Michael Ian Black

 

Michael Ian Black, 38-who lives in Redding with his wife and two children-is a member of the innovative comedy troupe The State (stars of a beloved '90s MTV series), a tireless blogger and Twitterer and a fabulous poker player (known to ante up for charity). His most recent venture: the Comedy Central series "Michael & Michael Have Issues," co-starring State compadre Michael Showalter.

 I wanted to start by asking you about the new State DVD retrospective. Are you happy with the way the package turned out?

Well, I haven't really looked at it. I mean, I've seen it, and I have it, but it's still in cellophane. I think the cellophane makes it look really classy, and like something you might buy in a store.

It's interesting that the set includes a disclaimer that the music used in the shows is not the music from the original broadcasts. The fans on Amazon seem terribly upset.

I hope they understand that to license music costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

I guess they expected you to go bankrupt for the cause.

It wasn't our money; it was MTV's money. And they're already bankrupt, at least creatively.

The troupe had a live reunion last January.

We got together in San Francisco because we had started writing sketches for a movie, for which the financing didn't come through as quickly as we hoped. So we decided to try out some of the material for fun, at an event called Sketchfest. We hadn't performed together in nearly 10 years, and hadn't done a show of all-new material in longer than that. So it was just a fun way for us to get together and hang out.

So the movie is still in "wait and see" mode?

Well, now it seems like Paramount/MTV and Comedy Central may be getting involved, but they're waiting to see how the DVD sells. If they feel like there's an audience, they'll go ahead and give us money. If not, probably not.

I was a big fan of your previous Comedy Central show, "Stella." I had heard that there was also a movie being planned for that.

Well, only in our minds. It would be very hard to persuade an executive to bankroll a movie starring people who aren't very famous that's based on a show that didn't succeed. Not to say that they won't, but I think it's unlikely.

"Michael & Michael" reminds me of "The Larry Sanders Show." How did the concept come about?

Both Michael Showalter and I were interested in doing something in which we were playing truer versions of ourselves. We also wanted to incorporate sketches, because we hadn't done that in awhile and it seemed fun. I think we're good at that. It was just a result of figuring out how to combine both those things in a way that Comedy Central could get behind. They're generally supportive people, because I think a lot of them smoke a lot of pot. They're very mellow over there.

Do you see more popular potential for "Michael & Michael" than "Stella"?

Both of us hope the show will find a larger audience. All three of us-including David Wain-were incredibly proud of "Stella." We thought it was very funny and smart and all the things we wanted it to be, but at the same time we recognize that for some viewers it may have been a little too obtuse, surreal and abstract. So we tried to tone that down for this show and make it more accessible, while keeping our sense of humor. Whether we succeeded or not, I don't know.

I gather no decision has been made as to whether this show has a future beyond the first seven weeks.

That's not uncommon. You can wait for sometimes months after a show originally airs before network executives make up their minds. They have that right.

When I mentioned I was going to interview you, several people said, "He's very likable."

And do you find that to be true?

So far. But I wonder if you think it's the right adjective to describe you.

Well, it's better than the alternative, "not likable." It seems to me you're either likable or you're not. But you can be likable in addition to other things: charming, gregarious, handsome . . .

I always liked the word "gregarious."

It's an underused word.

It truly is. On the other hand, "handsome" is so literal.

I'll take it. I'm more than happy to take that "literal" adjective. Not that you gave it. I'm both giving and taking in this case.

From reading your blog, I know that you like a number of expressions that you feel should be used more in everyday speech. Like "rammed it home" . . .

I do think we could use a few more expressions that people can get behind. Like "go for it," which I know is common, but I still feel like there's an upside to it when used in a banal context. For instance, when you say, "I wonder if there are any grapes left in the fridge?" "Go for it." And then you go see if there are any. "Rammed it home" is also terrific when used in a banal context. "How were the pork chops?" "Rammed 'em home."

Ahh, I thought you were going for "they rammed it home"-as in, "they were such good pork chops . . ."

It just seems that in that case you're making the pork chops the protagonists, as opposed to me or you being the protagonist, which concerns me a little.

Your book My Custom Van recently came out in paperback, with two new chapters.

Right. Two bonus essays; more awesomeness included. When you consider the fact that the paperback costs less than the hardcover, and has these extra essays, you'd be crazy not to buy it. At that point, you're earning money.

Are there more money-saving books in the works?

Yes, one coming out next year, called Clappy as a Ham. I'm writing it right now; it's sort of a more personal collection of essays about my real life.

You also released a children's book recently, Chicken Cheeks. I understand that's the start of a trilogy?

I have three children's books coming out, but they're not related to each other. The next one's called The Purple Kangaroo; it's about a mind-reading monkey, actually. Maybe it should be called The Mind-Reading Monkey, but when you read it, you'll understand why it's called The Purple Kangaroo. The one after that is A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea.

