Though best known perhaps for his appearances on Vh1 talking head nostalgia programs, Michael Ian Black is probably most beloved for his sketch comedy work on “The State” and for the sitcom “Stella” with fellow State members David Wain and Michael Showalter. In recent years, Black also has embarked on a stand-up career which brought the release of his first CD “I am a Wonderful Man” earlier this year. I talked to Black about his stand-up in contrast to his years as a performer at the alternative show “Eating It”, the upcoming movie he scripted entitled “Run Fatboy Run” and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras at shows and why he hates them.
Note: I talked to Black around the release of his CD but just got to transcribing it now. So if there’s any weird timeline issues, that’s why.
I saw you at “Eating It” a lot back in its early days at Rebar and at Luna Lounge and it’s interesting how your stand-up is now compared to then. It’s a bit more traditional now. And I was wondering if you could trace that for me.
Well, when I was doing Luna and before that Rebar, I was really experimenting with different forms of what comedy could be. I was just sort of playing with ideas. I was not really developed as a solo comedian – I had never done it before and was just playing around.
And so, it was all experimental. Over time, I wanted to – I’d always admired stand-up comedians and wanted to understand how to do what they do. It was just interesting to me. So over the past couple of years I just started doing traditional stand-up. Because I admire the craft so much. I admire people who can just get up on the stage and make people laugh. I wasn’t so interested in being Andy Kaufman-esque anymore or esoteric or weird. I wanted to just be able to get on the stage and not have people know who I am and be able to make them laugh. I thought that was an admirable goal.
It’s totally an admirable goal. But I think part of your stand-up now is informed by that experience. There’s some conceptual stuff…
I guess it does. I don’t really think of it that way. It’s just the kind of comedy I write. So I don’t think of “this is one thing and this is another” so much as I’m just trying to write jokes.
I know I’m probably getting a little esoteric here. Part of what I do is analyzing comedy. So I get that response – it’s a good one. Jokes are a bit like magic. They come out of the ether and they just work.
For me, I’m not an accomplished enough a comedian that I know how to do that. That I know how to write a joke and it works. Or doesn’t work. For me, so much is trial and error. And something I think is funny and bring to stage just gets crickets. Or vice versa. Something I don’t have a lot of faith in plays very well.
Was there anything on the CD that you kind of discovered?
A few things that you hear on that album weren’t written and just kind of came out of my mouth. Or jokes that I just hadn’t performed before or literally had just written that day.
That’s pretty ballsy to do.
Well it is and it isn’t. I knew I had an act. And I felt like if things don’t work, I’ll just cut them out. (laughs) That’s the nice thing about audio editing.
I suppose. I did two shows. I kind of wanted to do three, but I did two. Every night to me is a discovery. I’m always trying new things and trying to make punchlines work better. Or trying to get something deeper or explore something more fully. And every audience is a surprise. They’ll sort of let you know where you’ve gone off track. To me the learning curve – I’m still very much on it. I’m still learning my craft.
One of things that I remember being said when you were doing Stella is how you were exploring the “Marx Brothers” aspect of yourself. And I thought that was interesting in how you were talking about your comedic personas. It wasn’t “I’m funny in this one way.”
No. I think that’s exactly right. But I don’t think of it in those terms. I don’t think of it being funny is a certain way, as it is in a different medium. Stella was a specific thing, but it was about a shared vision. The stand-up is a kind of an evolution of one thing for me. And maybe that’ll change into something else. And the State was something else entirely.
It’s almost like playing in different bands. The sound you get is going to be different. And if you do a solo album, the sound is going to be different than the stuff you did with your band. But you’re still making rock or you’re still making music. And the same artist can do a rock album and a country album. It’s all music. And you’re just playing with different ideas at different times.
But it’s interesting to me, that there some comic who have that one way they’re funny. They hit that same pulse over and over again, sometimes or often very well. So it’s interesting to have someone acknowledge the dimensions in their comic persona.
And there are great geniuses who do one thing – I think of somebody like Steven Wright, I think of somebody like George Carlin. Who really do the same thing over and over again, but are brilliant at it. You want them to do that thing. And they hit them from all different sides.
And hopefully I’m somebody who tackles all kinds of different things well. I never imagine myself as somebody on the level of George Carlin, but I always think of myself as a Burt in Mary Poppins, who’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
My attention sort of drifts from one thing to another pretty quickly. So that’s what I do. I follow where my interest is taking me. And at the moment it’s stand-up. And it’s just great fun and a great learning process.
You wanted to avoid the comedy clubs. Did you work any of this out in comedy clubs or was it all alternative venues?
Very early on – I’m talking years ago, before I even started doing stand-up at all. I experimented in Carolines in New York. I just never felt comfortable in comedy clubs. It’s an environment I don’t really understand. I feel like it’s not particularly good for my audience.
Is there anything particular about them? Is there something artificial or…
There’s a lot of things about it. I’m speaking to you from a place of fear. I’m also afraid of them. Which may inform a lot of my prejudice against them. But there’s a lot of things about it.
First of all, the cost is pretty high. You have to buy a ticket and then you have to buy two drinks and there’s food and everything. Whereas if you go to a rock club, you’re generally paying admission and then whatever else you want to spend, you can spend. So I think there’s a lot of pressure on younger people who I think comprise a lot of my audience. It’s expensive for them, so I want to avoid it from that perspective.
