Michael Ian Black is an actor, comedian, director, writer, poker player, and Connecticut dad. But he’s best known as one third of Stella, a comedy troupe that includes David Wain and Michael Showalter, who together, were part of The State, the subversive MTV sketch comedy show that ran in the mid ’90s. Since it’s cancellation, Black has carved a niche in the comedy world that’s made him a familiar face on Comedy Central, appearing on his own stand-up specials and shows like Reno 911! Lately though, Black has focused his energy on writing books, including his latest, the addictive autobiography, You’re Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations.
The crude tell-all embraces human incompetence and the mistakes we’re prone to make as we figure out life, and it’s filled with earnest revelations from a man who professionally protects himself with jokes. He recently stopped by Brooklyn bookstore The Word to read passages from his book, and was joined onstage by Meghan McCain (The pair are writing a political book tentatively titled America,You Sexy Bitch). We stole him for a second to ask him some questions about the catharsis of letting it all hang out.
Has it been a rewarding experience meeting fans who have supported you throughout the years?
I have many opportunities to meet people because I tour a fair amount, and I feel like I’ve gotten good at it. I feel like I know how to be gracious, to listen, to accept compliments, and then to thank them and keep going. It’s a strange thing that you learn when you’re in the public eye, even in a limited way like I am. You end up affecting people’s lives in small ways, but they care about your work, and most of the time they just want to acknowledge that.
It must be intense to read diary entries to a room full of strangers. What has that been like?
The hardest part hasn’t been reading from the book, it’s been talking extraneously about myself without relying on jokes and feeling comfortable standing in front of a room of strangers without the comfort of punch lines, which I’ve been very deliberately trying to do.
Is it hard for you to trust that people are going to be okay with you when you do that?
It’s hard because I’m a comedian. A comedian is a comedian because they use comedy to protect themselves. It’s your suit of armor. So, to take that off is going to make a comedian feel vulnerable. Audiences have been really respectful of that, and really kind, which I would expect because they’re coming to see me and it would be weird if they were like, You’re a fuckin’ dick for not sitting up there making jokes.
Does being expected to be funny all the time disconnect you from other parts of peoples’ lives?
In my personal life, there’s not that expectation. I mean, when I’m home, for the most part, I’m suburban dad. I wear pleated cargo shorts and socks.
Ew. Oh god, sorry.
That’s not true, but your “ew” is noted. It’s not true, I don’t wear that.
That’s good. I noticed when I went to see you at your first Brooklyn book signing that everyone expects you to have a punchline up your sleeve. That’s a lot of pressure.
It is, and I’ve been very conscious of it. I’ve been deliberately trying to—in my head I’m calling it change the conversation—from that of stand up comedy to something else. What that something else is, I don’t know exactly, but it’s not stand up comedy and I’m not showing up at these book stores with the intention of making jokes for 90 minutes.
It was amusing that you brought Meghan McCain to your book signing in Brooklyn. I keep telling people about when a fan asked you what you want the next four years of your life to look like, and you coyly turned toward Meghan and said “Well, Obama.”
(Imitating McCain) “Fuck you, Black! FUCK YOU!”
What do you think the common thread that links people to this book is?
I think most people feel like they’re at a pretty deep level of ineptitude. My sense is that it’s both true and untrue, that we are all just fools. But what nobody says is that you’re supposed to be. And there’s an expectation that everybody except you has their shit together and knows exactly what they are doing at all times, and what I’ve learned is that the opposite is true. Nobody knows from one minute to the next what the hell they’re doing.
Has archiving your most intimate tales been cathartic?
In some ways, yes. There has not been any kind of emotional catharsis. There’s been no cleansing, but the act of writing the book forced me to undergo a kind of assessment of who I am and where I am. That has been good for me.
Was being an artist something you’ve always been compelled to be?
I think so, although, that kind of compulsion, I didn’t identify it in that way. I identified it, initially in my life, as a way to entertain myself, a way to distract myself. It never occurred to me that it was anything other than that, that I had any sort of artistic leanings, that I was doing anything even out of the norm, although I think I probably was. Not every kid was devoting hours and hours and hours to writing joke titles for future Rocky movies.
I didn’t have any friends that did that.
But all kids have their weird things that they do. I never thought of it as a compulsion; I think because it implies a kind of madness, or a kind of otherness, which I don’t feel like I have, in which I guess I’m reluctant to embrace because I feel like it might discourage people; because they’ll feel like “I’m not crazy like that so therefore I’m not artistic”, and I don’t think that’s the case. There’s a blurry line between artistic compulsion vs. making money. To me, they’re the same impulse, you just call them different things. I would encourage anybody to listen to whatever that voice is and just do whatever that thing is that you wanna do.
Well, even reading about let’s say, your sexual experiences: I would not want my mother or my child to know all the sordid details of my affairs.
Well, my kids are too young to read it but at some point, I’m sure they will. But, like, we’re all human beings. We all take shits. I hope that my kids, whenever they decide to read this, recognize that I’m a person just like every person, and I go through all the same stuff that everybody else goes through. I guess I kind of go, Well, so what? Who cares who had their mouth on my balls?