Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter Interview
From The State to StellaInterview by Manuel Garcia
The air in the night sent a tingling sensation through my spine, with the hairs on my arms and legs standing straight up like obedient soldiers. An hour before the show, I heard the car engine of my friend thumping as the car swerved through downtown streets the size of anorexic tunnels. We parked next to a dumpster and handed a stranger a five dollar bill, hoping he was authentic and not just some bum trying to score some drug money. There was a small line of fifteen people outside of the venue. Is this it? In front of us, there was a dad with his baseball cap tilted up towards the sky and his two children by his side, probably fourteen or fifteen years old. We can't be in the right place, who on earth would bring their teenage sons to a comedy show like this? We asked the dad with the red polo if this line was for the Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter show, he assured us that it was, but not after telling a joke that I found myself forced to laugh at. Fifteen minutes of waiting in line, I looked behind me and the line was a snake wrapping around the corner of the building.
Michael Showalter started his career doing improv comedy on MTV's The State, which was a rename of the group he joined while at NYU called The New Group. The show lasted for two years. In 1997, Showalter along with Michael Ian Black and David Wain started a comedy trio called Stella. The group had a short-lived show on Comedy Central, which consisted of ten episodes. Showalter went on to co-write Wet Hot American Summer along with fellow Stella member, David Wain. He made his directorial debut with a romantic comedy called The Baxter, in which he also started as the main character. Showalter released a stand-up CD in November of 2007 titled Sandwiches & Cats. Michael Showalter also teaches a screenwriting class at New York University.
Michael Ian Black also started his career with the improv comedy group, The State. Black went on to staring on a satirical Comedy Central show entitled Viva Variety. He also stared in Wet Hot American Summer with Showalter and Wain, who later joined together to form Stella. Black had a supporting role on the NBC show, Ed. Black is most recognized for the Sierra Mist commercials, VH1's "I Love the..." series, and most importantly, the voice of the sock puppet for the Pets.com commercials. He also wrote the screenplays for two very well received comedies, Wedding Daze and Run, Fat Boy, Run (coming out in the United States in March). In September of 2007, Michael Ian Black released a stand up CD entitled I Am A Wonderful Man.
Once in the venue, I called Showalter to announce my arrival and to figure out when the interview is going to take place. I told him with precision where I was standing, I would have even drawn him a map if it were possible. After a few lonesome minutes, standing there waiting for Showalter to appear, I received a phone call. Showalter stated with an evident attitude that he came down and I wasn't where I said I was. Afterwards, he made sure to tell me that he wasn't going to waste his time looking for me. I tried telling him that I was indeed standing where I told him, but he kept interrupting.
I told the Neo-Nazi looking security guard my name and that I was there to interview Showalter. He let me through and I walked across the stage, to a staircase leading up to some unknown abyss. I turned the corner and there was Showalter and Black sitting on a sofa, Showalter eating something that looked like chocolate cake and Black on his black Macbook. After a misunderstanding and a deranged ego, the interview started and I wasn't exactly sure what was going to happen.
Manuel Garcia: Give a brief history of your work as a comedian/director/writer/actor.
Michael Ian Black: A brief history of my work as a comedian?
MG: Yeah, just a brief history of everything you've done and how it all got started.
Black: Right. I think the best bet for you would just be to look it up, instead of me going through my resume.
MG: Okay. I did look it up. It was just a matter of having something there for the people reading to get affiliated with what you've done.
Black: My advice would be, in your interview in an intro, say "You might know him from such and such, the other thing, the other such, the other such."
MG: Alright, that sounds good. What do you remember about your first comedy performance and looking back, how would the reaction to...(Michael Showalter interrupts)
Michael Showalter: Hey, can I make a suggestion and I'm being totally serious. Do you just want to e-mail us these questions and then we can answer them online?
MG: Um, if it's easier for you.
Showalter: I think it might be better.
Black: It's fine with me.
Showalter: Do you want to do it that way?
Black: I'm fine either way.
Showalter: You just have questions. You just have a bunch of random questions. So I think maybe just send them to us.
