WE TALKED to Michael Ian Black. We think he might have been having a long day. The following conversation with the star of The State and Wet Hot American Summer star has been heavily edited; we did talk about other stuff somewhat seriously and you can find the entire conversation at portlandmercury.com/theater.
MERCURY: Tough travel day?
MICHAEL IAN BLACK: Well, just weather issues. It happens.
I saw on Twitter that you might have been forced to poop in an airport, so...
It worked out just fine.
Where are you now?
In Portland, you're playing a rock club and doing a single night instead of a weekend. Is that preferable for you?
If I could do an extended residence at a Portland rock club the way Billy Joel is doing at Madison Square Garden in New York, that would fine, too. But yeah, I prefer to do the rock clubs and theaters rather than comedy clubs.
Why is that?
The vibe is just generally better. Portland has Helium, which is quite good. But in general comedy clubs tend to be a little, um, not funny. They tend to be less funny than places that aren't comedy clubs.
Yeah, the way they're set up, and they're expensive with the two-drink minimums. There's a lot of hustle and bustle going on during the shows. They just tend to be run in a different way that I don't love.
I wonder if that has to do with, when you're playing a rock club, it's your core audience who's coming out—not folks who might've been shepherded into going to the comedy club.
That's definitely true. When you're going to a comedy show at a rock club, you have a certain fondness for the performer—you're definitely making an effort. It's not just going for a night out. It's not a bachelorette party. So the audiences tend to be a little bit better and a little bit warmer. And music venues in general just have a more fun vibe.
With this tour, what is the shape of your material? Are you working on new stuff, are you fine tuning, are you headed toward a special?
I'm working on new material without any specific goal in mind other than just to write new material. I'm in no rush to put a new special out. I just want to do new material for a while and get it to a place where I'm very happy. Right now it's really just about having fun, and being on the road since I haven't done it in a while. I'm doing it as a kind of change of pace, and because I miss it.
Without asking you to spill the jokes, what inspirations are driving the new material?
Whatever your readers want to hear about most is what I'll be talking about.
Okay. Um, can I ask that question again?
It's just whatever I'm thinking about at any given moment, and I try to write it down in a way that's funny. So, I don't know, abortion? Funny abortion stuff?
Does that suggest you're not coming with an hour that's set?
No, it's definitely not set. I'm changing it a lot from show to show and day to day. Part of the fun is figuring out, making it better every day.
You've been in things that a lot of fans love—Wet Hot American Summer and The State, particularly—and I wonder if they're ever so in love with those works that they come and they're just ready to laugh and support you no matter what?
You mean people will enjoy it even if I'm terrible?
Some established, beloved comics will come out and torpedo themselves in hopes of getting more honest ears on the material.
My goal is to get famous enough that I don't even have to perform, that I can just stand there and people will love it. That's what I'm working toward. And if I could take even the next step, I don't even have to show up and they love it. They show up. And they pay money to me. But I'm not there. And there's no show. They know there could be a show. And just the idea that I would, um, book a night in your town and have people so excited that they're willing to come and spend their money and be so enthralled that they don't even mind that I don't even show up. That's the end goal.
Well, I will say, you have reached a level of fame that Google suggested "Michael Ian Black net worth." And I'll have you know that I did not click on it. I feel like I was drawing a line in the sand there.
Well it's probably not right, whatever it says.
You mentioned that this is a change of pace, and obviously you work in a lot of forms. I wonder if there's ever been a comedic form you've tried and were like, "Oh man, that's not for me."
I don't like going on shows where people are yelling at each other. That's the main thing I don't like doing. These shows that ask you to come on and do panels for some pop-culture topic and every comedian is like fighting to get their joke on and I would just be quiet, because I didn't have any interest. Those kind of shows... the ones where it's competitive in nature.
Does that have anything to do with the kind of negativity that surrounds those panels? I mean, they're usually about breaking people down.
I don't even know if they're that negative. It's just the idea that you go from comedian to comedian and they make their little joke and they're trying to copy each other.
Seems like we're in the midst of a comedy boom in the last couple years. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I think that's true.
Do you consider yourself a veteran? The old pro?
Well, no. In the sense that I think every comedian has to continually prove themselves. You may have more experience, but it's not, I don't know, I don't feel tremendous confidence in my ability. I definitely don't feel like I'm ahead of the game.
You've obviously experienced highs and lows in your career. Were there ever times where you thought, "Maybe I've had my run?"
That's every day. That's every day and it's been every day for the last 20 years.
So with that said, are you in it for the long haul? Do you see yourself as being a comedian until you can't anymore, or will you just walk away someday?
I don't know. I mean, I don't know what my options are. I don't really have any marketable skills. I wouldn't be very good at a corporation. I don't want to go to meetings. I don't want to worry too much about what I wear to work. And I don't want to fill out paperwork any more than I'm already doing. You know, I might have painted myself into a career that I can't get out of. This might be a dead-end job for me.
Well, I was looking at your credits and I saw that back in the '90s you appeared on NYPD Blue. Was there a time you wanted to be a non-comedic actor?
Yeah. That's how I always sort of envisioned myself, as more of a dramatic actor. But that didn't happen. I wish it would've—it's easier.
We talked about the 20 years you've been doing this—are there specific eras or pieces of work that you see as pinnacles, or things you're trying to match or best?
I try not to think of it like that. I try not to look back at all. So, I just do something and move on. I can't dwell too much on past successes or past failures. I try not to compare projects. Except if something's not fun. If something's not fun, I compare it to something like when I was having fun. And if it's not fun, I look at it like: I should be doing something that's fun.
There used to be an idea that, regardless of the other forms comedians were working in, stand-up was the preeminent art. That seems to have changed—now stand-up and podcasting and acting and writing all feed each other. Is that how you look at it? Or is there a form that takes precedence?
Oh, no. I like all of it. It's all fun. And then sometimes it gets boring and so I move on to something else. Like right now: It's really fun to come do stand-up and tour. And when it's not fun I'll do something else. What's nice is being able to move from thing to thing to thing. I write a lot and perform a lot and do podcasts and whatever else is out there and I enjoy all of it. And my goal is sort of just to enjoy myself.
Anything coming down the pipe that you're super excited about?
Um, nope. No, I guess, is the answer. No. This is the end for me.