The Daily Texan spoke with Black about snacks, the art of burlesque and his chronic difficulty keeping a television show on the air.
The Daily Texan: So we’re a university publication, and while you were in college, you co-founded the improv group that would eventually come to be known as The State with guys like Ken Marino, David Wain and Michael Showalter. What about the college atmosphere do you think can contribute to sketch comedy?
Michael Ian Black: Well, specifically with The State, we all were at NYU, and we were all in performing arts in one way or another, and we didn’t know each other. We were freshmen. There was some desire from a lot of people to join a sketch comedy troupe, but there really wasn’t one there that was open to students. So a guy who was a year older than us started one, and we all joined. The fact that we were in college was great because that pretty much was our social life. That was what we did. We worked on our sketch comedy troupe when we weren’t in class, and we became great friends as a result.
DT: Do you do a lot of college shows?
Black: I do a fair amount of college shows, yeah.
DT: What attracts you to them? Is there an atmosphere on campus that stands out in comparison to other shows you do?
Black: The best thing about doing college shows is they pay incredibly well. They pay very, very well. So it’s a joy to come and make some money. That’s my favorite part of the experience. That said, college audiences tend to be really enthusiastic and young and looking for something fun to do, so yeah, it’s great to go to colleges and hang out with students and get their take on what’s going on in the world.
DT: Do you think your sketch comedy background helps when you’re doing stand-up?
Black: My sketch comedy background was very, very helpful when making the transition into stand-up comedy. Jokes are just jokes, you know? The form is a little different, and the way you present it can be different, but the structure of comedy remains the same, and it translates.
DT: You’ve had an incredibly diverse range of projects you’ve worked on: stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, voice-over work, books, even children’s books. What, at this point, stands out to you as something you hold dear or that you’re proud of?
Black: Well, something that doesn’t get the attention that I wish it would is my work in the burlesque. I do a very classic burlesque show, where it’s sexy but I’m not giving away the store, you know? I’m always holding something back.
DT: Oh, yeah. You’ve got to keep some mystery.
Black: It’s retro. I’m showing skin, but I’m not showing all the skin. I wish more people paid attention to my burlesque work.
DT: What’s a medium you haven’t worked in or you feel you haven’t worked in enough that you’d like to try in the future?
Black: I think I’d like to work in the medium of successful television show. I’ve already worked in the medium of television show but not in the medium of successful television show. I’d like to work in that medium. The kind of medium where you show up and people say, ‘Oh, you’re doing a great job. Let’s keep you on the air for several years.’
DT: I know that’s become kind of your thing — poking fun of the amount of shows you’ve been involved with that end up getting cancelled [“Michael and Michael Have Issues,” “Ed,” “The State,” “Stella”]. I imagine it gets incredibly disappointing. Do you think that making fun of that is therapeutic for you?
Black: You just go with what you’ve got. It would be stupid of me to not acknowledge the fact that I can’t keep a television show on the air because I can’t. [Laughter] I mean, maybe I shouldn’t be highlighting it as much as I do, but I find it entertaining. Failure is a lot funnier than success.
DT: You took a cross-country trip with Meghan McCain this summer for a book you two are working on, correct?
DT: How did that come about? It’s a really interesting and unexpected combination.
Black: Well, we’re two very different people who didn’t really know each other. We had met very briefly. Then I had the idea that we should write a book together. I’ve always been interested in politics, and she’s obviously involved in politics. I wouldn’t say I’m political in the same way that she is, but I thought the two of us could have a story to tell, which is the story of two people who have nothing in common traveling the country and trying to figure out what we love and hate about America.
It was amazing. We were in an RV for a month, and we traveled all over the country. We met a lot of people, did a lot of talking and a lot of listening, and a lot of going to strip clubs and having a great time.
DT: I have to ask you about your podcast with Tom Cavanagh [Mike and Tom Eat Snacks] because I’m an avid listener. How did that come about? Did you decide to do a podcast first and then decide it was going to be about eating snacks, or did you just really feel the need to find a way to talk about food in some way or another?
Black: I’m actually driving on my way to record the podcast as we speak. The way it came about was Tom, who I was on a TV show with called “Ed,” had stayed in touch with me and we have always wanted to do something together, but it’s very hard to get people to write you checks to do something in show business. So finally, we were just like, ‘Fuck it, let’s do something on our own.’ And we decided the easiest thing to do would be a podcast, which requires very little in terms of budget and in terms of time. And the idea of doing a podcast about snacks just seemed like a really fun thing we could talk about and that we both enjoy. Everybody loves snacks.
DT: Exactly. What’s been the most surprising snack to you, either in that you’ve been surprised at how much you liked it or by how much it’s disappointed you?
Black: I was surprised at how shitty Combos are. Combos, in my mind, have always been a very reliable snack. And yet when you eat them critically, as I have learned to do, it turns out they’re terrible.
DT: You’re really active on Twitter. You had a kind of faux Twitter war with LeVar Burton [former host of “Reading Rainbow”], and you even started a Twitter campaign to become the spokesperson for Taco Bell. Does that just happen out of boredom, or ... ?
Black: Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s out of boredom. It’s out of boredom, narcissism, desperation, suicidal impulses, fear.
DT: How much of the stand-up you’re doing on your current tour can be found on your recent Comedy Central special “Very Famous?”
Black: Very little. If you come to the show and you’ve seen the special, you’ll see almost nothing that’s the same.
DT: Does your routine change during the course of your stand-up tours?
Black: It changes constantly. I’m always changing things, shuffling things around, putting in new things and taking out old things. Constant devolution.
Printed on October 6, 2011 as: Poker-faced comedian Michael Black to perform in Austin