I had the pleasure of speaking with sketch comedian, author, and feminist poet, Michael Ian Black. I became a fan of his work when The State popped up on MTV, and then an even bigger fan during Michael and Michael Have Issues. There are not many who posses the dry, sarcastic wit of Mr. Black, and if you’re unsure what I’m talking about, take a glance at VH1’s I Love the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and New Millenium. Or, simply read the interview below. Enjoy!
TPQ: What are your earliest memories as a reader? Were there books that you remember being read as a child? Was there a favorite reading moment? Maybe a light bulb moment where you realized that you were reading a text that would define your life?
MIB: Earliest memory is being about five years old, sitting on the bed in my mother’s room sounding out the word “brontosaurus” to her. Nailed it. That might also be my single greatest moment as a reader. My favorite series as a kid were “The Great Brain” books, which seem to have gone out of favor and possibly print. They were about a pair of brothers in, possibly, Utah (?) around the turn of the century. The older of the two was a genius and amateur detective. The younger lived in his shadow.
TPQ: Do you remember your first jokes? How old were you when you started writing? When did you begin to develop the style upon which you’d build your career?
MIB: First deliberate comedic writing I can recall doing was in high school. A friend and I sat down and wrote plot synopses for the next hundred and fifty “Rocky” movies. They mostly involved hot air ballooning mishaps and a cheese-loving midget named Quacky. I haven’t matured much since then.
TPQ: Who were the comedians that most influenced you when you were starting out? What was it about their work that made them an influence?
MIB: I started as a sketch comedian and was most influenced by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. Belushi for the myth-making aspect of his performance, and Ackroyd for the verbal dexterity and focus.
TPQ: How has the culture of comedy changed over the course of your career? Is it a good change, or a bad change?
MIB: Comedy has become a lot more risk-oriented, a lot broader in scope. This is a direct result of there being so many avenues through which comedians can display their work. Whether it’s through video on the internet, or over Twitter, or doing live performance, or blogging. It’s a fantastic change because there are no longer any gatekeepers. There’s nobody preventing young comedians from getting their work seen.
TPQ: You wrote a Children’s book called Chicken Cheeks. I don’t know how many people actually know that you’re a children’s author. Are there other books in the works? What inspired you to write that one? Who was your favorite children’s author? Mine was Maurice Sendak. In the Night Kitchen was definitely a defining book during my childhood.
MIB: I’ve actually written several children’s books, with another one called Naked! due out in the summer of 2014. In addition to that, I’ve written a few “grown-up” books. My favorite children’s author as a kid was either C.S. Lewis or Judy Blume. I didn’t get that C.S. Lewis was trying to convert me to Christianity, and I didn’t get that Judy Blume was “a girl’s writer.”
TPQ: Do you feel there are similarities between comedy writing and the writing of poetry? Timing obviously plays a huge part in both, but what else?
MIB: The best poetry and the best comedy share a couple things: rhythm, timing, and (like all writing) a satisfying or unexpected ending. Also, all comedy rhymes.
TPQ: How does writing stand-up comedy differ from writing for screen, or for a children’s book? What’s your process like?
MIB: My process is simple: commit myself to a project. Don’t do it, and then panic and get it done all at once. I wish I had a process, a simple repeatable strategy for getting work done every day. I try, Lord knows I try, but writing is hard and I am lazy.
TPQ: How do you see the comedy culture evolving over the next decade?
MIB: No idea.
TPQ: Is it true that you had an affair with Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich? I know your love for feminist poetry stretches way beyond the bounds of reality. The twitter rumors are running rampant.
MIB: “Affair” is a loaded word. We shared some intimate times, but they were both distant emotionally, so while I was able to give my body, our minds remained somewhat distant. The rumors about my radical feminist poetry are true. I write under a nom de plume because I want my radical feminist poetry taken at face value, and not as “the radical feminist poetry of Michael Ian Black, basic cable comedian.”
TPQ: Finally, if you could choose one comedian, or author, living or dead, to have a glass of scotch with, who would it be, and why?
MIB: James Joyce because why the fuck not?