By Will Harris
He was a member of "The State" on MTV, a part of both "Viva Variety" and "Stella" on Comedy Central, and a regular on NBC's "Ed," and those with a keen eye can pick him out in the casts of the films "Wet Hot American Summer," "The Baxter" and "Reno 911: Miami." But when you get right down to it, the majority of America knows Michael Ian Black from all those damned "We Love The '70s / '80s / '90s" shows on VH-1. It's a gig so successful that it still surprises Mr. Black, but it's led him down a path which has found him releasing his first stand-up album, I Am A Wonderful Man, on Comedy Central Records. Bullz-Eye had a chance to speak with the wonderful man in question about this new entry on his resume, as well as his various television gigs, his upcoming films, and the exciting saga of how he came to write for McSweeney's.
Michael Ian Black: Hello?
Bullz-Eye: Hi, may I speak to Michael?
BE: Hey, this is Will Harris, with Bullz-Eye.
MIB: Hi, how are you?
BE: Pretty good. Sorry I'm running late calling you. I couldn't for the life of me find the phone number.
MIB: Oh, that's all right. Now, it's possible I may lose you. I'm driving, and there's a dead spot coming up. If I do lose you, wait, like, two minutes, and then call me right back.
BE: So don't take it personally, in other words.
MIB: (emphatically) Don't take it personally.
BE: OK. So I love the album.
MIB: Oh, thank you very much!
BE: Is this your first stand-up album?
MIB: It is.
BE: Now, how long have you actually been doing stand-up?
MIB: About two years.
BE: What spurred you to finally give it a try?
MIB: Well, I'd been doing these VH-1 shows, "I Love The...whatever," and as a result of that, I got some invitations to start performing at colleges. And, so, I started doing that, and as a result of doing that, I got more interested in doing stand-up comedy. And so that's what I did. It was just sort of a natural evolution.
BE: Was it weird to step out and just be in front of an audience by yourself, given your experience working with ensembles?
MIB: Well, there's certainly nothing scarier than stepping out on a stage and having to make people laugh for an hour! Y'know? Especially because they know that that's what you're there to do! There's that sort of heightened expectation, and you really have nowhere to hide; you really have to be on your game and know what you're doing up there. And it's fear more than anything that propels me toward doing it. It was really the sheer terror of it that was appealing to me.
BE: Well, it's a nice blend of styles on the album. It's traditional topics, for the most part, but you're definitely putting your own spin on them.
MIB: (uncertainly) Yeah, I guess so. I definitely didn't set out to choose topics one way or the other, it's sort of whatever evolved. And it is important to me that the voice that you hear be my voice...meaning that, hopefully, these are jokes that I do but that you're not going to hear other comedians doing. Hopefully, they're not generic comedic jokes.
BE: Do you have a particular approach that you use when you write stand-up material?
MIB: I really don't. And I really don't even know how to write stand-up material, y'know? My approach is...I feel like there's an opportunity to make jokes about anything, and the trick is just to find my truth about it. So whatever my real opinion is about something, that's kind of where I try to head. I try to move toward whatever I actually think about something and see if I can't find the comedy in that truth. And sometimes it's successful and sometimes it's not. I'm still relatively new at it, so I'm really just learning so much about my own craft.
BE: Do you feel like you kind of step into a character when you're performing?
MIB: A little bit. But I was very conscious...I am very conscious when I do stand-up about really trying to be honest about who I am, and to present as much of myself as I can in a sort of real way to the audience. Which isn't to say that everything I say is true. It's obviously not. But I deliberately did not want to create a persona for myself. I'm interested in presenting my real self to people...which is not my background. My background is sketch comedy. My background is characters and making up silly voices and being ridiculous. But as I get older, I find I'm more interested in being myself.
BE: Would you have ever imagined that you'd find a whole other career as a talking head?
MIB: No. (laughs) I certainly never thought anybody would care to hear my opinion about anything, so to find myself doing it almost non-stop on VH-1 is certainly a surprise to me.
BE: I absolutely loved "Stella," and I could not believe it got the shaft from Comedy Central and didn't get a second season.
MIB: It didn't. And, y'know, the three of us are very proud of "Stella." We feel like we really gave them the show that we said that we were going to give them, in terms of quality. And I understand why audiences didn't embrace it: it's a really weird fucking show. But the fact that audiences didn't embrace it, to me, does not in any way suggest that it didn't work. I think the show is actually some of our best work, and I'm really proud of it. I hope people discover it on DVD and spend some time with it and give it a chance, because if they do, I think they'll really like it.
BE: Yeah, actually, I'm one of those who didn't really discover it until it came out on DVD, but I just fell in love with it immediately. It's a little bit of the Marx Brothers, a little bit of Monty Python, and even a little bit of The Monkees, with ya'll living in the same apartment together.
