Interview: Michael Ian Black
In his new book, cult comedy hero and prolific tweeter Michael Ian Black eats “lesbian cereal,” contemplates killing his colicky baby and chastises himself for buying a BMW. Part bildungsroman, part love poem, You’re Not Doing It Right exposes the un-fuzzy feelings of marriage and family.
eMusic’s Alice Gregory spoke with Black about regressive humor, writing about the people you love, and hecklers-as-editors.
You open one chapter with a confession: “We are four months into parenthood and I hate my baby.” Has being a father changed your sense of humor?
It may have expanded my horizons a little bit in terms of finding comedy places, but it certainly hasn’t closed off things that I thought were funny before. If anything, it’s made me think more things are funny. My kids enjoy fart jokes much more than I do, and even just the word “butt.” Far, far more than I do. So when I’m with them, the only time they think I’m funny is when I’m making either butt or fart jokes.
So it’s a different audience that you’re catering towards.
Yes. Kids are idiots.
What does your wife Martha think of the book? You’ve dedicated it to her, and in a weird way, it’s a glowing portrait, but not an uncomplicated one.
She likes it. Everything that I say to her in the book, I certainly say to her face, but she was nervous about exposing herself in a public arena. She’s a private person, and she was reluctant.
Some of the reactions can be difficult to handle — not because people are so critical, but because it’s asking people to tell you what they think about your marriage, which nobody in their right mind would ever do. In a strange way, it’s made us closer. We have this thing between us — this marriage — that we hold and protect, so anything that feels like an assault on it brings together.
Did you reveal anything in writing that you hadn’t before in person?
I’ve never been very forthcoming about my past, with Martha or with anybody. All of those details were new to her. I don’t think she knew that I was a sperm donor, for one thing.
It’s less rare for married people to be open with their criticism of each other, which she and I certainly do all the time. I think it’s more rare for one partner to bare themselves as candidly as I do — in terms of my deep and abiding love for her. The last chapter was probably the hardest chapter to write, because it was the most naked chapter to write.
That last chapter is great, but it’s not as if it’s some sort of coda. In spite of all the insults, the reader knows the whole time that you’re besotted with her.
That’s nice to hear. I wanted to be as honest about our daily interactions as possible, and a lot of times it’s bickery and bitchy, but then a lot of the time it’s also tender and fun. I just didn’t put as much of that in there, because it’s not as compelling.
You’re Not Doing It Right is a memoir, and you were working during all the periods of your life it covers, yet you hardly even mention your job. How purposeful was that?
I feel like it would be very presumptuous of me to write a memoir about a middling comedy career. I think there’s probably a book there though — what it’s like to exist in the margins of show business, or what it’s like to go from one moderate success to another, but that’s just not this book.
How does writing a book compare to writing comedy?
I think any good writing — and here I’m presuming my writing is good — is the same. All good writing has beginning, middle, and end. That can be true in a 140-character tweet or it can be true for a full novel.
I’m a terrible anecdotalist. Is that a word? I’m terrible at relating stories to friends. I’m awful at recounting events. I’m not a particularly gifted speaker. It takes me a while in the telling of things to understand the point I’m trying to make, and that is a function of stand-up. You get on stage with a sense of the thing you want to do and the laughs you want to get, and then over time the audience sort of helps you figure out with the story actually is. Whether they’re telling you thematically what it is or where the laughs are at or all of the above. They’re really helping you.
Unfortunately with a book, it’s much harder, because you don’t have that audience there. You have an editor and some early readers, but it’s really not the same. With standup, your instincts are to listen for the laughs and as a writer of this book, I had to fight those instincts. It took a lot of time because the laugh was not the most important thing; it was more important to dig down and find a truth that I wasn’t even necessarily able to identify until I started writing it. My only audience was myself, and that was very challenging.
I have another book that’s coming out. I co-wrote it with Megan McCain. It’s a political book about a cross-country trip that we took together this summer. It’s called America You Sexy Bitch. We’re two people who didn’t really know each other or have much in common on the surface, but sort of represented opposing political viewpoints. We traveled the country with the premise that we probably have a lot more in common as Americans than what separates us. So we went from city to city talking to people trying to confirm or disprove that hypothesis.
And? Did the people of America confirm it or deny it? You’re going to tell me to read the book, aren’t you?
Yes! You have to read the book!