Comedian Michael Ian Black on Being Dead Inside But Still Funny
Comedian Michael Ian Black describes himself as a suburban douchebag from Connecticut. In his new (and second) book, "You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death and Other Humiliations, which comes out Feb. 28, the star of the cult-classic Wet Hot American Summer and writer/director of Wedding Daze puts it all out on the table. He confesses his flirtation with sperm donation and fumes over an Easy Bake Oven.
The hilarious, self-deprecating autobiography tries to answer the lingering question (and the book's foreword) of "How did I get here?" from the Talking Heads' song, "Once in a Lifetime." Michael took the time to talk to Runnin' Scared about writing this book, living in New York, and hating high school. He'll speak about more humiliations at the WORD bookstore in Brooklyn on Feb. 29 and Strand on March 1st.
Runnin' Scared: In your book, you talk about taking a career test, which told you to become a paralegal and/or novelist. Did this prompt you to write a book?
Michael Ian Black: I've written another book, which featured a collection of dumb essays that are just silly. I like that stuff but I felt, to move myself forward creatively, I needed to do something that kind of broke out of what I've been doing. It's something more personal and a little more revealing than my previous work so this was a decision to move more in that direction.
Runnin' Scared: After writing several books, you said you describe yourself now as "New York Times best-selling author Michael Ian Black." How is that different for you now as opposed to what fans know you from Stella, Michael and Michael Have Issues, Wet Hot American Summer, etc.?
Black: It hasn't changed me other than the way I prefer to introduce myself to other people. To me, it's like gaining tutelage -- now I have a title. I am more casual; you don't need to refer to me as a 'New York Times best-selling author.' It's just something that's true about me and needs to be interjected into most conversations. For example, when I go to the doctor's office and they ask for patient's name, I say 'New York Times best-selling author Michael Ian Black.'
Runnin' Scared: You talk a lot about sexual self discovery in your book. What did your wife, Martha, say about your self-proclaimed "Great Year of Sexual Liberation" before meeting her?
Black: She didn't care about that. I think she would have if she discovered some extended homosexual layers of my past. For her, the more heterosexual sex I had in the past, the better she feels about our relationship. If I didn't out myself until the book about homosexual endeavors, and then she read it, that would've prompted some difficultly awkward conversations in our household.
Runnin' Scared: In a review of the book, A. J. Jacobs said he could not believe that you had any emotions. How did that make you feel as a comedian -- is sentimentality uncharted territory in your field?
Black: Oh, I didn't feel anything because I'm dead inside. I don't think being emotional is uncharted territory. A lot of comedy is coming from a fairly deep emotional well and, for me, the stuff that I do is more based on the lack of having emotions and knowing how to respond to them. This book is an attempt to call them out and the reason why I'm still unemotional as an adult is because I was so hyper-emotional as a child. It's like I'm killing my inner child. I think the ability to access emotions is a good thing and I'm working towards that.
Runnin' Scared: Towards the end of the book, you're in high school and you try to avoid getting your ass kicked by this "burnout" named Dale. Besides that event, how did high school in Jersey during the 1980s affect your comedic material later on?
Black: Well I left immediately. I had a very clear thought as I was leaving high school for the final time that burned into my memory and that was that I will never romanticize high school and I haven't because it was a rough time for me. I think it is for a lot of people. It's a rough time and I hated pretty much every moment of it. It's a pretty universal feeling; if you loved high school, chances are you don't love your adult life. Maybe it should be because it ends up forming your adult character that you wouldn't have had if you didn't fail through high school. Then again, I don't know any comedians that were really popular. There must be one but I can't think of any right now.
Runnin' Scared : The book has a lot of emotional highs and lows -- from death to meeting the love of your life. Was it tricky balancing lightness and darkness?
Black: It was more about trusting myself to write honestly, which is hard, as opposed to not writing any jokes at all and that it was okay to layer those things with humor. Once I got over the hump of trusting myself to do that, it wasn't that hard.
Runnin' Scared : With your BMW and Connecticut home, you wrote that you feel like you're now more of a douchebag than your neighbor in New Jersey named Bill. Do you think you're now less cool now?
Black: Oh, there's no question! I have eclipsed my old neighbor's douchey-ness by a factor of a hundred. He had a yellow lab; I have a golden retriever, a kitty cat, I wear a robe sometimes and I wear slippers. I am as douchey as they come and proud of it, loving it, loving my own douchey-ness and hating it. Ladling douchey-ness over me with the hate of my own spoon.
Runnin' Scared: You went to NYU for acting and then left before graduation. Why did you drop out?
Black: I got a job offer with a friend of mine to tour the country as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and I thought it'd be fun. I don't regret dropping out at all. I was studying acting so it was like, 'Do I really need to get an acting degree to become an actor?' and it turned out obviously well. Rather than incurring more debt, it made more sense to save the money I would have spent on tuition than try to get a job and live and do what I had to do. I'm fortunate it worked out.
Runnin' Scared: How did living in New York City affect your career? BlackI think, to live in New York, you have to have a certain kind of personality. You need to have a little bit of arrogance and a huge capacity for either dreams or self-delusion or maybe for both. And I liked that. I was just naive enough about myself to think that New York might be an advantage for me and it was. All the people I continue to work with were from New York, I learned about the world from New York and it was just a better fit for me than somewhere like Los Angeles, where I think I would've withered and died. For me, living in a shitty small apartment in New York was incredibly great for me at a certain time in my life but it's not what I want to be doing when I'm forty, married and have two kids. I love New York but I didn't want to spend my life there.
Runnin' Scared: Paul Rudd was on The Daily Show last night and he mentioned that another Wet Hot American Summer is in the works. Are you part of this?
Black: I will be involved in it but I'm always hesitant to discuss any project until it's actually happening because things come together and fall apart so fast that I'm reluctant to talk about anything until it's actually being made. To my knowledge, there's no company involved at this point; no one has ponied up a budget. It's worth remembering that the original movie made only $300,000 at the box office; it made zero money. Although the film's reputation has grown in time and the cast has become more established, until someone says, 'Yes, we believe in this,' I will remain skeptical.
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