The Rumpus Interview with Michael Ian Black
If you were a teen in the mid 90s and had cable television, most likely you know Michael Ian Black from The State, the sketch comedy show that aired on MTV. His new memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right, is best summed up as an unflinching look at finding love, getting married, becoming a father, and dealing with all the trying moments that inevitably come with that life. Black’s humor makes this a wince-inducing, laugh-out-loud-in-public take on adulthood.
Since the 90s, Black’s been busy acting in films (Wet Hot American Summer), on television (Stella, Ed, Michael and Michael Have Issues), and has even written a few children’s books. Recently, he’s moved into stand-up and can be found talking about food on the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.
I had a chance to ask Michael about his career in comedy, his thoughts on the industry today, and what his wife thinks about his honesty.
The Rumpus: I’ve heard you talk about how seriously you take your comedic career, The State was meant to rival Saturday Night Live, yet anyone who knows your work could easily describe it as “ridiculous”. Your sketch comedy in particular is truly absurd (in that good, over-the-top way). How do you balance these two, seemingly at odds, versions of yourself—both personally and professionally?
Michael Ian Black: To me, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. From my early work with the sketch group The State until now, I’ve thought a lot about comedy. Probably too much. In some ways, The State was more of an intellectual exercise than a comedic one. What I mean is, we were deliberately attempting to push a new kind of comedy out there. It was a reaction to what we were seeing on shows like SNL and in the observational stand-up that was out there at the time. We wanted to do a more aggressive, edgy, surreal comedy. All of that was very conscious and almost analytical. Of course I don’t know how analytical you can get about fart jokes, but we tried. The point is that silliness can be very serious. Sorry if I come off like a pretentious prick, but comedy is one of those things that, as soon as you start talking about it, you automatically sounds like a pretentious prick. Also: poetry. Also: fashion.
Rumpus: To me, it feels as if there’s a groundswell in the comedy world—both on the production side and a general interest in it—but I’m never sure if this is just my perception. Have you seen any changes in the industry from when you first started until now?
Black: Comedy in general seems to be getting more attention these days, although I don’t really know why. My guess would be because the Internet lends itself to comedy. People love short, funny stuff online. They seek it out. I think this additional exposure has generated a new interest in comedy and comedians of all stripes. That’s been the big change. When I started out, the Internet wasn’t really a thing. Now people from everywhere have so many tools at their disposal to put their comedy out there. Twitter and YouTube have been the two best things that have ever happened to comedy. And Cosby. Cosby’s a pretty good thing that happened to comedy.
Rumpus: If you were just starting out, how do you think this environment would affect you?
Black: It’s much easier now, particularly if you don’t live in New York or LA. Because you broadcast your work so easily it’s much easier to find an audience. On the other hand, the flood of stuff that’s out there sometimes makes it hard to get noticed. I do believe that the best stuff will always eventually make itself known, though.
Rumpus: Do you think television still matters in the age of YouTube?
Black: TV still matters a great deal because it’s the only medium for young writers/actors that pays. You can’t make any money on the web. And if you want to pursue comedy as your livelihood, you need to make an income. TV is still the best way to do that.
Rumpus: You were recently on WTF, Marc Maron’s popular podcast. I thought it was a great interview, which you might not agree with, but it’s one of my favorites so far. During your conversation you spoke a little bit about the myth of the performer and the comedic persona. I’m wondering if you can speak about that here as well.
Black: What I was talking about was my fascination with the comedic persona versus the actual person. It’s something that has interested me since I started watching SNL. John Belushi, in particular, had a comedic persona of an out-of-control comic hedonist. I knew as a viewer that some of that must be true, but I was also aware that it wasn’t the whole truth. I was, and am, interested in where performers draw the line between who they say they are and who they actually are. It’s a kind of mythology that performers are always working with. Actually, all people do it to a certain extent, but performers are obviously more public about it. I play a lot with my own persona and my new book is an attempt to shed the old Michael Ian Black persona and get to something that’s truer to who I actually am day-to-day.
Rumpus: Speaking of, in your new book, I was impressed by how strong your voice is. How do you approach your essay writing and how does it differ from when you write sketch and stand-up?
Black: Essay and story writing versus sketch writing. All writing is basically the same: beginning, middle, end. The difference with sketches, and why sketches are actually harder, is that you generally have to establish an entire new world every few minutes with its own rules, get to the joke premise, explore that premise, and then end the thing all within tight time constraints. That’s very hard to do well. Even the best sketch shows generally fall on their faces half the time.
