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Michael Ian Black

Fool Me Once

May 25, 2011 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Under the Radar’s Music vs. Comedy Issue, which is on stands now, features an article entitled “A Mutual Admiration Society: Where Comedy and Music Meet.” For that article we interviewed Michael Ian Black, among others, and included a few quotes from him. Below is the full transcript of our interview with Black.

As indie bands and comedians have been sharing bills long enough that it’s no longer a novelty, the question of whether they should is rarely asked. But Michael Ian Black has always been the inquisitive sort, and after years of sharing stages with music acts, he has some questions. Having risen to prominence as a cast member of sketch comedy shows The State and Viva Variety, he eventually took a starring turn on acclaimed NBC sitcom Ed and ended up writing films, books, and witty commentaries on cultural ephemera for VH1’s I Love the… series. But if he has conquered the realms of writing, performing, and commenting, he has (by his own admission) struggled to find a way to win over crowds that are waiting for the music to start. In fact, Black is one of the few comedians willing to go on record as saying that even if music and comedy share similar aesthetics, similar crafts, and similar creative lifestyles, they shouldn’t share the same stages.

Matt Fink: As someone who has shared stages with a lot of bands, do you think the experience is qualitatively different than playing with other comedians?

Michael: Yes. It is qualitatively bad.

So you’ve had some bad experiences opening for bands?

I think every comedian has. I think it’s probably much easier for musicians than for comedians in that situation, though not necessarily. The venues are generally different, and, usually, if you’re going to see music, you’re in a different place. A comedian demands a certain level of attention that musicians do not, and that has to do with the difference between active listening and passive listening. If you go to see a band, you can kind of hang out and can chitchat and let the music roll over you or through you or around you. If you go to see a comedian, if you do that, from a comedian’s point of view, you are a terrible audience because you’re not participating in the way that comedy demands you participate.

Do you think it makes any difference what musician you would be sharing a stage with?

Oh, yeah. It absolutely makes a difference. If you’re opening for The Butthole Surfers, that’s going to be a lot different than if you’re opening for Chopin. The Chopin audience, they’re assholes.

I talked to Eugene Mirman and he said that it makes a difference when he’s billed as a comedian so that people know that he’s not a musician.

He does a lot with bands. Comedians and music have always existed together, at least as far back as Vaudeville. I’m trying to think what that would have been like. Maybe there was this certain expectation that you have to bring with you when you go to see something, because if you know you’re going to see a comedian and a juggler and trained dogs and musicians, maybe you’re more prepared for that and more willing to engage it. If you’re going to see Modest Mouse, and Eugene Mirman walks out on stage, you might go, “What the fuck is that guy doing here?” It’s not necessarily the best feeling. If it was just some random band you could more or less ignore it.

Have you had particularly hostile receptions from music crowds?

I wouldn’t say it’s hostile. It’s more just apathetic, and you feel like you’re not connecting with them.

Have you crossed paths with Neil Hamburger? It sounds like he gets reactions that are less apathetic and more aggressive, with people throwing things and stuff.

That’s his whole shtick, isn’t it? There’s a certain kind of comedian who revels in that and is performing, in a sense, not for the audience. He’s performing either for himself or the people who are in on the joke. Andy Kauffman is the classic example of that.

Do you enjoy musical comedy, in general?

I don’t know that there’s an “in general” about it. I enjoy music and I enjoy comedy, and if somebody is able to combine the two in a way that makes me laugh, I enjoy it. But there’s funny musical comedy acts. The Lonely Island guys are really funny. Tenacious D, obviously. Chris Hardwick has a band called Hard ‘n Phirm. There’s plenty of funny musical acts. I don’t really seek out comedy, necessarily. I don’t know that I’d ever go see comedy.

Do you think it takes a special kind of comedian who is able to write songs that are successful as music while also being funny as jokes?

Yes. You know who’s brilliant? Tim Minchin and Reggie Watts, obviously. They’re two different skills and it’s remarkable when somebody is great at both of them, though I would think if I was that personand I am notit would just be the way my brain works, synthesizing those two things. The way everyone finds their style, I imagine that it’s similar for comedians who do music. It obviously takes somebody special to do that, but it takes somebody special to be consistently funny whatever their form. And when I say somebody special, I’m not including myself among them.

