Talking to Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter About Their Podcast ‘Topics’ and Other Stuff
In the increasingly competitive world of comedic podcasting, earning the title of “must-listen” can be quite challenging. With an abundance of engaging options available to occupy your 9-5, a discerning ear is essential to remain up-to-date on the very best in audio entertainment. Earwolf, arguably the industry’s leading tastemaker in comedy podcasts, recently added the sophisticated humor of frequent collaborators Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter to their all-star roster by agreeing to host their previously independent podcast, Topics. A comedy podcast set in the non-traditional world of intellectual debate, Topics eschews a number of traditional podcasting norms to create a droll, uniquely entertaining experience certainly worthy of joining the exclusive ranks of “must-listen” podcasts.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter about the origins of Topics, upcoming plans for future episodes, and their current projects outside the realm of podcasting.
I was curious about the origins of Topics. I always felt that the Twitter exchanges between the two of you, which share a similar comedic energy found on Topics, may have been the impetus behind the podcast. Did Topics derive from those Twitter conversations or was it something else entirely?
Michael Showalter: Mike and I for a couple of years, this would be around 2008-2009, did a bit of cross country touring; doing a bit of standup comedy on the road together. We did at least one full big tour and I think some mini-tours. And when we were driving long hours, we’d often get into these conversations — that’s actually mostly how we communicate. We’re almost never just sincerely talking to each other as two human beings. And these conversations would span days sometimes. And so then the Twitter thing happened and then I think we started talking about if there was a way to translate that into a podcast and originally it wasn’t going to be me and Mike. It was going to be fictional characters. It was going to be a fictional podcast.
How would that fictional podcast have been setup?
Michael Ian Black: Well, it was only going to be fictional in a sense that we were going to be playing characters having these conversations.
Showalter: It was like they had a radio show in like Raleigh, NC. It was like a two suburban dads in a garage kind of thing.
Prior to this interview I sent out an email asking a few colleagues to describe the humor of Topics. One person described it as an NPR parody, another as a unique brand of satire, the other a form of meta-facetiousness. How would you two describe the unique humor of Topics?
Black: I think we find it very funny to have these totally banal conversations, but doing it as if we’re the first people to ever have these incredibly trite thoughts. That has always been funny to me. As it’s evolved there’s also something funny about the self-congratulatory nature of it. How kind of proud they are of their own inanity.
Showalter: They’re not nearly as smart as they think they are.
I wrote in a recent review that I felt the characters had a unique type of modest arrogance.
Black: Yeah, their arrogance is sort of faux-modest where it’s a combination of sometimes just outright arrogance and sometimes sort of faux-humility, and then there’s also a kind of competitive nature between them.
Showalter: Yeah I was gonna say there’s a very subtle form of one-upmanship that is layered into these kinds of conversations where even though they’re very much congratulating each other and complimenting each other, they’re also sparring a little bit.
Can you guys speak about how Topics ended up on Earwolf? Was that something you were actively pursuing when you started the podcast?
Black: I don’t even know. Showalter did that.
Showalter: I had gotten to know those guys because they had made a lot of great podcasts by friends of ours. Honestly, it’s just a matter of they make it easier for us to do our show.
Black: They make it easier to produce what we do.
Does the success of Topics mean we’ve heard the last of Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, or the debut of Cat Matters?
Black: No. That’s not my intention, it’s just Tom [Cavanagh] and I haven’t been able to get our shit together to do it, so I hope Mike and Tom Eat Snacks re-launches sometime fairly soon, but who knows.
Showalter: Cat Matters is on indefinite hold. I want to do it one day, it’s just a matter of not feeling like I have the time at the moment to do it the way I would want to. But it is definitely something that one day I would love to do.
You both have had a tremendous amount of literary success, is there any chance you’d ever collaborate on a Topics inspired guide to life?
Black: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I hope someone wants us to write that one day because I know we have a lot of important thoughts on that subject.
Showalter: You know what? We got an email and this is sort of changing the subject, but I thought this was a good idea for an episode of Topics, if not a regular part of the show. Someone suggested we do a fact-correcting episode, where we correct some of the facts that we got wrong.
Black: That’s a good idea.
Do you think you might implement that in future episodes or would it be a standalone episode?
Showalter: It’s something Mike and I need to have a discussion about. But it could either be a standalone episode or something that happens every couple of episodes.
Black: I like the idea of putting it at the end of episodes, just a quick, fact check thing. We can try anything. There are no rules.
Do either of you have any specific plans to write another book?
Showalter: I have another book in the works, but I just had my deadline extended by two years, so it’s not anywhere near ready.
Black: I’m in the process of writing a new book, and it’s also nowhere near ready.
Showalter: I like the idea of doing a Topics book. I think that’s a good idea.
Michael Ian Black, congratulations on your new role on CBS’s Gaffigan. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the pilot?
Black: Well, it’s basically just the story of Jim [Gaffigan]’s life in New York, which is unusual insomuch as he’s a married guy with five kids living in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan. I know they shot a pilot last year on the same premise and then CBS wanted to retool it so they did, and I just auditioned like anybody and was lucky enough to get the part. So we shot it a few weeks ago and now we’re just waiting to hear.
Michael Showalter, you’ve had such a prolific writing career penning film, sketch, television and comedic memoirs and now you’re writing on Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night, can you talk a little bit about the transition from New York to Los Angeles and writing for a traditional sitcom?
Showalter: You know I’ve been in New York a long time, and I felt that it was time to try something different and I was interested in writing in the network world, having done cable for a long time. So I took advantage of the opportunity to write on Super Fun Night as a way to also come out to LA and it’s been pretty great, actually. I mean it’s a different way of life, but it’s been really nice to be a little more suburban. We live in the Valley. We’re like regular suburbanites.
You two had David Wain on an earlier episode of Topics. Do you have plans for any future guests?
Showalter: Yes. We have Paul Rudd coming up, and David is going to be a guest again. And we have plans to have other guests as well.
Are there any podcasts that either of you listen to on a regular basis? Any specific podcasts you would recommend to our readers?
Showalter: I listen to a bunch of stuff. I listen to How Did This Get Made?, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Raphael’s show. I listen to This American Life, The TedTalks Hour, and I listen to The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is the best podcast ever.
I’ve never heard of that.
Showalter: It’s a 200-part podcast in like 10-minute pieces that describes the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
Black: I started listening to that, and I got bored because I couldn’t keep track of everybody.
Showalter: It is hard to follow, but it’s worth it.
Black: I like dipping into Steve Agee’s podcast, which is just called Uhhh. I was listening to Brett Gelman’s podcast [Gelmania] the other day, which was funny. Chelsea Peretti’s podcast [Call Chelsea Peretti] I think is funny.
Showalter: Obviously WTF, but we don’t need to promote that.
Black: That doesn’t need the help. Oh, Wits is good. John Moe’s NPR show.
Showalter: Sklarbro Country. Chat Show with Kevin Pollak.
Black: Kevin Pereira’s podcast [Pointless]. And I just did Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast, and that was pretty fun. Jen Kirkman’s podcast [I Seem Fun] is pretty good. I like that one.
Finally, if you were to recommend one episode for someone unfamiliar with Topics, what episode would you suggest?
Michael Ian Black: I liked “The Little Things,” and “Is Life a Dream?” is good; we really cover a lot of ground on the Middle East. It’s the kind of thing, if you just listen to one, well maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. I don’t know. I just always assume whatever I do people are gonna dislike it, but who knows?
Josh Sorokach is a comedy writer living in NYC who was once referred to as a “Poor Man’s Joshua Jackson” while on a date.