With essays and story-telling it’s a little different. For one thing, my current essay work is all very personal. It’s based on my life and so the world remains consistent. That makes things easier. Also, it’s anecdotal by its nature, so I usually have some idea of how it ends before I start. Finally, I don’t feel the same pressure to be funny when I’m writing anecdotally. The flip of that is that I do feel pressure to actually say something, to make some larger point about something. I don’t feel that pressure when writing sketch comedy.
Rumpus: You’re Not Doing It Right starts off very sweet. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is something like a love letter to his wife,” and then about halfway through it takes a different tack. This turn feels like an honest take on love, marriage, and parenting.
Black: I actually do think of it as a love letter. Not only to my wife, but to my kids. Part of my goal with the book was to portray an actual marriage, which means dealing honestly with the problems that we experience as a couple. It gets on my nerves when people in relationships paint their spouses as these perfect people. I’m flawed. My wife is flawed. Our relationship survives, and hopefully continues to grow, because we recognize that we’re both screwed up people who sometimes hate each other, and that we persevere in spite of whatever obstacles we encounter, and that by doing so, we come out stronger on the other side. It’s worked for us so far, but who knows? We might split up in six weeks.
The same is true with parenting. I don’t like this societal taboo that we have against saying our kids are shitheads when, a lot of the times, they’re shitheads. I wanted to relate my experiences as a parent as honestly as I could. I wanted to paint a picture of fatherhood as being more complex than poopy diapers and tender-hearted moments. It is those things, but there’s so much more to it.
Rumpus: You definitely succeeded in showing the difficulties of day-to-day life that I think we all know are there but, as you say, people refuse to acknowledge, at least publicly. While I was reading I was wondering how much say your wife had regarding what went into the final draft.
Black: My wife was wary of the project from the outset, but she’s since come around and has been supportive. She likes the book. The kids haven’t read it because they’re too young but they better say they like it because they depend on me for food.
Rumpus: Is this the book you set out to write or, not to be trite, did it take on a life of its own as you went along?
Black: I set out to write about my life in a way that I had never done before. I didn’t know exactly what form it would take. I didn’t anticipate that so much of the book would be about my marriage. So yeah, I guess it took on its own life.
Rumpus: I don’t have kids but I hear from people who do that they fundamentally alter your life. Comedy is a tough business, how did having kids change the way you view your career and how you approach it?
Black: Parenthood in and of itself has not affected my approach to my career except that it made me care a lot less about it. Before kids, I was a lot more interested in fame and fortune. I remain interested in those things, but not at the expense of my kids. An example: show biz is obviously located in Hollywood. I live in Connecticut. The reason I live in the woods instead of Hollywood is because I do not want to raise my kids in Hollywood. Growing up is hard enough already without being further inundated with the LA culture. That choice has probably stalled my career to a certain extent but I don’t give a shit. Creatively I don’t feel like much has changed for me.
Rumpus: What is your work environment like?
Black: I like to work at home. I have an office above my garage. I like to stretch out there with my laptop and write. Like anybody else, I’m constantly distracted by the Internet and my own laziness.
Rumpus: How do you go about finding ideas?
Black: I don’t know where ideas comes from, mine or anybody else’s. This is going to sound corny (because it is) but I’ve been trying hard to honor the little voice in me that points me in directions I might not otherwise think to go. Like spending the last couple years devoting myself to stand-up, or writing this personal book. Those are things that I wouldn’t necessarily have done if I didn’t feel a compulsion to attempt. For me, it’s generally about walking towards your fears.
Rumpus: You went to NYU and studied the performing arts. Even though you later dropped out, were there benefits to a formal education in comedy?
Black: There were no comedy classes. I studied acting. I did join The State in college, though, and everything I learned from comedy I learned from the guys and girl in that group. We were all self-taught, all very eager to learn, and kind of arrogant dickheads about it. But it was a tremendous learning experience, a tremendous opportunity to figure out what I was going to do with my life. College, I think, ends up being more valuable for who you meet than what you learn.
Rumpus: Any advice for comedians just starting out?
Black: My advice is pretty simple: do it. There’s no other way to progress. Put yourself out there and give yourself permission to suck. That’s not to say you should try to suck, but you have to give yourself permission to allow for the possibility of sucking. Without sucking, you’re never going to find your boundaries, and you’ll never push through those boundaries. That’s all it is. Constantly bumping into walls you do not think you can climb and then climbing until you get over them. There’s no mystery to it, no magic. It’s about dedication and constantly trying to improve.
Rumpus: Are you working on anything at the moment?
Black: This is another one of those projects that I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t have some fears about my ability to pull it off. I’m co-writing a book with Meghan McCain. It’s a road trip/political book called America, You Sexy Bitch. It comes out this summer.
Rumpus: I bet that’s going to be another good one. While we’re all waiting, where can people find you?
Black: Twitter [@michaelianblack]. I’m usually on there because I am an attention whore.