MG: Actually I have a bunch of questions in regards to the things I researched about you guys. It's not just a bunch of random questions.
Black: I'll be happy to answer your questions now, Manuel.
Black: I'll do it verbally.
Showalter: Alright, let's do that.
Black: What was the question?
MG: What do you remember about your first comedy performance and looking back, how would the reaction to same material be different today?
Black: Well my first comedy performance, I didn't really have material and it didn't go well. And I imagine if I did it again today, it also wouldn't go well.
MG: Was the first comedy performance you've done with The State/The New Group?
Black: The first sketch I did was with The New Group. And the first stand up I did was obviously not The New Group and that didn't go well.
MG: If you did it today, would it go the same way?
Black: No, I would prepare. I would write jokes.
MG: If you had to gamble away one of the projects you have worked on at a game of poker, which one would you be willing to give up?
Black: So if I were to lose, if I knew going into this situation that...
Showalter: Out of all the projects, which one is the least important to you?
Black: Out of everything I've ever done?
Black: SpyTV, yeah. SpyTV.
MG: On your website, you discussed in detail a story your daughter wrote, do you think that critics take the same approach and try to find meaning in everything?
Black: I think critics feel the need to look for deeper truths in things that may not have deeper truths.
MG: Yeah. I took this literary class and everything in the book a specific meaning. Like if the blade of grass was slated to the left, then that meant liberalism. A lot of critics go too deep into something.
Showalter: Well that's the fun of it. That's the subjectivity.
MG: At least when I write, I write just to write. The guy doesn't have a read shirt because he's a communist. People dig into things trying to find meaning in every bit.
Black: I think in fairness, there is stuff to find out even if the writer himself isn't aware of what it is.
MG: And that's the point, finding the meaning of what it comes out to you.
Black: Yeah, but my daughter is a terrible writer.
MG: If you were chosen to write a farewell speech for President Bush, what are some of the things you would say?
Black: Thanks for your service. I think you probably did the best job you could. Good luck in whatever else you choose to do with your life. I hope it's more successful than how your presidency was. He's at that speech that I'm giving, right?
Black: I'm not going to be a dick to him at the speech. He's the President.
MG: Yeah, and it's his farewell.
Black: Yeah, so see you later. We got you this Carvel cake, we hope you enjoy it. I didn't know which kind of ice cream you like so I got one vanilla, one chocolate. That sort of thing.
MG: That's the best way to do it.
Black: With ice cream cakes.
MG: Yeah. How do you feel about comedians that take the easy, typical road and those that take a completely different approach to comedy?
Black: Well I think that the best comedians just listen to their own voice. And I don't think it's, I don't judge comedians in that way. I don't judge comedians by saying, "Oh, he's doing such and such, therefore he's a hack." To me, a comedian...if I feel like a comedian is being honest to himself, that's how I judge comedy, whether or not I feel they are being true to themselves.
MG: If you never joined The State, how do you think your career and the projects you work on would be different?
Black: I would probably have a very different career. I would probably be doing regional theater somewhere. Performing in rivals of The Fantastics.
MG: Twenty years after your death when someone mentions your name, what do you hope they say?
Black: Thank God he walked among us.
MG: What was the writing process like when writing your book, My Custom Van? How does it differ from writing sketches and screenplays?
Black: Well the writing process wasn't that different, it was really just sitting down and writing. You know, obviously writing prose is different than writing scripts, they are just different forms. In terms of process, they weren't that different. You think of an idea and you see it all the way through.
MG: Was there any formula that you went at it with or did you just sit down and write?
Black: There was no formula.
MG: Yeah, isn't it just a collection of your essays?
MG: If you were given an island to form your own community and had to choose who became residents and who was tossed into a pit, who would you choose for each?
Black: What are my choices?
Black: Well, I wouldn't...who would I choose on my island....
Showalter: What was the question?
Black: Who would I want on my island and who would I toss into a pit. Living or dead?