From what I've read and heard in your previous interviews, I get the idea that you consider reality shows a terrible idea. Why?

I'm not a fan for a number of reasons, chief among them is that I don't believe anything I'm seeing. I don't like the people on them, I don't think there's anything honest about them, I question their motives and don't believe their stated reasons for being on are the real reasons. Beyond that, I don't think they're written or constructed very well, and I don't find them compelling, for the most part.

So, if you were to create your own, what would it be like?

I haven't thought about that, but I imagine it would be ruthlessly honest. That would be my goal for it.

If President Obama gave you a stimulus package, what would you use it for?

I might throw my money into R & D for a new ice-cream chain. That would be good for me and good for the economy; I could create jobs and ice cream. The signature item would be the ice-cream burrito. Basically, I'm looking for money to reinvent the ice-cream sandwich, which I think has become a little passé. I call it a burrito, but it's really more of a crépe. I just don't want it to get an elitist tag. The nice thing about it would be, you could get as creative as you wanted with it because it would be custom-made in front of each customer.

You started doing stand-up comedy fairly recently. How is that rewarding for you?

It's fun. You're standing in front of an audience and getting laughs, and there's a lot of freedom involved in it-as opposed to telling jokes in front of a camera and being met by a gaffer's stony silence. It's also challenging; I was terrified when I started.

Yet in the segments I've seen of you, you seem very at ease.

Right. I'm excellent at it.

I think that's a tremendous skill.

I think it is a skill, and a craft, and like any craft, you have to spend a lot of time working on it. When I started, it wasn't like I'd never been in front of an audience before; I'd been in front of many for years, but never by myself, with a microphone. So, it was just a matter of transferring skill sets I already had to a new forum.

What gives you the most satisfaction, writing or performing?

I can't really distinguish. I think I get the most satisfaction out of performing something that I've written.

How does what you do enhance your life?

It's given me a creative outlet a lot of people don't have. But I don't want to probe too deeply into myself, because I might not like what I find.

What makes you laugh?

I don't know that there's one thing that consistently makes me laugh. Almost by definition, something that makes you laugh has to surprise you. So if I say, "A good dentist joke makes me laugh"-there's no element of surprise there because it's something I already know.

Who are the comedians who have influenced you?

There have been a lot, in many different ways. I always think of John Belushi first and foremost, but there's very little Belushi, if any, in what I do. But I think he was the first person I looked at and realized I could be funny professionally. Other people I grew up admiring were Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and George Carlin.

Carlin is a common denominator among comedians, it seems.

It's hard to escape his influence, not that you'd want to. There's a pretty strong Carlin gravitational pull for comedians.

That could be a principle of comedy, the "Carlin Gravitational Pull" . . .

I might tack it on to my "Jack Benny Projection Theorem."

You started performing pretty young . . .

Not professionally at first. But I've been performing in some capacity since I was 9.

One of your own children is almost 9. What would you say if either one of them came to you and said, "Dad, I want to go into show business?"

I'd be supportive, but I'd want them to understand very clearly what they were getting into-and I don't know that it's possible to communicate to somebody the horrors of my business, without them experiencing them firsthand. I definitely wouldn't dissuade my kids from doing anything they wanted to do, but I especially wouldn't want my daughter to go into it, because it's harder for women than men. It's much harder for women to break through in comedy than acting. There is a reason comedy is male-dominated that goes beyond the idea that it's a "boys club"-it's a societal issue.

You mean the notion that men don't really like funny women, and neither do women, for that matter?

Exactly. It's doubly harsh for women to find an audience when men don't like them and women don't like them. Women really have to find a specific thing that they do-unfortunately, and I say this as someone who is guilty-it often becomes, at least currently, about crassness. Funny crass women can kinda get by in a way that women who just want to be funny have a harder time with. There are obviously exceptions-Ellen DeGeneres and Paula Poundstone come to mind. But for every one of them, there's a thousand guy comedians.

Have you been playing poker much lately?

I just played in a charity poker tournament this weekend that I should have won.

What charity did you play for?

826. It's an arts charity that Dave Eggers set up. So I drove my ass out to Brooklyn to play in this stupid charity poker tournament that I should have won and didn't.

I'm sorry.

No! I'm furious.

I know nothing about poker. So, you could beat me and feel better.

But where's the joy in that? Where's the joy in beating someone who doesn't know what they're doing? Unless you had a lot of money. But you write for Connecticut Magazine, so I think we both understand that there's no way you have a lot of money now-unless you're a trust-fund kid who's just doing this for fun.

Man, I'd like to be a trust-fund kid. What would like to do that you've never done?

I'd like to hike the Appalachian Trail. But I don't think I'd enjoy the camping part. If they could set up very good hotels every 15 miles, with excellent restaurants-that were only accessible by foot-then I might be more inclined to do it.

Michael Ian Black

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