If you ever find yourself in conversation with people who say they’re unfamiliar with Michael Ian Black, it’s hard to know where to start. Because they are familiar with Michael Ian Black. They just don’t know it.
You’ll probably want to lead with “The State”, because for many of the comic’s fans, the beloved MTV sketch series is where they first encountered Black’s bone dry and slightly askew humor. If they’re familiar with “The State”, then congratulations, you have chosen friends wisely. You’ll all fall down the K-Hole of discussing the projects that Black has made with his former cast mates: “Viva Variety” and “Stella” and “Burning Love” and “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Michael & Michael have Issues”. They were all very funny, you’ll note. “When the hell are we going to get a ‘The State’ movie’?” someone will ask. Heads will nod vigorously.
But perhaps your audience knows nothing of these things. Perhaps they are living unfulfilled lives. This is ok. No judging. Simply move along to Black’s dalliance with the mainstream. He’s currently hosting “Trust me, I’m a Game Show Host” on TBS alongside D.L. Hughley. Or if they had cable in the mid 2000s, there’s a good chance that they saw Black as a talking head on VH1’s “I Love the ’90s” (and ’80s and ’70s). Who didn’t love “I Love the 90s”? Maybe they caught him during his stretch hosting “The Late Late Show”. Or maybe they watched NBC’s underappreciated dramedy “Ed”, where Black served as a comedic foil to Tom Cavanagh and Julie Bowen’s puppy love. That show was good. Offer to fight anyone who disagrees.
Of course, these are just the instances where Black has appeared in front of a camera. You can tell them about the films he’s scripted, even if neither “Run, Fat Boy, Run” nor “Wedding Daze” put up “Titanic” numbers. You can mention his children’s books (“Naked”, “Chicken Cheeks”, “I’m Bored”) or collection of essays (“My Custom Van”) or memoir (“You’re Not Doing it Right”) or travelogue with Meghan McCain. Or pull up his Twitter handle, where he’s been known to weigh in political and social issues, and has been generally unafraid to lob bombs. (Just over this weekend, he engaged in some tête-à-têt on gun violence.)
You’ll have the opportunity to see that face in person over the next few weeks, as Black plays travels across the U.S. on a stand-up tour, which kicks off tonight in DC. Last week, BYT called him at home in Connecticut home to see how preparation for the trek was coming along.
What projects are currently working on?
At the moment, I’m mainly getting ready for the tour. I’m spending most of my writing hours working on new stuff, trying to make it wonderful.
Do you try out material at smaller clubs prior to a tour?
Um… no. I tend to unleash it all at once, which may or may not be a good thing.
DC is the first show. This could go horribly.
You are the first show. I would say it’s unlikely that it will go horribly, but there certainly could be some awkward moments, which as a comedy fan, I enjoy. I’m interested in the weird moments that can happen when things are developing.
Outside of stand-up, when you’re evaluating offers or projects that you aren’t developing yourself, what is that you’re looking for?
Over the past few years, my main criteria has been: Will this be fun? And if it will be fun, then I tend to do it. And if it’s not going to be fun, or it may not be as fun as other things: Will it give me a lot of money? If the answer is yes, then I will do that thing.
Has that criteria changed through the years?
It used to be that I would do anything, just because I was terrified that nobody would hire me again. So, if someone wanted to hire me, I would do it. But I realized that I wasn’t enjoying myself all of the time, and there was no reason to not enjoy myself, so it had to either be fun or profitable, but hopefully both.
As someone who’s been in show businesses for so many years, I imagine that you’ve developed some thick skin, but has there ever been a time that you’ve been phenomenally surprised or disappointed by a studio or network?
It’s come to point where nothing really surprises one way or the other. But I was led to believe, for example, when I hosted “The Late Late Show” after Craig Kilborn left [in 2004], that the job was going to be mine, and then when it wasn’t, that was surprising. That was probably the biggest one.
There’s been a lot of shake-up across the late night landscape in the past year. What do you think of how things have unfolded? Do you think that the format is still vital or even relevant?
I think any form can be fruitful. I think there are great people doing it right now. I think it’s good that there’s turnover happening with Letterman and Leno going. The way that it’s shaken up the landscape has been really terrific and healthy and exciting.
I mean, I don’t know how much of a future the form has. I don’t see the big shows going anywhere. I don’t think that “The Tonight Show” is going anywhere. There will always been talk shows. But the kind of traditional, hour-long, nightly variety show feels increasingly anachronistic to me. When people kind of reinvent it a little bit, that’s interesting to me. “The Daily Show” is a talk show. “The Colbert Report” is a talk show. “Real Time with Bill Maher” is a talk show. There are people that are doing things outside what the tradition is, and I like that stuff.
Is there anyone else that you think does a particularly good job?
I liked “Comedy Bang Bang”, which isn’t really a talk show, but has the trappings of one. And I like Ferguson! I think that Craig Ferguson – who ended up getting the [“Late Late Show”] job that I thought I was going to get – has done a really great job. He’s really under-appreciated and innovative in his own way. He’s brought a silliness to the form that hasn’t been there for a while, and I think that’s really nice.
How do you manage your various projects while living and having a family in Connecticut?
