Published Oct 03, 2008New York's Michael Ian Black is a comedian, actor, director, writer, and kind of, sort of reality game show host. He is one-third of the recurring comedy troupe Stella, whose hilarious and groundbreaking show you can still catch on basic cable television. As an actor, he's appeared on the NBC sitcom Ed, and in films like Wet Hot American Summer and The Reaper, and also Comedy Central shows like Reno 911 and Crank Yankers. He wrote and directed the 2006 feature film, Wedding Daze, penned the screenplay for the 2007 hit film Run, Fatboy, Run, and regularly contributes to the McSweeney's literature series.
As if that weren't enough, he has owned this past summer, releasing the brilliant stand-up album, I Am a Wonderful Man, a new book called My Custom Van: And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays that Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face, and he's hosting a new pseudo-reality show called Reality Bites Back airing on Comedy Central and the Comedy Network here in Canada. Oh, and apparently he's a kick-ass poker player too, so if you see him, hide your money maybe. Michael discusses these projects and the U.S. election crisis in this candid interview.
There's so much ground to cover here Michael and I must ask you about this busy schedule you maintain; just how creative are you exactly, is there anything you can't do?
You're only 14 years old?
No, no that's not my age. If you quantify how creative I am, it's 14.
Oh. On a scale of...?
I don't know what the scale is. I really don't know.
Okay, but you're 14?
Okay. Seriously, has this been an exceptionally hot summer for you as a professional celebrity?
Well, it seems like a lot of things are happening all at once but, in reality, things take time to make and some times they all come out at the same time. So, I have been busy but not, I would say, any more than usual.
Are you constantly working or do your kids know who you are?
I try to make sure that my kids at least have a photograph of me to reference because I think that's important.
I understand what you're saying about the release schedule but it does seem like you still must be constantly working. Is that fair?
I guess that's fair but, for somebody who works as hard as I do I would think, at least from an outside perspective, I'd be a lot more successful than I am. I guess it's just quantity over quality in my case.
Right. No, no, I would say that the quality is very high.
Well, that's very nice of you.
Well, it's true. From everything I've seen and heard, you're doing well. In relative terms, you're doing well. I'm doing fine. I'm not complaining.
Let's talk about this new album of yours, shall we? It's called I Am a Wonderful Man and it's really incredibly funny. Now, even though you've been working in comedy for years, this is your first stand-up record; was this something you were putting off doing or were you honing this material for the right moment?
No, I'd been in comedy for most of my career but had never really done stand-up before until fairly recently. It's something I'd always wanted to do but I hadn't gotten around to it and hadn't really known how to do it. So I just decided to tackle it and the album is the result of a year or so of my first foray into stand-up comedy.
Is it fair to say that that's kind of backwards? Most stand-ups end up writing, producing, directing, and all those things eventually, not first…
That's exactly right.
So you've gone about it backwards.
I went about it the opposite way. Well, I've always wanted to do stand-up but I didn't want to pay my dues. I didn't want to be one of those guys who was showing up at the comedy club at two in the morning at the open mic night for a couple of drunk hecklers. I figured, let me try to get at least moderately famous so that, when I go out to do stand-up, people will be there to see me, and that's the way it's worked out.
Within your stand-up and some of the other comedy I've seen you do, I can pick out a few influences. Were The Kids in the Halls important to you?
No. I don't know how to put this… I never got into them.
Oh okay. Sometimes when you do a character voice or impression, I've thought "Oh, that's obviously an influence." You've worked with Dave Foley on the poker TV shows.
Yeah I know Dave Foley a little bit. I've met all of them I think, or four out of the five of them. I think they're very nice and funny guys but I just was never into them as a sketch comedy troupe. That may have had something to do with the fact that, at the time that they had their show on, I was doing a show called The State on MTV and they were kind of the competition and I sort of viewed them as adversaries for a long time.
Oh, so there's almost tension there.
Well, on my part, not on theirs. They were unaware of who we were.
Do you have any influences that you might cite in your own work?
You know it's hard for me to identify. I get asked that question a lot and I don't really know. I would say, Steve Martin maybe, George Carlin maybe?
I will say I've asked a few comedians this question and, more so than musicians, it always seems like an impossible thing to answer.