Have you ever experimented with musical comedy?

No. We did a little bit with this old TV show that me and some friends had called Viva Variety. And there was a guy on the show that was really great at writing music and lyrics, so we let him do that. It’s just a talent that some people have, and some people don’t. I am one of those that does not.

Do you think musical comedians are judged by a different standard?

No. They are judged by the exact same standard: are they funny?

I talked to Reggie Watts about this, and he said that he had some anxiety that he other comedians would say that what he’s doing isn’t comedy or would think that he was using music as a crutch.

I understand that fear, but I’ve never heard anyone describe Reggie in those terms. I think people appreciate that he’s doing something unique and that he’s doing something no one else is doing. I think comedians really respond to that, sometimes with absolute adoration, which I think is 80% of it, and 20% absolute schadenfruede, hoping that he falls on his face and breaks something.

So at this point, do you turn down spots to play with bands?

Yes. It would take a pretty special circumstance for me to want to do that. In my experience, it doesn’t work. I know Eugene does it successfully, and I’m sure there are others, but I don’t. And it’s not something that I care about particularly. I like musicians and I like seeing them work. But I don’t want to step in their space.

Do you think it has anything to do with certain styles of comedy and that certain comedians are better suited for that?

I’m sure. Eugene and the bands he works with, on a certain level it makes sense. I can’t explain why, but Eugene has an alt. rock vibe to him, and he seems like a guy who would be a fan of the band you’re about to listen to. Maybe that helps the relatability from the audience’s point of view. You look at a guy who looks like he has a relationship with the band, whether he’s a fan or has a personal relationship with them. So it feels a little more natural than it would if just some random guy came up on stage. There’s a kind of cohesion that has to exist for it to work at all, but I think even then, there’s a lot that has to be overcome, even if you can establish that.

Do you think there’s a lot of natural rapport between the music and comedy scenes?

Yes, and I think that’s why there’s this misconception that they work well together. At least in the comedy scene where I feel most at home, it grew up in spaces that were not identifiably comedic. So the places that I was performing in when I was starting, and I continue to perform in a lot, are rock venues. Places where you’d go to see music. Places that aren’t named The Chuckle Patch. Places that have a cool rock and roll vibe to them, and the communities that would support that kind of comedy are identical, probably the same people that support the rock and roll communities that exist in those same places. The same Brooklyn hipster will come see you perform comedy in Williamsburg as will go to see whatever cool Brooklyn hipster band there is. And they inspired a similar kind of passion. People feel a kind of ownership for bands that they feel for certain comedians. There’s a certain community that can exist for bands that exist for comedians.

Do you think musicians and comedians find the same things funny?

I think comedians and musicians both appreciate structure in a way that audiences may not. They both understand the underpinnings of form. A musician understands how a song hangs together the way a comedian understands the way a joke hangs together, and they may not be able to articulate those exact words to each other and say “I understand when you did that key change why that worked.” I don’t think you could articulate that to a musician, nor do I think a musician could necessarily articulate why the structure of a joke worked, but I think there’s a subconscious recognition of form and the work that goes into creating structures that can exist without collapsing.

Do you think most comedians want to be musicians and vice versa?

Yes. I do think that’s largely true. I think most comedians would give up a lot to be able to play a blazing guitar solo, and I think a lot of musicians would give up a lot to be able to make an audience laugh with regularity.

It seems that most musicians I’ve talked to seem to think that doing a standup routine is just about the most terrifying thing they can imagine, just because there’s nothing to hide behind.

I think musicians and comedians are probably similar also in the sense that most of them are introverted. Comedians, in general, are not flashy extroverts. They’re not people running around flapping their wings like ducks and going “quack, quack, quack” to make you laugh. They’re generally wallflowers. They stand back and watch. And I think a lot of musicians are the same. There’s a kind of alienation that has to occur to become either one of those things.

Is that because it takes time alone to be able to develop your craft?

I think for you to contemplate even investing that time, there has to be some motivation behind that. Generally what that is in the comedian’s case is, for whatever reason, that alienation. And I suspect that it’s true for musicians, too. That and getting laid. Ultimately that’s really what it comes down to.

So what kind of stuff are you working on now?

I’m learning how to play the guitar.

[Laughs] Well, I think I probably took enough of your time here.

You really did. Fuck you. [Laughs]




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