Before MTV dedicated all of its programming to the smushing guidos of the Garden State, spoiled asshole rich kids turning 16, loads and loads of pregnant teenagers crying and True Life: I Am Fat and Wish I Wasn’t, the Real Life Fictitious Tale of Life Behind the Scenes of MADE playing in a constant loop, it actually made an attempt to air some shows with a creative bent. The best of them: The State, a sketch comedy show at the forefront of what is now called “alternative comedy” that taught us how to dip our balls in things and was a springboard for many a spry comedic mind. Among the cast: the handsome, understatedly cool Michael Ian Black stood out, mostly because he was handsome and understatedly cool (call me!). Since the show, Black has acted, directed, written a few books, been on call 24/7 at the other end of the VH1 pop-culture-talking-head phone line and co-founded the very funny Twitter-aggregator site Witstream (aka the Internet’s Bestest Time Waster), which mines the microblogging site for its funniest nuggets. One thing he has yet to do, though, is tape a stand-up special for Comedy Central. He’s making his way to Philly to do just that this week. PW chatted with MIB over the phone, and we talked about the state of The State reunion, the value of fame and how he got Abe Lincoln to write the foreword to one of his books.
You’re a man of many talents: sketch comedy, TV personality, actor, author, you’ve written and directed movies ... Why do stand-up? What do you get out of it?
Stand-up is probably the most fun thing I do because it’s so immediate. There’s nobody telling you what to do and what not to do. You are totally responsible for yourself. So, it’s a kind of a highwire act. It’s scary, it’s funny and it’s immediate. And it only takes an hour ... and then you have the rest of the day.
Is it more difficult than other forms of comedy, like sketch writing?
It’s difficult in a different way. It’s certainly hard to hold the stage by yourself for an hour, even when you are blessed with as much animal magnetism as I have. It’s a challenge. There’s no one there to save you when you flail. But that’s also what makes it fun. It’s hard making jokes. It’s probably not as hard as mining coal. But it’s probably a close second. You know what? It is harder than mining coal.
What would you like to be known as most?
I don’t give a shit. The only time that matters at all is when I have to introduce myself to somebody. They say, “Well, what do you do?,” and then I have a hard time answering that question. But other than that, it’s not something I give a lot of thought.
Viva Variety, Stella, Michael & Michael Have Issues: Unfortunately, none of the TV shows you’ve been a part of have lasted too long. Is it disheartening to see them canceled?
Of course. It’s always hard when you work really hard on something and have it be met with indifference. It’s disheartening. What’s nice is that, because of DVDs and Internet and everything else, people find those shows. They don’t necessarily find them on the air when their viewership could do me any good whatsoever. They find them much later.
Do you think you’ll ever pitch anything to Comedy Central again?
Who knows. I think they’re probably tired of me because of my track record. I’ve got good relationships with everybody there and we all like each other. It’s just that, for whatever reason, their audience doesn’t want to see me on their television network.
Is there any truth to you getting your own show on MTV?
I saw that was on Wikipedia. I don’t know where that came from. There’s no truth to that.
You call Witstream, a website you co-founded, a “24-hour live comedy ticker.” How has the Internet changed comedy?
I wouldn’t say it’s changed comedy itself. I would say it changed peoples’ previous ability for it to get out there in a profound way. Comedy is comedy and will remain so. Now people who didn’t have a voice before, have a voice. There are so many outlets for people to express themselves comedicly … be it videos, or Youtube, or Twitter, or Witstream. Your voice can be heard and, I know in our experience with Witstream, it’s not necessarily people that are professional comedians who are emerging as the funniest voices. It can be people from all walks of life who live all over the country, but have a specific and unique take on their world. Those are the most interesting voices.
Who are some of your favorite Witstreamers?
There are a ton of them. And a surprising number are women. I say “surprising” only because there is a persistent prejudice in comedy, or our culture, about women being funny. I think what Witstream has proven is that women are just as, if not more, funny than the men. Many of my favorite comics are women. And a lot of times, they are talking about things that are specific to women. But it’s not alienating others ... they’re just funny people.
How did you manage to get Abe Lincoln to write the foreword of your book, My Custom Van?
His people knew my work and I approached them about the former president writing a foreword to the book. There was a lot of back and forth about him being shot. Finally, after a lot of meddling, I wrote him a very nice letter and reminded him that we had actually met. He agreed to write the foreword. To my knowledge, it’s the first time that he had written a foreword to a book ... certainly to a book in the 20th century. Obviously, when a former president writes the foreword to your book, and in particular, a president as well regarded as Abraham Lincoln ... well, it’s more humbling than anything.