Well it feels kind of impossible and I don't know why. It's hard to say where you're sense of humour comes from. The things that I was influenced a lot by, probably aren't necessarily comedy, y'know?
Right, but they've informed your aesthetic as a comedian.
Yeah. Videogames for example. I spent a lot of time playing videogames, as a kid. That must've influenced me in some way. Making out with girls is something that influenced me a lot.
Yeah, you're right. It's more difficult for a comedian to discuss an influence on a particular joke, the way a musician might cite some specific reference to a band…
Well, I think it's easier for musicians because musicians tend to speak in the language of shared influences. So, if you're forming a band, you'll say "I'm looking for band mates who are into Radiohead. Coldplay, and John Denver, so let's all get together and jam." Comedians aren't really like that. You struggle so hard to find your own voice, I think you go out of your way to minimize your influences.
So with something like Stella, was there ever a conversation about what you were going to do or wanted to achieve?
Only in terms of shorthand to inform the network of what we were going for, not so much between us. When we pitched Stella, we pitched it as a Marx Brothers for 2006 or 2007, and the truth is, none of us even really watched the Marx Brothers. We don't even really know what they do, and that's probably heresy for comedians to say but, as much as I want to love the Marx Brothers, I just don't. But it was shorthand that they could understand.
I understand you hate all music but do you have a favourite comedy record?
Um, no, I don't really listen to comedy records. When I was a kid I'd say I listened to Eddie Murphy albums and those probably influenced me in some way but I don't think anyone in their right mind would compare me to Eddie Murphy.
No, no one in their right mind, you're right. Michael, I've been watching the news and apparently your country is having an election. I see you've been following along on your blog; as an American, can you tell us what the hell is going on?
Apparently, from what I'm told, we're picking a President, there's two guys running, and I'm rootin' for the black guy.
Okay, so you've made this about race. You've chosen one race over another.
It's just that I don't know their names, so this is just my quick way of identifying them.
Now I've spent some time on the Google; I believe it's John McCain that's the Republican contender. He's the white guy.
And then on the Democratic side you have Barack Obama.
Yeah, I dunno.
Okay, that's his name; I'm just telling you that's his name, Barack Obama.
And they each have chosen running mates. Barack Obama has Joe Biden.
Also a black guy?
No, he's actually a very toothy white man.
Oh, I like teeth.
Yeah, he smiles a lot. And then on the Republican side, you have…
Sarah Palin. No relation to Michael Palin I'm told.
Okay, so these are the people involved. As an American, what do you make of this?
Well, as an American, it's going to be real, real hard to pull the lever for any Republicans.
Of course. Or sorry, I shouldn't have said "Of course."
Are you supposed to be objective?
No, no. Yes. Yes, I am trying to be objective.
Well you're not a journalist.
...Some might say I am…
You can wear your heart on your sleeve. It's American politics, not Canadian politics.
That's true; I could probably pick sides from up here.
Yeah, don't worry about it. I feel like we've had a disastrous eight years with the Republicans at the helm and so maybe the pendulum swings the other way for a little while.
Within that, is there any optimism here; do you think something will actually change?
Well, there is optimism but I think it has more to do with tone and let's say image around the world than it necessarily does with concrete things that are going to put another dollar in my pocket. If anything, with Obama my taxes will probably be raised because I'm rich.
Are you rich actually?
Well no, but I probably make enough money that my taxes would go up under Obama, unlike 95 per cent of the population.
And how do you feel about that? Don't you think that's maybe just?
Just? Just what? You mean fair and equitable?
Well yes, justified.
I said I'm voting for the guy didn't I? Didn't I make a point of saying I'm voting for the guy?
You did, I just wonder if [Obama's plan to raise taxes among the wealthy] gives people in your tax bracket pause for thought.
It's people in my tax bracket who are putting country above self-interest.
Right! Okay good! I guess we're not arguing then because we agree on the thing.
I'm happy to argue.
Yeah, I think I know that about you. What about the climate in the country with the polls? They baffle me.
How they could possibly be even?
Well yes, because they're disparate candidates and this gentleman John McCain is running on a platform, similar to that of the current administration. And all the polls suggest that no one likes the current administration.
That's not true.
20 per cent of the American population [like them].
20 per cent? That's very low Michael.
So, that's enough to make it even?
