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Almost Famous

Michael Ian Black talks fame, feuds and funny business


Published October 5, 2011 at 10:16 a.m.

Michael Ian Black
  • Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black was a founding member of MTV’s cult-hit sketch-comedy show “The State” in the mid-1990s. He was also a star of the equally cultish film Wet Hot American Summer (2001) and has appeared in a number of short-lived TV shows, including the NBC sitcom “Ed” and a string of programs for Comedy Central: a sketch show called “Stella”; a reality-TV satire, “Reality Bites Back”; and, most recently, “Michael & Michael Have Issues.” This last was with fellow “State” and “Stella” cast member Michael Showalter. Black has also published a book of humorous essays and a children’s book titled Chicken Cheeks, and is a poker enthusiast. The Connecticut-based funny man, now 40, is currently on a standup tour in support of his new comedy album, the ironically titled Very Famous.

Seven Days caught up with Black by phone in advance of his show at the Higher Ground Ballroom on Friday, October 15.

SEVEN DAYS: You are something of a cult figure. Is that something you’ve embraced?

MICHAEL IAN BLACK: Well, I’m very happy with the fact that people know me at all and care about the work that I’ve done. It doesn’t bother me that it’s not a ton of people. What I would like is just that those people give me a lot more money than they do.

SD: Cult figures often have strange fans. What’s the weirdest experience you’ve had with a fan?

MIB: I don’t think I’ve had any weirder situations than most people have with fans. People are generally fairly respectful and kind. There are always dorks. But there are dorks in every avenue of life. And dorks are generally pleasant people who just have bad social skills.

SD: And dorks are responsible for a lot of the world’s coolest stuff. We need our dorks.

MIB: Absolutely.

SD: Most of your TV shows have been pretty short lived. Do you have a sense of why that is?

MIB: Yes. I think it’s because most people don’t like me. They don’t like what I do. That’s my best guess.

SD: And the dorks aren’t a large enough audience to carry a show?

MIB: That’s right.

SD: Any truth to the rumors of Wet Hot American Summer 2?

MIB: Well, not in any meaningful way. There’s nothing ready to go.

SD: You wear a lot of hats. Is there a difference for you when you’re writing, say, standup versus sketch comedy?

MIB: Yes and no. They’re not so different from each other. They’re kind of the same thing.

SD: Having not done either, I’d imagine standup to be a little more personal.

MIB: Well, now you’re just leading the witness.

SD: You got me. Is the pressure different when you’re performing one or the other?

MIB: Anytime you’re performing live, it’s kind of the same whether you’re doing sketch or standup. And anytime you’re in front of the camera it’s kind of the same, no matter what you’re doing, too. So it depends on who the audience is, whether it’s a live audience or a couple of guys standing around eating muffins while you’re talking.

SD: Is it more difficult to write with a group of people as opposed to coming up with your own material?

MIB: I would say it’s probably easier to write in a group, at least for comedy. It’s sort of hard to be funny by yourself in a room. At least it is for me. I think I write better in a group situation. But my ego demands that I write by myself, because I want to feel like I did something on my own.

SD: Do you have much of an ego?

MIB: I suppose. But there’s a way to be utterly self-loathing and have an ego about it.

SD: Isn’t that the root of most comedy?

MIB: I think it might be the root of being a human being.

SD: I loathe reality television, so I loved “Reality Bites Back.” As someone who has written a lot of scripted TV, how do you feel about the reality-TV phenomenon?

MIB: Oh, I hate it. Most because I think they’re terrible. I can’t watch any of them. I don’t believe anything I’m seeing. I’m not invested in it. I don’t care.

SD: Why is it so popular?

MIB: I don’t know. I think if you believe what you’re seeing is real, I could see how it’s compelling on some level. But if you know it’s all made up and it’s just these idiots who want to be on television running around making fools of themselves, it’s hard to have any sympathy for them. And that’s where I am. I don’t like them.

SD: Isn’t that sort of the point: cartoonishly lurid voyeurism?

MIB: But voyeurism implies they don’t know we’re watching.

SD: That’s true. So it’s exhibitionism.

MIB: Right. And I don’t need to see a group of whores parading up and down the street. [Pauses] Actually, if there was a whore parade in my town, I would probably watch that.

SD: You had a fake feud with [comedic writer] David Sedaris a few years back, and now you’ve lowered your barrel on [English actor] Ian McShane. Do you really want to fuck with Al Swearengen [McShane’s character on the former HBO series “Deadwood”]?

MIB: Well, the David Sedaris thing wasn’t a feud, in the sense that he never knew we were having a feud.

SD: It was a little one sided.

MIB: He doesn’t know who I am. The same is true with Ian McShane. I like both of them. But neither of them has any idea of who I am, and neither of them would have heard that I am feuding with them.

SD: The thing with Sedaris was you making a universally loved figure a target. McShane isn’t on that level, though. Why him?

MIB: His relative obscurity makes him that much more of a target. Because why would you go after Ian McShane, of all people? That is the appeal.

SD: I mentioned to a friend that I was interviewing you and the first thing he said was, “Oh, I loved him in ‘The Kids in the Hall’!” I gather that’s a common misperception.

MIB: I get recognized for being in “The Kids in the Hall” more than for things I was actually in.

SD: Does that bother you?

MIB: Not anymore. I like it because now I get credit for being in “The Kids in the Hall.” I’m really happy about that.

SD: You should get royalties.

MIB: I think I’ve got a case.

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