Yes, well, I do a lot with e-mail. And telephone calls. And then sometimes I have to go places, and that’s OK. My life would be a lot easier if I lived in Los Angeles, because there’s just so much more happening there, and I would be present in people’s minds. And I may end up out there at some point. But I prefer the East Coast, and as long I can continue making my living from here, I’ll keep doing it.
I saw on Twitter that you and your wife had given up sugar. How did that go?
The first three days were terrific and then I had ice cream last night, so I have to go back. I took some time off from sugar, so far.
You made a handful of comments and jokes about the Donald Sterling fiasco. Is that something you were especially engrossed by?
I always like racism. It’s never not exciting for me when any kind of racial scandal erupts. It’s just always be exciting. Hopefully, I will never find myself in the center of one, but I certainly enjoy taking other people to task when they express disgusting views.
DC is dealing with its own sports racism controversy of sorts. Today, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to the NFL, asking them to take intervene with regard to the Redskins’ team name. What’s your take on it?
Growing up, I never thought about that name. It wasn’t any kind of cause célèbre. It just never entered my consciousness. But when a segment of the population – particularly a segment of the population who has gone through as much shit as Native Americans have – says, “Look, we find this offensive. Do us a favor. Just do us a solid. Change the name.” And then when the owner doesn’t do it, you go, “Well, why not? What’s the problem?”
If there was a team out there called the Louisville Kikes, and there’s been a long history of the Kikes, and everybody loved the Kikes, and nobody thought it was slanderous towards Jews, I might think to myself as a Jew, “You know what? I would prefer it if you changed the name.” And if there were fans that showed up to games with big bags of money and shook them to scare the opponents, like, “Look at all of our money;” or if they had TV antennas and cheered, “We control the media;” then I would not feel great about that.
I guess that I just don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t change the name.
What’s your history Marc Maron?
We met in the early to mid ‘90s in New York. We were both performing in alternative comedy rooms in New York City, and he never was nice. [Laughs] He was always a dick! [Laughs] That’s the history.
And since then you just haven’t had the smoothest of relationships?
We didn’t hang out very much. We didn’t never hang out, but we almost never hung out, so our paths didn’t cross that much. But when we were hosting Stella, he would perform all of time, because he was funny. But he just never seemed to respect anything that my friends or I did, and that stuck in my craw for years and years and years. But I think that we’ve both matured and mellowed, and we’re better friends now than we ever were.
Generally speaking, what sort of relationships do you comics have? Is there a particular dynamic? There’s a reputation for competitiveness.
There’s certainly competition between comics. My experience has been that it’s less competitive than I would have thought. Comedians actually tend to be pretty supportive of each other. There’s a lot of respect for good comedy and good writing and good performing. Those things are undeniable. You may not like somebody’s particular style, but it’s hard – at least for me – to not respect that somebody is getting up and doing that night after night. It’s a hard thing to do.
I really respect anyone who’s willing to put their neck out in a creative way, because it’s hard. You leave yourself vulnerable, and you know when you’re doing it that some people are going to shit on you, and you have to be willing to take those sort of lumps. I respect comedians. I respect writers, musicians, and generally anyone in their creative endeavors.
With that sort of baseline respect being established, are there comics whose degree of success baffles you?
I think all comedians are shit. [Laughs] I would never shit on somebody. There are people that I get more than others. If people have really found an audience, and I don’t enjoy their comedy, I tend to think that the problem is with me and not with them.
Whose work do you especially enjoy?
There are a lot of people that I really like. I find Hannibal Buress really interesting, just because he’s so kind of deadpan and quiet, but also uproariously funny. Ron Funches is really funny. I don’t know – I don’t see enough comedy. I like Jenn Kirkman a lot.
I like anybody that has a distinct voice. That’s all I really care about when I see comedy: Are you saying things in a way that nobody else can say them? That’s interesting to me.
What draws you to writing children’s books?
That one falls under the “Fun” category. It’s fun to do and relatively easy and not particularly taxing of my time. And, at the end of it, you have a children’s book, which is a really nice thing to have.
How old are your children?
Well, now they’re old. They’re 13 and 11.
How’s that going?
It’s fine. We don’t speak anymore.
Do you read your Amazon user reviews?
Oh, yeah, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t. Of course. My books are generally pretty well received, which is good. But it makes sense – you’re probably not going to buy my book if you don’t at least have some sympathy towards me as a writer or comedian.
You once said that you had all sorts of plans for things that you’d never do, and you specifically cited opening an ice cream stand. What are some other plans?
I’d like to learn how to code – I’m not going to do that. I’d like to learn to speak at least two foreign languages – I’m not going to do that. I might like to become a private pilot – that I will never do. I’d like to spend time in Asia, but I’m not going to do that.
That last one seems a little more tangible than the rest.
Look, I’m not going to spend the money. If someone wants to pay me to go to Asia and hangout, maybe for work or something, that would be terrific. But what am I going to do? I’m going to spend $15,000 to go to Asia and look around? I mean, I’d love it, but I’m probably not going to do it.
What was the last vacation you took?
I was in London last month visiting friends.
Did you do anything of note?
No, not really. I just drove on the wrong side of the road a little bit. That was about it.