Rebuffed by mainstream, Black turns humor inward
Down a quiet country road in rural Connecticut, in a home with a stone wall out front and glittery pinecones on the coffee table, lives Michael Ian Black.
It is, if anything, an unlikely outpost for one of comedy's most free-flowing fonts, a prodigious, medium-shifting comic who came up as a member of the sketch comedy troupe The State, went on to make cult TV shows and movies, and has now transitioned into stand-up and book writing. More than 1.7 million follow his steady stream of jokes and observations on Twitter.
The peculiar normalcy of his residence isn't lost on Black. Of his peaceful town, Redding, he says, "most of the crime here is committed by me."
"Even last night, I was walking around this house, and just going, "This is my house?"' says Black, gazing around on the interiors which house him, his wife Martha Hagen-Black and their two children.
It's that sense of curious dissociation that kicks off Black's new book, "You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Death and Other Humiliations."
He opens the book with the self-examination of a midlife crisis, lamenting the mere image of the word "forty" (his age) as "like a shrub that died" while morosely scouring the Internet for photos of "Fat Kevin Federline" - a kind of stand-in for all of Black's fears of failure, abd irrelevance.
What follows is a kind of inspection of that life, principally his relationship with Hagen-Black and their experience raising two children. Though "You're Not Doing It Right" has much comedy in it, its foremost trait is its honesty - clear-eyed truth-telling about the hardships of marriage, the death of his father and the frustrations of child-rearing.
But even uttering the label "memoir" bothers Black.
"It's like I'm lashing myself when I say it," he says. "It implies a level of accomplishment that I certainly don't feel. I haven't really achieved anything other than landing on basic television. ... Tina Fey, she can write a memoir."
Black doesn't savor his choice, knowing it rings of bandwagon-hopping. Comedic memoirs have become en vogue in recent years, including those by Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman and Black's fellow State alum and frequent collaborator Michael Showalter.
It's Black's fourth book following two children's books and the collection of humorous essays "My Custom Van." With "You're Not Doing It Right," Black wanted to pursue a more personal approach in tandem with his recent focus in stand-up.
"I was trying to figure out ways to expand myself creatively as opposed to just being the smug, smarmy a------ that I'm familiar to most people as," says Black.
That persona of "Michael Ian Black" is one familiar to his fans going back to "The State," the mid-'90s MTV sketch show that offered a wry, less topical alternative to "Saturday Night Live." The 11-member troupe, which included David Wain and Ken Marino, remains like a family, with frequent collaborations among them. It also happens to be where Black met Hagen-Black, who was a production assistant.
Since then, Black has been a mainstay on television, either as a supporting actor ("Ed"), a talking head (VH1) or a pitchman. He narrowly missed out on becoming the host of CBS' "The Late Late Show," a job that went to Craig Ferguson.
But arguably his best work was with old friends of The State. Black, Showalter and Wain formed the absurdist sketch group Stella, which was turned into a short-lived show on Comedy Central.
After that, Black and Showalter - hoping for broader popularity - created "Michael & Michael Have Issues," about the behind-the-scenes passive aggressiveness of a sketch TV show. It was one of the finest distillations of their comedy, with Black and Showalter playing only slightly exaggerated versions of themselves. It was canceled after seven episodes.
"I wish that I knew how to move into the mainstream, but I don't," says Black. "When I try, I fail. At a certain point, I just threw up my arms.?
So Black built up his stand-up act and went on the road. His second comedy album, "Very Famous," turned into his first comedy special. This summer, he'll release a political book with Meghan McCain, the blogger and daughter of Sen. John McCain, about driving across the country with her. He's written a screenplay with Showalter and the two have further movie ideas, all of which he says could be mainstream comedies. He'll also be a part of a planned prequel to the film "Wet Hot American Summer."
In a career full of transitions, "You're Not Doing It Right" is Black's most personal turn yet.
"I don't know that I've ever been happier," says Black. "It's nice not knowing (what's next). Other than the panic, it's nice."
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