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The Interview: Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black

By Sarah Dahnke in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 25, 2006 6:00PM

Chicagoist has fond high school memories of Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black in "The State" on MTV and can recall how devastated we were when the show was cancelled. Our group of friends had a bootlegged VHS tape that contained every episode that was supposed to be passed around to each of us one at a time. But then some jackass ganked it, and it was never seen again. We’ve been pissed off about this for a decade, but a little of the anger subsided last week when we found out that the two Michaels would be heading to Chicago for a stand-up tour. We’ve never seen them live and in person, so needless to say, we’re pumped.

Showalter and Black have been a bit under the radar since Comedy Central cancelled "Stella," their comedy endeavor with David Wain. Showalter did The Baxter, and Black became a figurehead. Now the two of them are circling the country to do a stand-up comedy tour, which should allow audiences to see the two of them in a new arena. This time there’s no sketch comedy and no suits. But we advise going to the bathroom before the show anyway ‘cause we expect to laugh hard enough to pee ourselves.

Last week, Showalter and Black sat down with Chicagoist and chatted a bit about their stand-up tour.

Chicagoist: So why are you embarking on this stand up tour right now?
Michael Showalter: Well, we wanted to do a "Stella" tour, but David Wain wasn’t available because he’s directing a movie. Michael Black and I had each started doing stand-up this year on our own separately, and we both really like it a lot. It’s a really pure, simple way of doing comedy. Speaking personally, with all of the different stuff I’ve done –- the T.V. and movies and stuff -– and then working in collaboration, there’s something really nice and simple about doing stand-up. It’s sort of like the purest, simplest form of comedy -– a comedian talking to an audience. So we thought, “Well, if Stella’s not going to tour, maybe the two of us should tour.” And that’s what we’re doing.

Michael Ian Black: I think we’re of a like mind. I think we both admire the form so much and never really have had the time to do it ourselves until this last year or so. It just seemed like the time was right to start exploring that. I’ve always liked stand-up comedy so much, but I’ve never liked clubs. And I’ve never wanted to perform within that arena. And I never wanted to pay my dues as a comedian. I never wanted to do the 2 a.m. set in front of three drunk hecklers. I wanted to get well-known enough so that when I finally decided to do it, there would be a crowd there to see me who would have some sort of relationship to me. And I don’t think that buys you that much. People will show up, but you still have to be funny. If not, they’ll turn on you quickly and pelt you with things. Maybe with pelts.

C: Have you ever been pelted with things?
MIB: Not yet, but I’m really going to make an effort this time. I just want to have that experience.

C: I can put the word out in Chicago.
MIB: You know what? Don’t. Because they will.

C: Do you have enemies in Chicago?
MIB: My namesake was in the mob. My great uncle. He was a Jew, though, in the mob, so you know, he was watching the money. He wasn’t like a contract killer. So it’s entirely possible that he made some enemies over the past two or three decades.

C: So you guys aren’t actually performing on stage together, right?
MS: That is correct, although there’s a good chance we will do something together. Maybe we’ll come out together at the beginning or something. But we’re mostly doing separate sets.

C: And you guys have been going about this in a pretty grassroots manner. I was wondering why you weren’t promoting it on a commercial basis.
MS: A club tour, there’s no way to really promote that on a national level. Unless we were Dane Cook and we were doing a gigantic national tour or something, and we wanted to get a corporate sponsor -– and we would do that if we could … "Stella" never did any kind of promotion. This is more promotion than "Stella" ever did for a tour. Usually we’d just book the tour and let the clubs promote the show and put an ad in an alternative weekly or something and just let word of mouth.… We’re really just doing what little we could do to let people know we’re going to be in town.

C: So corporate sponsorship is something you’d be willing to do?
MS: Oh yeah, definitely. If we could get a corporate sponsor to like, sponsor the tour, and maybe we’d you know.… Maybe on our stage there’d be a little poster or something for Dour’s or something, and then they’d pay for our hotels or something. Or maybe they’d advertise on MySpace or something that we were doing the tour. But touring is really not like doing a T.V. show. You’re just out on the road all of the time. The idea is to just let people know you’re in town. That’s the most you can do. So we have street teams. We’re sending them posters to put up in the coffee shops and stuff. Just little stuff. I guess we could hire a publicist. That would probably be the main thing we could do … to hire a publicist who was really proactive about getting people to do articles about us.

