On December 17th 1993 a little upstart comedy troupe called “The State” was formed. These 11 comedians and their bizarre style became the modern sketch show (airing on MTV) and was for a time considered a possible rival for Saturday Night Live. Amongst the cast (all of whom were recruited at or around NYU) was Michael Ian Black. Of course as we know The State ended up dissolving three years later. It would spawn many successful spin-off groups (many of which contained Black) and jump started the career of Michael Ian Black well on his way to success.
Of course you might not get that idea when talking to the man himself. After a short phone conversation with Black, I found myself astounded at the man’s humility. For a person so well known for his faux pride on stage (and in sketches) it was a shock to me just how “faux” his bravado was. I am always amazed at what I take away from these interviews. I now have an even more profound respect for how serious Michael Ian Black takes his craft. Before we get into the interview, here’s a clip of his latest comedy special… we’ll talk more about that later:
Right off the top we got to talking about this special and the work that had gone into it. I asked if the creation process had been enjoyable:
“I enjoyed it a lot. What was great about it, from my point of view, is that I had really wanted to spend last year trying to teach myself how to be good at stand-up and it was easier to do that knowing I was working toward something, knowing that I was recording a special at the end of the year. So it really helped my motivation for writing. It was great. It was a great experience.”
On the subject of his unique performance style:
“I couldn’t even describe my style to be honest. I don’t know what someone might find particularly different from anybody else. All I’ve been going for in my comedy is to do material that only I could do. Not that I’m special or anything, it’s just that I think that my favorite comics are doing things that really come from their voice or their point if you. I don’t know how that affected my performance style.”
I took a second to complement him on his taste in comedians, especially those who speak with their own voice. Then as I go on to try and describe his style he interrupts, very tongue and cheek:
“I mean yes! Look am I brilliant? Yes I’m brilliant. Let’s just cut to the chase.”
So what was his motivation to get into comedy? How did he decide to become a comedian? The answer was one of the more shocking:
“I never really chose to get into comedy. I didn’t anticipate being a comedian. It was never an objective of mine. I always thought that I was funny, but I think everyone thinks they are funny, or at least knows what they find amusing. I was never under any illusions that anybody else would find me particularly funny. If my experience at school was any indication, they WOULDN’T! … but I was never the class clown, I never thought anybody would find the things that I found funny…as funny as I found them.”
So how did it all happen? This is the only answer he could give:
“The fact that I’m a comedian at all feels pretty accidental to me."
As accidents go; that’s one I wouldn’t complain about. I moved on to talking about his previous works, and what he felt were stand outs. What was he still a fan of? What projects did he still think about?
“I feel comfortable with what I’ve done. I feel good about the larger body of work that I have… in the sense that I feel like creatively is all… well not all… mostly… more good than bad. But I learn a lot from the bad too. The things that were failures for me are in a many ways just as important as the things that were successes. I’ve had both. I’ve had a lot more failures than success. From a creative point of view, failures are really valuable, because you learn a lot more from F@$King up then you do from succeeding.”
I asked if that had ever NOT been the case. Has he ever had a failure that stuck in his craw?
“When we were doing Stella (which I happen to love) the three of us; Michael Showalter David Wain and myself, thought to ourselves “Well FINALLY!…We’ve figured out something that everyone is going to “get” and love!” And we could not have been more wrong. In retrospect of course I see that people weren’t going understand it. It was totally absurd. I can be self-deprecating, and usually am, but I think Stella is great. Apparently it’s not for everybody… or… maybe even for anybody. The audience just wasn’t there.”
Of course there was a core audience that really enjoyed Stella, of which I count myself a member. The absurdist show which wasn’t quite sketch and wasn’t quite sitcom was insane in parts and brilliant in others. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. (PS: The best scenes are when Michael Ian Black is playing the role of the group’s dark side.)
Of course this isn’t Black’s only experience working with the Stella team. Why do these guys get on so well comedically?
“It’s not just the Stella guys; it’s really The State as a whole. The reason that I work more often with Michael Showalter and David Wain is literally geographic. It’s just that we’re the only guys left on the east coast. If I was there [on the west coast] I’m sure I’d work a lot more with those guys too. As it happens because we worked together for so long and done so many things we have a sort of shorthand. But I share that shorthand with everyone from The State.”
So where can you catch more of Michael Ian Black:
“The special coming out on Saturday [the 6th] and the album is coming out on Tuesday [the 9th] …and then I’m going to tour in the fall. My book coming out in the fall is called You’re Not Doing It Right. Of course, it’s all about my life and my not doing it right.”
And what of the tour? Does he enjoy being on the road?
“The tour is in support of the album. I like touring; I like doing shows and being in front of audiences. I like eating at restaurants. I like being alone in hotel rooms, provided the Internet is good.”
And so it goes. I came off the interview with a new found respect for the man they call Michael Ian Black, and a desire to check out his comedy special again (look for my review HERE). I also wanted to dig out my old VHS copies of “The State”, but realized I’d sold off my VHS player long ago… OH they have it on DVD… neat!
Speaking of neat, here’s a little widget for Black’s new album and special etc…