Also I think the crowds they tend to attract would not be crowds that are there to see me specifically, but be there to see comedy generically. And I don’t know if I could satisfy those people. I don’t know if they’d be happy if they showed up expecting to see a more observational or traditional stand-up comic and I came out and started screaming “white power.” (laughs) I don’t know if that would appeal to them.
The structure of the evening itself – the opener, the middle and the headline format – is not something I’ve done a lot of. When I got to rock clubs, I can control it in a way I’m just more comfortable with.
You mentioned that you go through a fair amount of trial and error. How much of what you started with did you end up when you got to making a CD?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say because it evolved. I’ve definitely gone through a lot of jokes to get to this album.
The very first stand-up show I did was at University of Iowa a few years ago. It was one of those situations where I had started doing these VH1 shows and I got an offer for a college date. And I said, “I don’t really do stand-up. I don’t know…”
How long had it been since you’ve done stand-up?
Zero. I hadn’t done it.
You’re saying traditional stand-up. You don’t count what you did at “Eating It” as stand-up necessarily?
No. Not really. I just didn’t think of it like that. I didn’t think I could just go up on a stage and pretend I was a cat and have that go over. (laughs) I didn’t think that was going to be embraced. So I thought I was starting with nothing.
So I basically said “yes” to the date. And it was six months from when I said “yes.” And I thought, “This’ll be good.” Because I had six months to write an hour of comedy and it’ll force me to do that. Because I knew it was something I wanted to get into.
Six months go by. And I didn’t write anything. (Laughs) So I had two weeks to prepare for this show. So the first time I did stand-up was for an hour in front of 1700 people.
Jesus. That was a trial by fire there.
It was. So that was it. I wrote an hour and started doing it. So that hour has changed a lot, so the seeds of it are still in it.
People really want a State DVD. Is that still coming out this year?
It currently exists. And there’s commentary and stuff. But there’s some questions about the release date that I can’t make public at the moment, but are essentially good.
Maybe have try and tie in with the release of something else.
We want it to come out at the time where it makes the most sense.
When I was on YouTube looking at stuff that you’ve done. I noticed, like a lot of comics, audience members take video of your shows with cell phone cameras. And I think there’s video from the night you actually recorded the CD up there. Not a lot of it, like two minutes.
And I was curious, as a performer, what is it like when you see those cameras go up?
Honestly, it drives me fucking crazy. Because I feel like they’re stealing something and disseminating it without my permission.
Now, I understand that people are going to steal the album. I’m actually OK with that. But what I’m not OK with is people stealing the live performance. I just feel like it’s incredibly presumptuous. It feels like it’s a violating to me. And there’s been many times where I’ve stopped the show and told people to put it away.
But at this point I feel like it’s a losing battle.
It’s everywhere. When I was Montreal, the Kids in the Hall had their show and the last sketch – which was a crushing your head bit – cameras went up almost instantly. Multiple angles. You could cut back and forth between them to make a video, I’m sure.
I might start asking clubs to do this – to have them make an announcement: “No recording.” You would think people would know that. But I don’t think people do. And then at least if people do, they know then that they’re breaking the rules. I think maybe some people are unaware that it’s not cool with some performers.
I do feel like it’s a losing battle and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. But it’s incredibly frustrating to look out into the audience and see those cameras up there. Because a lot of times, it’s not ready.
You’re working it out. Obviously you’re giving people a good show, but…
I want to control the way my material gets out there. And you just can’t when people steal it. You can’t control the sound quality, the image quality, you can’t control anything. It’s really frustrating.
Tell me about “Run Fatboy Run.”
It’s a movie that I wrote that Simon Pegg starts in and David Schwimmer directed. And the genesis of it, I had written a couple of screenplays. And as an exercise to myself, I just said, “let me try and write a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy.” So I came up with a high concept idea – a fat guy runs a marathon.
It’s an interesting group of people to put together. Schwimmer, Pegg and yourself come from very different directions. It could be an very interesting stew.
Yeah. It’s certainly not a group of people I would put together if I was just assembling a team. But the way it came together was somewhat organic. The script got in the hand of a production company. They gave it to Schwimmer. He liked it. He brought on to Simon. I have no real relationship with David or Simon. And basically, they made it. So my involvement with it past writing the script was very minimal.
So you had kind of that traditional writers role.
Yeah, pretty much. Which kind of sucked.
I saw online it says co-written with Simon Pegg. And I was curious if you worked together or if he did a pass on it.
He did a pass on it, because it was originally set in New York. And he, rightly so, thought if it was going to be in London it needed to be Anglicized somewhat. He did a pass where he basically made it British. And changed a few minor things. But basically the story is the same. I know from clips I’ve seen, a lot of the dialogue is altered. But it’s fine. It is what it is.
It was a number one movie a England. So I feel good that at least people overseas seemed to like it.
Simon Pegg seems to have a good sense about what travels across the pond. I’ve really enjoyed both of his movies and Spaced.
I was a huge fans of his before this. So I was really pleased when he got involved with it. And I didn’t know Schwimmer or his capabilities as a director, but with Simon attached a felt some level of assurance. As it happens, I think David has turned out to be a good director from when I was on the set and watched and everything that I’ve read or seen. So I have faith in him that I didn’t have. Not that I didn’t had no faith, I just didn’t know.
It’s a weird situation because I wrote the movie. I came up with this whole world and then handed it off to these other people who made it. That’s probably a common experience in Hollywood but it’s very alien for me.