I have no idea and I don't think anybody else does, why the race is so close. It seems to me that this should be Obaama in a walk. I don't know where McCain's support is coming from.
Here's another thing I don't understand; what's all this about Obama being an elitist? As far as I can tell, this claim has arisen because he speaks clearly and uses real words.
Hey, now you're losing me. No thanks Mr. Fancy Pants. This is a page taken directly from the Republican playbook. If you remember four years ago, they painted John Kerry in these exact same hues. It's a little bit hard to make that charge stick when your candidate has a personal fortune of more than 100 million dollars. Barack Obama is a guy who came from nothing.
Yeah, and he made himself into something.
Which is exactly what Republicans should be celebrating, as opposed to a guy who married into wealth after abandoning his cancer-stricken wife, but that's neither here nor there.
Is all of this stuff good or boring for you as a creative person?
Well, I'm not a political comedian so I can't say it's great for my act.
On your new record, you talk about terrorists. That's become a politicized topic of discussion. You don't take a particular stance I suppose…
I'm against them. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say I'm against terrorism in general.
Okay, so politics doesn't specifically inform your work.
No, although I think the war on terrorism is a farce and the other day I was listening to one of Obama's advisors basically saying the same thing.
I want to ask you about your new game show and book. Now, I've seen Reality Bites Back and I enjoyed the show; can you discuss it and how you got involved?
It's the perfect show for people, like me, who hate reality television because in each episode, we make fun of a different reality show. It's a parody of other reality shows but, at the same time, we have ten contestants who are trying to win a prize of $50,000 and I'm the host.
And the contestants are all comedians. I only knew one.
I met one of them but I didn't know the rest of them until we started doing the show.
So, they're obscure comedians. Do you find them amusing?
Yeah, they're funny people. I mean, are they as funny as me? I'll leave that to the viewers to decide.
You yourself seem to be playing a Bond villain — this omniscient guy, watching everything…
Yeah, I think that's actually a good way to put it; Bond villain is a nice way to describe it. I'm sort of the sadistic host.
On these other shows, I don't get the impression that the hosts or judges want the people to fail. Aren't they more encouraging?
I don't know because I don't watch those shows. In my case, I was legitimately rooting for them to fail because it was funnier.
Did you have any say in the creative direction of the show?
I actually did not. I was brought in very late to be the host, which tells me they had gone through a long list of people who said no to them before they got to me who said yes.
Oh boy, I feel bad about this because you're a genuinely talented man and you seem a little down on yourself, as a celebrity.
Well, I know who I am.
So do I, you're Michael Ian Black!
Right, but I know who I am in the context of show business and, you can't see it, but I'm putting a big 'L' on my forehead.
No? It means different things in Canada.
Well, that's because you're a better people.
More optimistic, yes. Well, I enjoy the show in any case.
It got surprisingly good reviews. My concern going into it was that it wouldn't be clear that we were making fun of it, and that people would think that we were actually just doing it. 'Reality' is just so over-the-top, that I was concerned people would think, 'Oh, they're just doing another reality show.' It's hard to parody and that's kind of why I, as the host, had to be so malicious I guess.
And the rules seem quite random. People just get kicked off left and right…
Oh, just totally arbitrarily. Like on real reality shows, our show involves no skills whatsoever and then somehow you get eliminated.
Well, it's very funny. And your new book is called, My Custom Van: And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays that Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face. What can you say about this?
Well, it is 51 essays about all manner of topics, including unicorns, vampires, Billy Joel, and all kinds of things. That's pretty much it.
Billy Joel? What about Billy Joel?
Well, the first essay is entitled "What I would be thinking about if I were Billy Joel, driving to a holiday party where I knew there was going to be a piano." And then it's me in Billy Joel's mind going through that thought process.
[Laughs] I see, okay, well that sounds like you'd have to read it to really understand. Is this all an extension of what you've been doing with your blog?
Yeah, that's exactly right. Well, I started the blog with the idea that I was going to write a book and so the blog kind of followed the book but I've kept the blog going.
What so, every day you do something on the blog?
Yeah usually, almost every day. Not on the weekends.
Take the weekends off, do you?
Some times, some times not. That's the great thing about the blog; there's no rules man.
That's right, it's like the reality show in a way.
Yeah, I just do whatever the hell I want!