Black: Amelia Earhart, I'll like on my island. Jackie Robinson. Harry Truman. The guy who invented the video game, Centipede. A good tailor.
Showalter: Who's "a good tailor"?
Black: Any good tailor.
Showalter: Oh, I thought you meant there was someone named A Good Tailor.
Black: No, no. Any good tailor. What does my island have on it? Does it have supermarkets? Do I have to hunt my own food?
MG: You have to build it from the ground up.
Black: Oh, well I would want a team of engineers. I'd want a team of urban planters. I'd want hunters.
MG: Probably a doctor.
Black: Oh I definitely want more than one doctor, a few doctors. I'd want some people trained in the arts of animal husbandry.
Showalter: What does that even mean? What is animal husbandry?
Black: I don't know, but it sounded funny in my head.
Showalter: Very funny.
MG: I'm sure now people are going to look it up and figure out what it is.
Black: I think it's mating animals, I think that's what it is. I'd want farmers. I'd want pretty much what you'll want when starting a society.
MG: Yeah, what about people that you want around you, people you want to hang out with?
Black: that's narrowing it down quite a bit.
MG: Yeah. You already have people that are building things, you already have doctors and farmers.
Black: And then who I would want to hang out with?
MG: Yeah, just common people in the town.
Black: Well, you could come.
MG: That's pretty big.
Showalter: you don't even know each other.
Black: But I like Manuel a lot, I would want him to come.
Showalter: You guys barely know each other.
Black: But I think he's good guy!
Showalter: You barely know him and you're already inviting him to your island.
Black: But he's a very good guy!
Black: Manuel, that's one. David Wain. Uh...that's about it.
Showalter: Oh I would...oh ok.
Black: Well no, there's a second part to the question.
Showalter: Which is?
Black: Who I would to throw into a pit.
Black: It wouldn't be you.
Showalter: Who would it be?
Showalter: So it turns out it would be me.
Black: Well, I couldn't think of anybody else.
MG: Would you get people excited to come to the island and then be like "You're going into the pit"?
Black: Maybe. I don't know if I would be that devious about it. I don't know that I would invite people to the island saying, "Hey, we got pony rides! Hey, we have people specializing in the arts of animal husbandry! Come on it's going to be great!" And the be like, "Sorry, you're going into the pit."
MG: Kind of like that movie The Island where they tell people they are going to the island but they just kill them instead.
Black: Yeah, I wouldn't want to do that.
MG: After writing a book, screenplays, comedy sketches, which one of those was more difficult than you thought and which one would you be doubtful about doing for the rest of your life?
Black: Well, they're all difficult in different ways. Screenplays are probably the hardest one to write, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't do it again. I want to do it again.
MG: It's different from writing books and essays because you're so used to describing things but in screenplays, it's more of dialogue and shots.
Black: That's right, the rules are different.
MG: Which topics would you consider off limits for comedy and which topics are you tired of hearing and consider to be overused?
Black: I don't really consider any topics off limits. I can't think of anything that I wouldn't talk about. And I don't really watch comedy so I don't know what's being overused, maybe anything about Britney Spears or people like that, anything about Paris Hilton.
Showalter: I heard a really funny Paris Hilton joke.
Black: Right...uh, I don't really have a problem with you know, any real topic is fine. But I think the challenge is to make things that are well worn seem fresh.
MG: There are stereotypes of people in bands trashing places and getting drunk all the time, are there any stereotypes for comedians and if not, what do you think some of them should be?
Black: I don't know what stereotypes of comedians are. Do you?
Showalter: Uh, depressed.
Black: Yeah, depressed.
Black: Depressed, angry, and chauvinistic. I'll say are probably the three big stereotypes.
MG: Usually when someone is at a bar or something, they can look at someone and say, "Oh, he's probably in a band." What would make someone look at someone and say automatically that he's a comedian?
Black: Rainbow suspenders.
MG: So anyone that has rainbow suspenders is a comedian.
Black: That's a pretty good bet. Clown shoes. You know, that big "Kiss me, I'm a comedian" pin that people always wear, that one. Propeller hat. Those are all giveaways.
