Looking Back at Michael Ian Black’s Untraditional Career
Michael Ian Black is very famous. Well, he’s not that famous, but he keeps telling the world he is. In fact, his upcoming Comedy Central special on Saturday August 6 is actually titled “Michael Ian Black: Very Famous.” Whether or not Black is actually famous is up for debate, but there is no debating that he is an incredibly funny comedian.
The weird thing about Black’s career is that it has been somewhat in reverse for the past 20 years. He hasn’t become less famous, but he has slowly become a bigger star by using different mediums to achieve this fame. Many comedians start out their careers by doing stand-up and hope one day to get noticed by Comedy Central where he or she will get a stand-up special. If all goes well, he or she might get a television development deal and could in fact even become an actor or actress. This is where Black has done things backwards. He started out on television in 1993 with MTV’s The State. He then went on to act on a successful NBC show. He continued this reversal of a career by trying stand up, writing books, co-hosting a podcast, and now having his own Comedy Central special. If Howard Stern is the “King of All Media,” Michael Ian Black is the “Sardonic Court Jester of All Media,” yet is still widely unknown to the general public.
For any big fan of Michael Ian Black, the following conversation is typical when trying to explain who he is:
FAN: I love Michael Ian Black. He’s hilarious.
OTHER PERSON: Who’s Michael Ian Black?
F: Did you ever watch The State? He was in that group.
OP: I never watched it, but I’ve heard of it. Aren’t those the guys who went on to do Reno 911!?
F: Yes, but he wasn’t one of the people on Reno 911!. Have you seen the movie Wet Hot American Summer? He plays the gay guy in it.
OP: I thought Bradley Cooper played the gay guy. I don’t remember two gay guys in it.
F: Have you seen any of those VH1 I Love the ‘80s shows? He’s the really funny guy in them.
OP: Oh! You mean Hal Sparks.
F: Yep, that’s who I meant. Hal Sparks.
For any true fan of Michael Ian Black, this conversation has probably happened. It’s a very difficult task trying to tell someone about him, even though the guy has done everything there is to do in the entertainment business.
So, in honor of his upcoming special Very Famous, here is a presentation of most everything Michael Ian Black has done throughout his career based on type of job.
Black has been in a number of films and had a co-starring role on the NBC show Ed from 2000-2004. His character of Phil Stubbs in Ed was there for comedic levity throughout the series, but Phil was mostly just an ignorant guy who tried to convince others of his schemes. That’s about all that is memorable from Black in this series as the real star was Tom Cavanagh, who later went on to co-host the MATES podcast with Black. He occasionally appeared in small bit roles in other television series and films, but he never seemed to get much of a chance to really act like anyone other than an extreme version of himself.
The one thing that The State will always have are diehard fans. No matter what the members of The State go on to do in the entertainment world, their fans will follow. Fans of this series — arguably the greatest sketch comedy group ever — will buy, watch, or read anything a State member is involved in. Comedy Central knows this, and has been perhaps the biggest fan of The State since the group left MTV and tried to bring the show to CBS — a failed attempt.
After its demise, the group went on to create other sketch-like shows such as Viva Variety, Reno 911!, Stella, and Michael and Michael Have Issues. Although some of these shows would not be considered traditional sketch shows, they each follow a similar formula of having short bits with extreme characters in them. Whenever Black was on screen as part of a sketch, he stole the scene. He had reoccurring characters as Levon from “Barry and Levon,” Captain Monterey Jack, and as an “On-air Personality” — once again, an exaggerated version of Black himself.
Black has admitted that being part of such an incredibly talented ensemble kept him from trying stand-up comedy for such a long time, but he eventually went out and tried it on his own.
“On-air Personality” or TV Host
Speaking of being an “On-air Personality,” Black is most remembered by the general public for his appearances on the VH1 series I Love the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. He had the incredible knack for delivering a sarcastic remark with an amazing deadpan stare about everything from Troll dolls to Walkmans. Black’s humor perfectly meshed with these types of shows, something he explains in his stand-up album I Am a Wonderful Man.
“My son likes jokes, and he always wants me to tell him jokes. I have to explain to him that although I am a comedian I don’t really know any jokes. And when I give him my sardonic commentary about pop artifacts from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, he’s very fucking under-appreciative.”
