVC: Were there any books that you really didn’t like to read to them?
MIB: Oh yeah, there were many. There was one about a frog that went jogging, which I didn’t like and that they liked. But there was one that was a scratch-and-sniff Christmas one with bears that I hated. They would want me to smell the scratch-and-sniff one, and they would all smell a little bit like vomit.
Then some of them were too long. That’s the other thing: You can’t write a children’s book that takes more than five or six minutes to read, because it will drive the parents batty. It has to be compact. Nobody thinks about the parents when they write these stupid books. I could write longer children’s books, but it would actually be bad if I did.
AVC: That’s smart.
MIB: Like some of those Dr. Seuss books—brilliant as they may be—go on for fucking ever. Green Eggs And Ham? Like, come on, dude. We get it. Just try the fucking green eggs and ham.
AVC: That one is relatively short. Fox In Socks and The Cat In The Hat—
MIB: Those go on forever! I mean, considering Dr. Seuss uses about 10 words in each book, they go on forever. Kids are smart, too. They want to stall going to bed, so they pick the longest book.
AVC: Most of your kids’ books also focus on animals. Is that just what you tend to gravitate toward?
MIB: Well, I guess so. I’m Bored and Naked don’t, and there’s a sequel to I’m Bored that’s coming out some time that I just wrote. I’m Bored is about a little girl and a potato—a fucking potato. There’s a flamingo at the end, but the flamingo is just a cameo. The sequel does feature the flamingo a little bit more prominently. I don’t know. Animals just are kind of fun and easy, and I don’t have to draw them.
AVC: When I interviewed Patton Oswalt around Ratatouille, he was being interviewed by kids for this big Pixar movie. He didn’t realize how much he relied on sarcasm to communicate, and when you’re doing these interviews with kids, he couldn’t really do that.
MIB: I guess so, but I’ve been around my own kids so long that it’s sort of natural to me. I know how to talk to kids now—which is very sternly. That’s how you talk to them.
AVC: Have you been in any kids’ book situations where people aren’t necessarily familiar with your other work?
MIB: Oh yeah, but I don’t care. Like, if I’m reading at a school for kids, they obviously don’t know who I am. But like I said, I don’t care. This isn’t “celebrity” Michael Ian Black showing up because he’s got a kids’ book. This is a children’s book author reading his book. It doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t go into any encounter assuming people know who I am because, as I said, I’m barely a celebrity.
AVC: Over the past decade, you’ve diversified. You have the podcasts, the kids’ books, you’re doing a lot more stand-up. Is it part of a conscious decision to do more than act, or did these sort of elements sort of happen on their own?
MIB: At a certain point, it was partially conscious and partially not. At a certain point, what was conscious was the decision to only try and do things that were fun and or pay me so much money that I can’t say no. Which, in my case, is not that much money. So like all of it, it stems from the decision to do things I think are fun and or interesting. Writing books for me, while I wish it was fun, is not. But it is interesting and certainly pushes me in ways that nothing else does. Children’s books are particularly fun. Stand-up is similar to writing books for me—it just pushes me in ways that other things don’t do. The podcast, obviously there’s no money in that. It’s just purely for fun. I’m at a place where I just want to enjoy myself and hopefully I can make a living, and doing the other stuff allows me to enjoy acting a lot more, too, because I don’t feel like I’m just saying someone else’s words—which, incidentally, I love doing. It’s so easy.
AVC: You have a new, non-children’s book coming out next year, Navel Gazing. The little blurb on Amazon says it’s about body image.
MIB: Yeah, it’s sort of about that. I really need to think of an answer for what it’s about, because it’s about to come out and I need to answer that question. My mom got sick a few years ago, and it’s her story coupled with my story and family history and self-loathing. Dealing with her illness and telling her story and combining that in with my own angst about growing old and dying.