MG: Yeah, I've seen a few of those out there. In terms of the Writer's Strike, do you think they should hold out until an agreement is formed or just give up and continue working as before?
Black: I think they should hold out.
MG: They have come too far to give up.
Black: Too far. We've sacrificed too much, too many works haven't been written for us to turn back now.
MG: Are there any days where they are planning to negotiate or are they still not talking to each other?
Black: I think they are negotiating right now.
MG: In your opinion, when do you think it will be over with?
Black: I'll like it to end tomorrow or even today, if possible.
MG: It's just ridiculous that these billion dollar companies aren't willing to give up the what, four cents that they're asking.
Black: Yeah, that's pretty much what it comes down to.
MG: Do you think others don't take comedy and writing seriously and will that ever change? If taken seriously, do you think more people will follow it as a career?
Black: I think that there is no need to take comedy seriously, otherwise it ceases to be funny. But I think people that are in comedy take it seriously and that's probably enough.
MG: Do you think the profession of a comedian is not taken seriously?
Black: Well it's not taken as seriously as a chemist. People think that chemist do some serious shit, even if they're just making fragrances. So no, people don't take it very seriously.
MG: What about writers?
Black: I don't think writers make fragrances.
Showalter: When they fart.
Black: Well yeah, when they fart.
MG: If you had to choose between doing stand up to a crowd that doesn't speak English or a group of Catholic nuns, which one would you choose and what would your material consist of?
Black: I'll take the nuns and I don't know what my material will be, probably not a lot of anti-catholic stuff. I probably wouldn't do my whole "The pope is a fag" bit.
MG: They wouldn't like that.
Black: Probably not.
MG: Would you clean up your act or just leave it the same?
Black: Yeah, I'll probably clean up for the nuns.
MG: Is there an embarrassing experience from your life that you refuse to use as a joke or write into a sketch?
Black: Nothing comes to mind. Um...no, the answer is no.
MG: So pretty much everything is open and out there.
MG: Alright, that's all I have. The rest of the questions are for Showalter, should I just e-mail those to you?
Showalter grabs the recorder from Black.
Showalter: Let's do it.
MG: If the lady at your show brought two endangered monkeys instead of cats, would you still have given her the choices of leaving or killing the monkeys?
Showalter: Well, uh...yes because it just wasn't respectful. Then again, I was joking. I was only joking.
Black: Did you ever...what was her explanation, why did she bring two cats to your show?
Showalter: She never really did give me one.
MG: She probably is one of those people that carries around their pet wherever they go.
Showalter: Yeah, I think she thought it was cute.
MG: I was working one day and I saw this lady carrying her dog around in a baby stroller.
Black: Oh I've seen those a lot. Showalter: I think she just thought she was being cute.
MG: Did she actually leave or did just she stand in the back?
Showalter: She hung out. She left the theater but she didn't leave the club. I hung out with her and we talked, we made nice. Cause I was just joking, just having fun with her.
MG: Did she take it seriously?
Showalter: No, she didn't. I mean, she knew that I really wanted her to leave, but she didn't think I was genuinely upset. Nobody that was there actually thought I was upset. Cause I wasn't, I was happy.
MG: In your opinion, what is the current trend in comedy and what do you think the big trend will be in the next twenty years?
Showalter: The current trend is anything produced, written by, or directed by Judd Apatow. In twenty years I think the trend will be anything produced, written by, or directed by (talks in high pitched robotic voice) Biyonk 14, because it will be the future.
MG: Do you think the trend now is necessarily a bad trend?
Showalter: Not at all, Judd Apatow is very funny. But Judd Apatow and his crew, that's the bar right now.
MG: That style of comedy.
Showalter: I think so.
MG: A lot of people are trying to make the same kind of movies as his with the same kind of humor.
Showalter: Yeah, funny but smart.
MG: In your opinion, do you think that too much importance is placed on critic's opinion and if so, where should the importance be focused?