MIB: Yeah, I mean, the shows that we were sort of referencing as we pitched it were the Marx Brothers and Monty Python. It's a totally absurd, surreal environment that we created, and I think it's really fun and funny.
BE: Now, as far as your shows coming out on DVD, I know "The State" is finally coming out on DVD, but I have to wonder: did the discussions with MTV about releasing it just get progressively more tense as time went on, until it finally reached the point where they finally just said, "Fine, we'll put it out?"
MIB: Well, I think...I think they knew they had a property that had some value, and I think they just weren't sure how much, but they're taking a chance and putting it out, and hopefully people will buy it and rediscover "The State."
BE: The next question is, is "Ed" ever coming out on DVD?
MIB: You know, I'm surprised that it hasn't. And I don't know why it hasn't. I have no idea; I'm not in touch with anybody who would know the answer to that. So I don't really know why it's not out on DVD. It seems like every show has gotten a DVD release except for "Ed," so I don't know.
BE: Yeah, we did a piece a year or so ago about shows that still aren't out on DVD, and (laughs) you had about the same answer then, unfortunately. I was just hoping for the best.
MIB: Yeah, I just literally have no idea. It seems like if it was gonna come out, it would've come out already, so that suggests to me that it probably never will.
BE: Well, I'll keep my fingers crossed.
MIB: Well, thank you.
BE: How did you get involved in McSweeney's?
MIB: Um...I wrote the editor an e-mail and said, "I'd like to be involved in McSweeney's. Would you like me to be?" And he said, "Sure."
BE: Wow, that easy, huh?
MIB: So I just started writing for them. I've done a few pieces, and it's pretty great. I really like that site, I think they've really got good writing on it, and I'm happy that they want me to contribute.
BE: So as far as the film you wrote and directed in 2006, and the flip-flopping of the title from "The Pleasure of Your Company" to "Wedding Daze," what's that about?
MIB: Well, "Wedding Daze" is decidedly not my idea. I think it's a disgusting title, although I didn't love "The Pleasure of Your Company," either, which is one that I thought of. I always thought, "Well, I'll try to change it," but nothing better ever came along, and certainly "Wedding Daze" is no exception to that rule.
BE: What's the story on the delay in its release?
MIB: (hesitates) It's...kind of complicated. But it's basically...you know, the truth of the matter is that I don't know. MGM has it, and, hopefully, they'll put it out. That's kind of the best I can tell you at this point.
BE: And yet David Wain managed to get his movie, "The Ten," into theaters, though, and you're in that briefly, aren't you?
MIB: Uh, he did get "The Ten" into theaters, and I am in it briefly.
BE: Sorry, I didn't mean that in a bad way about "The Ten;" I just meant that it kinda sucks in general that his movie got out there and yours hasn't yet.
MIB: No, I think "The Ten" is really funny, but it is as out there as any film you're ever gonna see. I mean, it is insane.
BE: It hasn't made it to my area yet, but, then, a lot of smaller films don't.
MIB: Well, I imagine that when it does come out on DVD, you'll see it, and then you'll know what I'm talking about.
BE: I'm definitely looking forward to it.
MIB: Yeah, it's a very funny, totally absurd movie with a lot of just hilarious things in it.
BE: Are you looking forward to hitting the road to support your album?
MIB: Yeah, I love touring. Stand-up, for me, is the most fun thing that I do. Getting in front of an audience every night and talking to them, it's by far the most fun thing in my career. The feedback is always great in terms of...you get an immediate response. And the freedom that you have on stage is fantastic. You don't have to stand in a certain place or say certain words or do anything that you don't want to do, other than make people laugh. And that's a great job to have.
BE: Do you know if "Run, Fat Boy, Run" is going to be in full release or limited release?
MIB: It'll be a full release. It comes out the end of October; it was going to come out at the end of this month, but then there were some problems with the marketing, the materials weren't ready or something, so they bumped it a month, and it comes out in October. But it came out in the UK this past weekend.
BE: Oh, OK. Do you know how it's been received over there?
MIB: Yeah, it's the number one film! So I'd say it's being received pretty well!
BE: And, lastly, "Kids in America."
BE: Yeah, I don't actually know anything about it, other than the fact that you're in it.
MIB: Oh. (laughs) It's Topher Grace and his partner, they created this story, and it's about...it's kind of like a young-adult, coming-of-age-in-the-'80s comedy, a very sort of sweet and funny comedy. I've got a cameo part, basically. Topher asked me to do it, and I said "sure." It was fun. He's a great guy, and it seemed like they were doing a really nice job with it. And I hope it's successful for them.
BE: Cool. Anything else you wanted to mention?
MIB: (thinks for a moment) Nahhhhhhh.
BE: (laughs) OK, well, I'm glad I didn't end up losing you during the course of the conversation after all.
MIB: I am, too. It worked out great.
BE: Hope you get down this way to do stand-up. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
MIB: You, too. Thank you so much!