C: But you don’t want to do that?
MS: It’s pretty expensive.

C: Showalter, in your last interview with Chicagoist, you said some pretty harsh things about Cubs fans. Do you have any preparations for an angry mob of Cubs fans, especially since the Metro is so close to Wrigley Field?
MS: I will fucking kick their ass because I never back down from a fight.

C: So how did you guys meet, other than just being together at NYU?
MS: Well, there was a sketch troupe at NYU called The Sterile Yak, and they were like the big hot-shot sketch troupe at NYU. They were a big deal, and everyone loved them. They were having auditions, but I thought they were really arrogant, not that funny, completely preoccupied with their own celebrity status.… And they treated the audition like they were "SNL." Being in The Sterile Yak would be the biggest honor you could ever have. They made it very clear that 100 people would audition, and only like two would get into the group or something. And David Wain was in that troupe. He was one year older and was a sophomore. Michael Black and I were freshmen attending the orientation meeting to audition for The Sterile Yak. So Mike and I were these fresh-faced youngsters being told how hard it would be to get into The Sterile Yak by David. But a second group was forming … a less competitive, easier-to-get-into group was being formed by members of The Sterile Yak -– sort of like a splinter group. And Michael Black and I and a bunch of other people decided that we didn’t want to audition for The Sterile Yak. We wanted to audition for this other group. And before the audition this other group was having these sort of informal improv sessions. And Michael and I got to know each other that way. We became a group called The New Group, and The New Group did a show. David Wain saw the show, and he decided he wanted to be with our group instead of his stupid group The Sterile Yak. So he ingratiated himself into all of our lives. And he eventually joined our group.

MIB: I just knew that I wanted to do some sort of comedy in college, and whatever group was what I wanted to be a part of. And it just seemed like the only opportunity I was going to have was to join this new collective that was forming.

C: Is The Sterile Yak still at NYU?
MS: No, The Sterile Yak went defunct.

C: Did "The State" kill it?
MS: Well, The New Group did. There was a new king in town I guess. The town wasn’t big enough for two groups.

C: A lot of people seem to probe you about your past and want to know if you guys have had conflict.
MIB: I mean, we fight about stuff, but it’s creative. I mean, I fucked David’s mom, but that was a long time ago. He was pretty upset at the time, but that’s just because I made him watch. I showed [Michael Showalter] the tape, but he didn’t seem to care.

C: When you guys were developing the television content for Comedy Central, did you feel constricted having to tone down your language and your subject matter? It obviously had to be a lot less raunchy than the Internet videos you did.
MS: The honest truth is that after doing the "Stella" videos, we felt we had explored the raunchy side of ourselves, and we didn’t really want to do that. That may have ultimately been a bad decision on our part. Maybe the raunchiness is what people wanted. But creatively, that just wasn’t where we were at. If you look at the videos themselves, they get less pornographic. The last five or six of them get less that way. There’s a period in the middle where they get ultra-pornographic. And by the time we were on Comedy Central, we felt like we wanted to explore more the slapsticky Marx Brothers side of ourselves. We were more interested in the kind of far-fetched narrative than the shocking dildo. We were sort of done with the body sexual humor. We didn’t need to be censored because we weren’t on that page anyway.

MIB: Yeah, we were bored with fucking corpses and cock-sucking and slapping. We felt like we had done a lot of that, and we wanted to do something different.

C: But then the show didn’t take off. I read Michael Black on Media Bistro saying that he thought the show was “too weird” for a mainstream audience.
MS: It was either too weird or people didn’t like it. I think that it was too idiosyncratic for people and too individual in its sensibility. People just don’t know how to absorb something like "Stella," which I find very disappointing. I think that the mainstream in this country does not appreciate subtlety very much.