Showalter: Critics play a very important role and I personally rely heavily on criticism when I choose my own entertainment, be it theater or film or music. The only time I think the critics don't know what they're talking about is when they're giving something I did a bad review. And when they give something I did a bad review, clearly they didn't know what they were talking about. Right?
Showalter: When they give other things bad reviews, then they were right. But if it's something I did, they're wrong. I hope you know I'm joking.
MG: Oh, of course.
Showalter: I mean, I'm not joking, they are wrong.
MG: Of course, that's the whole point, right? I do reviews for this magazine and if there is a CD I really don't like, I don't feel the need to bash them in the review.
Showalter: Yeah, write a negative review. You prefer to write a positive review. I agree.
MG: Reviews are a form of promotion, so even if I don't like a band, I'm still going to interview them because it's promoting them and I'm respectful of what they're doing.
Showalter: I will say as someone that has been through the creative process, I have nothing but respect for anybody that does anything. And I think that critics don't...they are just doing their job, but it's that feeling of "I'm going to trash something that somebody poured their heart and soul it."
MG: Exactly. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean the guy next door is going to agree.
MG: Suppose you were born in another state with a different name and a new set of parents, would you still have become a comedian or did it happen out of a result of your surroundings and experiences?
Showalter: What state?
MG: Montana or Nebraska.
Showalter: Ok, if it were Montana, then no. If it were Montana, I'm pretty sure I would have become a musician, a bass player.
MG: What about if it was Nebraska?
Black: What kind of farmer?
MG: What about...
Showalter: You don't want to know what kind of sport?
MG: Yeah, go for it.
Showalter: Lacrosse, Div III.
MG: What if you were born in Iceland?
MG: So it pretty much varies on place you were born.
Showalter: The answer is yes, if it had been a different set and different parents, then I wouldn't have become a comedian. Because both my parents pretty much pressured me from as early as I can remember to go into these fields. You know how some kids parents want them to become doctors or lawyers? Mine wanted me to be a comedian. I didn't want to do it.
Black: Was that because they had frustrated ambitions to become comedians, because they're not funny people.
Showalter: Um...all I know is that from as early as I can remember it was, "You're going to be a comedian." And I'm taking stand up comedy classes at the YMCA after school.
Black: I'm surprised they had that. Showalter: I know. And I'm entering stand up comedy contests, doing sketch comedy contests. And I didn't want to do that, I wanted to do something different.
Black: Yeah, I know you wanted to play sports. Showalter: Well, I wanted to play sports but I was also very into my botany and all my science stuff.
MG: I read that there were two experiences that really shaped you into wanting to be a comedian. One was when you went to visit your sister at Yale and you saw Harold's Purple Crayon. And then when you saw John Belushi.
Showalter: Yeah, in Animal House.
MG: Were those both moments that fused together that made you want to be a comedian, or was one more important to you than the other?
Showalter: Animal House was just more that I got it, I was really young and I totally got it. And then seeing Harold's Purple Crayon, that was a genuine "Ah ha!" moment, I want to do this.
MG: I read that your mother was an English teacher. Do you think that had any influence to lead you into something that involves creativity?
Showalter: Probably. Everyone in my family is very academic and I wasn't nearly as good of a student as them. They are all very strong students and I was never as good of a student, so I focused on something else.
MG: Did you turn to them when you were writing sketches?
Showalter: No. I don't think that they think I'm that funny. They love it that I teach though.
MG: Is that something that you plan on doing for the rest of your life?
Showalter: Yeah, if I can.
MG: Do you just have one class right now?
Showalter: Yeah, I just have one class right now.
MG: Do you plan on going to another school to teach?
Showalter: I like NYU.
MG: Do you have any ideas to spread out into different fields?
Showalter: No, this is it. I mean, I do have a lot to say about the Italian Renaissance, but would I want to teach a whole class on it?
Black: You should.
Showalter: I would have to think about it.
Black: You should, you owe it to the people.
Showalter: I think I could do a seminar, could I lead the group studies? Doubtful. I think I could do a lecture series on it.
Black: You're analysis of Lorenzo de' Medici's patronage...