Black has also played host on television shows a number of times, including the Comedy Central fake reality show Reality Bites Back. Black was also a finalist to be the host of The Late Late Show after Craig Kilborn left. At the time, Black was on the show Ed, which was produced by David Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants which also produced The Late Late Show. The job eventually went to Craig Ferguson, who has become an incredibly popular talk show host.
Black has been the spokesman for Sierra Mist, Klondike bars, and was the voice of the Pets.com sock puppet. Although he has been a successful spokesman for these companies in the past, he lost out on becoming the spokesman for Taco Bell after creating a social media campaign on Twitter and YouTube. Black went on his very popular Twitter feed and announced that he wanted to be the next Taco Bell spokesman. He even made a video that asked President Obama to appoint him to this position. The whole ordeal was quite hilarious, but nothing ever came of it. Eventually, new commercials for Taco Bell were released with Aasif Mandvi — a correspondent on The Daily Show — starring in them.
The comedian made his film-directing debut with the Jason Biggs vehicle Wedding Daze. It was his last film directed. By no means is the film horrible, but it is indeed very, very forgettable. It’s about a guy (Biggs) whose girlfriend dies when he proposes to her. He then proposes to a waitress (Isla Fisher) while he is trying to get over her. She says yes and hilarity ensues — maybe, it’s been awhile and as previously stated the film is pretty forgettable. It currently has a 5.8 out of 10 rating on IMDB.
Black has always been a part of the writing process for the shows he has been on, and has a few film writing credits as well, but he has recently become a very respected book author. He has published three children’s books: The Purple Kangaroo, Chicken Cheeks, and A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea, and has two books currently in the works including one co-written with Megan McCain — Senator John McCain’s daughter — called Stupid for America.
His one published book so far — My Custom Van: And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays that Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face — was met with high acclaim. The essays truly represent Black’s completely random humor with titles like “Vampires — Good for the Economy?,” “What I Would Be Thinking If I Were Billy Joel Driving to a Holiday Party Where I Knew There Was Going to Be a Piano,” and “Some DJ Names I’ve Been Considering.”
A sample from that last essay: “Recently I read a study with a conclusion that was, frankly, startling. By the year 2013, every man, woman, and child on earth is going to need a DJ name. Nowhere in the article was it explained why we would all need DJ names, but just because I don’t understand the science behind the study doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
He then goes on to list several dozen names he has brainstormed including DJ Sandra Bullock Fan, DJ Super DJ, DJ Edamame, and DJ VD PHD. If he has put this much work in thinking up DJ names as he has talking to people about politics, his Stupid For America book will be fantastic.
His MATES podcast (Mike And Tom Eat Snacks) is one of the funniest podcasts ever. It’s a simple concept. Mike and Tom — his Ed co-star Tom Cavanagh — use the P.E.R. system to talk about snacks. The P.E.R. system stands for Pick a snack, Eat a snack, Rate a snack. Sure, a good deal of time is actually spent talking about the snacks — everything from Snickers and Fig Newtons to expired Tastykake Krimpets and 3rd Degree Burn Scorchin’ Habanero Doritos — but the highlights of the podcast are when the two friends just converse about nothing in particular. Highlights of the series have included Black’s 18-minute fictional tale about how actor Ian McShane (from Deadwood and Pirates of the Caribbean) regularly steals roles from him; as well as Cavanagh’s eloquent explanation about the names of two teams in the Canadian Football League: the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Black is at his best when he gets to work with a partner or an ensemble, but his specific brand of comedy works very well on stage by himself as well. His first album is really, really funny — especially his theories on how to emasculate men (by ordering for them at Denny’s and by blowing out their candles at their birthday parties).
But, his album cannot truly show how funny Black is on stage because it cannot actually show him. He has the ability to say some of the most snarky and sarcastic comments, but when they are said with a goofy look one has to laugh. Some might get offended with Black’s chants of, “White Power! Yea!” for those who do not fully grasp sarcastic humor by just listening to it. This is why his upcoming comedy special is so important. He will finally get to show off what he is capable of doing to a large audience without the need to fall back on a co-host or ensemble. Maybe, this is the first step to him actually becoming “very famous” after taking dozens of other steps.
Mike D’Avria is a freelance writer. He met Michael Ian Black in person one time and told him he never wanted to meet him in person because he was afraid of being awkward. It wound up being very, very awkward.