C: Black, you also said that you said comedy has been expanding into the territory of rock ’n roll. What did you mean by that?
MIB: I meant that comedians are learning to play guitar. I’m learning. Once those tuners came out where you could plug it into the tuner, that really opened the world from comedy to rock ’n roll. No, I didn’t really mean it like women are throwing themselves at me, although that would be nice. It’s more to do with the culture of comedy. It’s becoming a lot less cheesy and a lot cooler.

C: But audiences, or at least Comedy Central, didn’t necessarily agree once "Stella" went on the air.
MIB: Well it was the audiences. I’m not saying I’m a rock star, it's just comedy in general is a little more rock ’n roll-like. I’m like one of those shitty bands you see at some local bar. And you just come there to have drinks, and the shitty band starts, and you’re like, “Wanna go?” “Yeah, I think we should go.” That’s the band I am.

C: Does that mean you are going to back off of television for a while?
MS: No, I’m actually working on something right now for MTV. It’s a reality T.V. show, and that’s all I’m going to say. I’m creating it.

C: So how does the fact you’re backing off from your raunchy side fit in with your stand-up show? What sort of material are you using?
MS: I’m still new at stand-up, so I’m just trying anything out basically. Right now it hasn’t found a form yet. I’m just throwing everything out at the audience. Some of it is very raunchy. Like, a thing about where I’m trying to design a new Smurf doll, and I have like lots of drawings of his penis that I show. I show close-ups of a Smurf penis. Like, anatomically correct Smurf cock. After The Baxter, and after "Stella" the T.V. show, I felt like I was ready to explore my edgy side again. I felt like Wet Hot American Summer and the "Stella" shorts were this period of extreme vulgarity for me, and there was a part of me that was feeling like, “I don’t want to be that guy.” So I got very vigilant about it. If you’ve seen The Baxter, it’s like, the most nice possible.… It’s unbelievably polite and sentimental almost in the extreme. It’s like X-rated in its restraint. But now I’m ready to meld the two. My stand-up is kind of a combination of that vulgarity and that silliness and that raunchiness, but there are some attempts at some more current, more topical stuff.

MIB: I wouldn’t say it’s particularly raunchy. It changes. I mean, I’m forever saying horrible things, but they’re more just horrible things as opposed to raunchy things. I say horrible things almost … I almost can’t help myself. It’s like Tourettes.

C: So what else are you working on?
MS: I have some ideas for some screenplays that I really like, but I haven’t mustered the energy to sit down and write it because it takes a lot out of me. I’ve been teaching classes and doing a lot of stand-up. I’ve been doing tours. This will be the third time I’ve toured. The bigger picture for me is to eventually write a screenplay and direct it.

C: Black, I read that you’re working on a children’s book.
MIB: I’ve already written it. It’s at a publishing house right now. It’s called “Duck Butt,” and it’s about animal butts.

C: Do you have any fond memories or notable stories about Chicago?
MS: I once had a rendez vous in Chicago. She lives on the West Coast. I live on the East Coast. So we agreed that instead of me having to go out there or her having to come here, we would meet in the middle. We developed an attraction mostly via the Internet, but it wasn’t like I met her online. I met her in person out in L.A. But then we like became friends and developed kind of a relationship by sending emails back and forth then by talking on the phone a lot. It sort of started getting romantic. I mean, there was, “Gosh I wish I could see you” kind of stuff going on. So we made this plan to rendez vous in Chicago, and it was totally awkward. It just wasn’t hot. There was negative magic. It was three days of like, “I can’t wait for this to be over.” The irony is that now we’re very close friends.

MIB: I was born in Chicago. I lived there for four years. My first girlfriend was in Chicago. We were both four. I really liked the way her carrots were cut up into petite carrot sticks in a little plastic bag. I thought that was pretty hot. I’m still looking for her.

C: How long was she your girlfriend?
MIB: A couple of months, maybe.

C: That’s a long time for a four-year-old.
MIB: I’ve always been monogamous like that.

Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black will perform at The Metro on Oct. 13 at 8 p.m.