Showalter: Right, well...
Black: Is groundbreaking!
(Every time Black says "groundbreaking", his voice gets incredibly high)
Showalter: Well, is it groundbreaking? I don't know.
Black: It's groundbreaking! His supported ambition, that's all you! It's groundbreaking!
Showalter: Honestly, I need to tip my hat to all the great scholars.
Black: Of course, we stand on the works of giants. But Michael, your original work is groundbreaking!
Showalter: Thank you, Michael. In any event, do I have hours and hours of lecture material on the Italian Renaissance? Yes, I do. Would I want to teach it? I would, but would I want to lead the group studies?
MG: Yeah, not an entire class but some lectures.
Showalter: Yeah, lectures. And then I could probably, I think I could probably be a thesis advisors to a very very small number of students.
MG: Have you had any thoughts of writing a book and if so, would it be a novel, a comedy how-to book, or just a collection of your essays?
Showalter: I want to write a book of really funny essays, I'm working on it now.
Black: What's it called?
Showalter: It's called, well I have a working title for it which is My Highly Specialized Crazy Motorcycle and Thirty-five Other Totally Awesome Essays That Will Completely Be Totally Awesome When You Read Them.
MG: Did that idea come from anywhere or anyone?
Showalter: Honestly, it just popped into my head. I mean, I had been a lot of other people's writing and stuff, so mine was definitely alive but then it just popped in my head one day. So I wrote this whole thing about what I would do if I had a motorcycle, a tricked out motorcycle.
MG: What would be one of the things you would do?
Showalter: It would have a caramel cabinet, on the motorcycle a cabinet that is filled only with caramel.
MG: And what would you do with that?
Showalter: I'll eat it. I'll eat it with a hot chick.
MG: If you had to give a public message to the entire world, what would you say?
Showalter: The journey is the reward.
MG: Would that be the entire speech, just that one sentence or would you say some other things?
Showalter: No, it would start with "Hey, how's everybody doing? The journey is the reward" and then I would say, "You guys have been a great crowd." Um..."Keep partying in two-double bubble-double bubble." Which means, keep partying in 2008. Cause double bubble, two zero zero is double bubble and then eight is double bubble. So it's two-double bubble-double bubble.
MG: I saw that you did an interview on Showalter Showalter with Zach Galifianakis, I just wanted to know how that was because he's one of my favorite comedians.
Showalter: He's hilarious. He's one of the funniest guys in the world. He can do no wrong. He is very very very funny.
MG: I saw this interview that he did with Michael Cera, it was the most awkward thing I've ever seen.
Showalter: Yeah, he's...
A guy that works at the venue comes into the room.
Guy: Is everyone ok?
Showalter: We are indeed.
Black: Do you want to start at nine?
Guy: You have fifteen minutes. I think so.
Showalter: Is it full?
Guy: We're not full yet, but I think we are about two hundred people away from the amount of tickets that were pre-sold.
Showalter: Oh really? Where is everybody?
Guy: They'll be here, they're filing in now.
Showalter: Oh ok.
Guy: We have an event afterwards.
Black: What time do you need us to be done?
Guy: How long is your...what's the schedule?
Showalter: It's a two-hour show.
Guy: Ok, we'll start at nine and go to eleven.
Showalter: What is it, like a dance show or something?
Guy: It's the Virginia Commonwealth University homecoming, so Lupe Fiasco is playing. Showalter: Lupe Fiasco is playing their after party? Tonight, here?
Guy: He's playing at the Sigel Center, their stadium, and then he's coming here and playing a few songs with his band.
Showalter: Got it.
Black: I don't really know who that is.
Showalter: He's a really good rapper.
Black: Is he into my shit at all?
Guy: I think he might be.
Showalter: Alright, well let's wrap this up.
MG: I'm pretty much done, that is everything that I have.
Showalter: Ok great, awesome man.
MG: Any last words or anything?
Showalter: Just to keep partying in two -double bubble -double bubble.
Black: Thanks a lot, Manuel. Enjoy the show.