Tales from the Road: A Conversation with Michael Ian Black
Michael Ian Black is a founding member of The State, a comedy troupe that produced the last intentionally funny programming ever seen on MTV. As the pitchman for products like Pets.com ad Sierra Mist, Michael Ian Black’s whimsical commercials gave people a reason to pause their DVRs while zipping past ads.
Point being: Michael Ian Black is a performer. He has played a junkie, a pimptacular lover of pudding, a gay demon–trying to list all the memorable roles he’s created would fill lots of space and IMDB does it better, anyway. But he didn’t start doing stand-up until fairly recently.
I asked Michael Ian Black if he had any tales to tell about being on the road as a stand-up. He didn’t have any uproarious stories of drunken debauchery or alien abductions–that he was willing to share–but he did talk about the high-wire aspect of the job and what it’s like to gig and have a family at home.
You’ve been a well-known performer for years–when did you make the choice to do stand-up? Or was it that cut and dried?
Was what cut and dried? What does that mean? Let me put it this way – it was cut but it was not dried. I did a little cutting, thought about drying it, and then decided I preferred it wet. Nice and wet. That’s how I wanted it. To the point where I had to hose it down. So it was more cut and hosed down than cut and dried.
I started doing stand-up as a consequence of people believing that I did stand-up, which I did not. I’d been a performer for probably close to fifteen years before I decided to take stand-up seriously. My background was in sketch comedy and always admired stand-up and the craft of stand-up but was too intimidated to actually try it myself. That changed after I started doing some work for VH1. A college called and asked me if I wanted to perform an hour of comedy for their students. I told them I don’t really do that. They said, “We’ll give you fifteen thousand dollars.” And that’s how I became a stand-up.
I know you toured as a performer before you started doing stand-up; is there a big difference between touring as part of a show or even a duo and doing it on your own?
Yes and no. When I toured as part of a sketch group, that was very different because everybody has to stay on the same page all the time or the sketch won’t work. I mean, if I just start talking about ogre vaginas in a sketch about riding an elevator, there’s going to be some confusion. You have a responsibility to the other performers. But with Stella, my comedy trio, we often went on extended, unscripted tangents. Obviously as a solo performer I can do that as well. Which is part of the reason I love doing stand-up. The freedom is fantastic. That’s why terrorists hate stand-up comedy so much.
I’ve heard some comics comment (often in a routine) on the boring or frustrating aspect to touring–in your experience is there an element to touring that doesn’t get talked about? It seems like there must be an element of weirdness in it too.
I’m still relatively new to it, so the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. Different things are obviously boring or frustrating to different people. I have a pretty high threshold for tolerating the mundane so I’m easy. Also my lifestyle is pretty calm, so it’s not like I’m out there snorting coke off Bob Saget’s tits or anything. I like to go to a town, spend my days working on whatever I’m working on, do my shows, and go back to the hotel. I lead a very low-key life on the road.
What do you do in a new city when you’re waiting for a gig that night?
Work. Find a Starbucks. Sometimes if I’m with a friend we’ll take in a local site or something. I might wander around the town. But I’m not really there to sightsee. Plus I’m too lazy to do much.
How does your family handle it?
Being away from my kids is the toughest part. I’ve got two kids, and they like to have their dad around, even though their dad is me. So I’m careful about how much I travel. I try to be make sure I am home as much as I can be. I think it’s a balance all parents struggle with – you want to be there for your kids as much as possible but you’ve also got to figure out how to make a living. I might just start doing stand-up shows from my house. That would solve a lot of problems. As for my wife, I think she prefers it when I’m away.
Overall, what’s the best thing about touring as a stand-up?
The lack of bullshit. When you make TV and movies, there are so many hoops to jump through, so many people to please, so much hand-wringing and second-guessing and pointless meetings and inane conversations. With stand-up, it’s just you and an audience. It’s an intense, immediate experience. Every show is different; even when you are doing largely the same jokes on a nightly basis, it always feels like a tightrope act. I like that.
What would you change if you could?
I’d probably have better pants.
Steve Huff trained to be gingerdom’s answer to Pavarotti but discovered about 6 years ago that writing was a better fit for his paralyzing form of congenital laziness. He has been a true crime talking head on NBC’s Dateline and CBS’s 48 Hours and written for TruTV’s Crime Library, Radar, Village Voice Media and the New York Observer. Follow his desperate self on Twitter, where Steve has been tweeting the equivalent of a two-year bout of hysterical giggling after 5 years covering mostly murder and mayhem.