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December 2008

December 04, 2008

From Real Detroit

Stella's Michael Ian Black + Michael Showalter
The State Of Comedy

Comedy is no longer comedy. Comedy is now the art of the anti-delivery, the telling of the pseudo-joke tangled within an awkward silence as we wait for the punch line. But the punch line no longer arrives with an off-tempo comedic styling, rather it doesn't arrive at all. Humor is not delivered as straightforward as it used to be, but twice as observational as ever, leaving the audience to examine themselves instead of laughing at the distant yet relative blunders of others. Half the time, we probably “just won’t get it,” but this whole phenomenon of letting the awkward realities of life speak for themselves instead of packaging them inside a meat-and-potatoes joke is so mainstream and common that comedians who still play within the envelope are considered a bit boring and left to wallow under the radar. While Dane Cook’s superhuman stage presence coupled with point A to point B in-depth inspections of blue humor, clumsy romance and sexual encounters has put him at the top of his craft, comedians like Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black are so deadpan and heavily rooted in uncomfortable pragmatism that we’re left to wonder where and when the joke started and if it ever ended. It’s Andy Kaufman rising from the grave. And while the average observer might not be able to catch it, there is still an ounce of practical performance left within Stella’s stage show (and ill-fated Comedy Central series of the same name that starred Black, Showalter and third member, David Wain) that occasionally helps the ill at ease become embarrassingly relatable and comically memorable.

“One of the things about Stella that was hard for an audience to get was the layer of reality hanging over that show that people didn’t understand,” explains Showalter, as he gets ready to treat his friends and family to a massive Thanksgiving dinner before heading out on tour with Wain and Black. "A lot of the time, the joke in Stella was that we were doing the joke at all. Mainly because of the Internet, comedy is now somewhat parallel to the music industry in that you have your mainstream artists, or comedians, who have a mass appeal, and then you have a million shades in between it. Those millions of shades used to not be as accessible to everybody, but now they are. There is always going to be a huge appetite for Sinbad, but there is a parallel that they want the same thing in comedy as they do in indie music … something a bit harder to figure out. Newer comedians are experimenting with the idea that there are other ways to be funny than just telling jokes and hitting the punch lines.”

“Any sort of artistic movement in any genre is largely fueled by a reaction,” explains Black who, after conducting what would ultimately serve as a preliminary interview, finally ditched his shtick to talk about the changing of the guard in the comedy world. “When I started performing comedy, the primary comedic style — sometimes exclusive comedic style — was the Jerry Seinfeld school, where you were making cool observational humor about the stupidity of every day life … sports jacket, sleeves rolled up, basic cable comedy. [Anti-comedy] was a reaction to all of that.”

This was ’88, and all three members of soon-to-be comedy trio Stella were freshmen at New York University, hungry to pursue improv and sketch comedy. While Black only recalls being “17-years-old and not knowing anything,” Showalter remembers the three of them being extremely “interested in live performance” and exploring new parameters of comedy. But Showalter and Black do agree on one thing — Wain was kind of a prick. “He was a cock to everybody,” says Black, “because he believed himself to be in a superior sketch group. Plus, he was a sophomore while we were freshmen so he lorded his own greatness over us. But, of course, he ended up begging to be in our sketch group.”

Both before and after Stella came to fruition, the trio would collectively and separately pursue the entertainment industry with astonishing success. Showalter’s biggest claim to fame remains the cult classic Wet, Hot American Summer while Black is best known as a talking head on various VH1 series (as well as writer of Run, Fat Boy, Run and most recently a children’s book). Wain has yet to stop bragging about the success of Role Models, a movie that he both directed and co-wrote.

While their pursuits outside of Stella remain commercially viable, the comedy troupe stands as a testament to the sort of comedy that wins the popular vote today — crossing humor with awkward reality to a point where no one is quite sure when the joke begins and ends. This leaves the audience to wonder — where does the reality for Showalter and Black begin and end? How much of themselves are they presenting on stage, and how much of their public persona is an illusion?

“I’ve always been interested in … the separation between a performer as they presented themselves in public and how they are in private, and the mythology they created around those personas," says Black. "There’s fact and there’s fiction, and I don’t generally reveal what’s what.” While Stella’s performance is a prime example of artistic fluidity, Showalter has a wildly different perspective on the matter. “I just like to be myself,” explains Showalter who, throughout the interview, has expressed excitement for how full circle his career has become — he currently teaches screenwriting at New York University’s Graduate Film School. “I find that I’m more interested in what’s true. In my sense of humor and the work that I do, I’m trying to establish a thin line between my character and who I really am.”

“I’ve never watched a performance,” adds Black, “and thought to myself that I was seeing the totality of a human being. I don’t know what obligation a stand-up comic has to show the entirety of their personality with the audience. Certainly someone like Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t. He’s essentially a blank slate and, consequentially, I don’t find him that interesting.” RDW

From Time Out New York



  • Time Out New York / Issue 688 : Dec 4–10, 2008

    Michael Ian Black

    He likes things to be easy.

    Michael Ian Black
    Illustration: Rob Kelly

    Michael Ian Black is back on the road with Stella, the sketch-comedy trio he formed in 1995 with David Wain and Michael Showalter, and he’s not at all worried about it. “We know how to do it in a way that provides not a lot of stress,” says the 37-year-old. “We do it economically and so that we’re not driving 14 hours a day. So it’s pretty chill—aside from all the BJs.” Black, best known as a VH1 talking head and for his earlier comedy group the State, spoke to us by phone from an Atlanta book conference, at which he was pimping My Custom Van, his recently published book of humorous essays.

    Time Out New York: The back cover of My Custom Van carries the following blurb from Sarah Silverman: “Fun to read while you’re pooping.” Do you agree?
    Michael Ian Black: Yes, and I subsequently heard from many readers who do utilize that option. Now, that’s an option for any book, but I think mine lends itself to it specifically because the essays are scientifically designed to last about the length of a good bowel movement.

    TONY: The mental image of someone reading your book that way is a bit unsavory.
    Michael Ian Black: Yeah, but then you think of the mental image of someone like Sarah Silverman reading it while pooping and you go, Oh, that’s not so bad. I guess it depends on your view—from what angle you’re looking at her. In my head, I’m looking at her through the doorway. If I’m looking at her from the point of view of the toilet? Maybe not as good.

    TONY: Speaking of pooping, is it true that you recently started referring to Anderson Cooper as Anderson Pooper?
    Michael Ian Black: I felt pretty good about that. Although it was hard to feel real good about it, because thousands of people in his life must call him Anderson Pooper. I mean, it’s maybe the least original thought I’ve ever had. And yet, because I had never heard it before, I found it very satisfying.

    TONY: It is technically possible that you’re the first to call him that, though.
    Michael Ian Black: Yeah, but I’d be willing to wager that that theory would be disproven simply by asking him. But I would feel silly asking the question—not because it would be weird to ask him if anyone had ever called him that before, but because it seems so obvious to me that people must have. I’m sure there are people in his life whose nickname for him is Pooper or Poops or Poopsie-Daisy.

    TONY: In January, you’ll publish Chicken Cheeks, an illustrated children’s book about cute animal butts. Ever envision yourself doing that when you were younger?
    Michael Ian Black: It’s not a question that came up a lot at dinner parties and such. You’re not necessarily pounding down beers with your friends and fantasizing about writing children’s books. But had anybody asked, I probably would have said, “Sure, I could see myself doing that. It seems easy.” That’s generally my criteria for whether or not I’m interested or capable of doing something—by its level of easiness.

    TONY: What’s level one and what’s level ten on that scale?
    Michael Ian Black: Well, level one would probably be the book that’s coming out. It’s a compendium of animal butts; it really doesn’t get much simpler than that. Level ten in the children’s-book world is probably Harry Potter, where you actually have to construct sentences and paragraphs.

    TONY: You live in Connecticut. Is that a funny state?
    Michael Ian Black: I would say Connecticut probably ranks among the top five least funny states. But that’s good. I grew up in New Jersey, so just by point of contrast, it’s a relief to me. Anyway, I’m not looking to be funny in the geographic sense. I’m looking to be funny in a universal sense. I feel like Jeff Foxworthy has the market cornered on geographic hilarity. You can’t out-Foxworthy Foxworthy, so I’m not even gonna try.

    TONY: What goes through your head when you order a Stella?
    Michael Ian Black: Well, I don’t drink beer particularly. Were I to order a Stella I would probably do it fairly unself-consciously, like in the way I do when I go to a hotel and there’s a black person behind the desk. I say, “Last name Black,” and don’t really think about it. And you know, it’s not like I go into different states and I’m like, “Hey, I was in a sketch group that was called the State!” When you take a piss, are you like, “Hey, my name’s John!”?

    TONY: No.
    Michael Ian Black: See, it’s the same thing. It was a stupid question.