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Michael Ian Black & Michael Showalter

Ringo and Garfunkel? Try Malkmus and Knopfler

Jun 08, 2009 Issue #27 Summer 2009 - Jarvis Cocker
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A moment into our conversation on their TV show’s temporary college auditorium set, Michael Showalter steps away to grab a drink, and Michael Ian Black playfully quips, “He’s being an asshole. He sat down, and he insulted your mother very subtly.” As Showalter returns, looking bewildered, Black teases, “You insulted his mother. You didn’t think I noticed that? I totally did.” There, in a nutshell, you have the unifying concept for the pair’s new Comedy Central show, Michael and Michael Have Issues-one of an unorthodox working relationship with offbeat jocular cadence between two eccentric comedians.

According to Black, “There is a sort of meta-storyline, which is, ‘Will these guys kill each other?’” It’s introduced in the pilot episode, as an intern writes a high school newspaper article on the pair. I’ll avoid spoilers, but the plot involves subterfuge, sophomoric quarrels, a lot of slapping, and culminates with the headline “Ringo and Garfunkel,” while simultaneously weaving conventional sketches with mock behind-the-scenes footage.

“We both were interested in doing something where we could play ourselves, but we were also interested in something where we could do sketches; so we found a medium,” explains Showalter. “A lot of it is loosely based or directly based on an actual experience. Additionally, there’s an ensemble. We have a producer named Jim Biederman, and that’s our producer in real life, and he’s played by an actor in the show. He’s sort of long-suffering, and there’s a lot of tension between him and us, and all the different struggles we have. We’re constantly jostling for superiority over one another. Today we’re at a college [actually a set] having a live show, and the essential problem is that neither one of us wants to go first and be upstaged by the other. It’s an extrapolation of actual experiences we’ve had. It very much plays off our differences in reality.”

The two have consistently pushed the envelope of comedy with their gloriously oddball sensibilities, beginning with the mid-‘90s iconic MTV sketch comedy series The State. They later picked up on the oft-maligned yet brilliant Marx Brothers-informed Stella (which evolved from lewdly puerile Internet gag shorts into an infamous Comedy Central flop), and now Issues (which packs a visceral punch lacking on the willfully esoteric Stella).

Stella‘s inscrutability and lack of commercial viability isn’t lost on either Showalter or Black. “We learned a lot of lessons from doing Stella, and it required a lot of thinking. We’re applying some of the lessons [on Issues] we learned from that show,” says Black. “I always am hard on myself and I don’t see things through rose colored glasses, but I feel like Stella was a funny show, unquestionably,” adds Showalter. “But I do think that most of the jokes on that show weren’t the jokes that happened, they were more about the actual joke, and that’s a hard joke to get. One that I loved was from the campaign episode after [Black] agreed to run, and we do this handshake where we grab each other’s wrists, and Mike [Black] says ‘Into the old breach,’ and I reference The Battle of Dunkirk. It’s a The Bridge on the River Kwai spoof, an Alec Guinness movie from the ‘50s. Maybe not the best thing for a half-hour TV show.”

When I suggest that they’re becoming elder statesmen in the New York comedy scene, the 38-year-old Black bristles, “Just statesmen, John. States-men.” But as loath as they are to acknowledge it, a sketch show like Human Giant is obviously beholden to the flippant rulebook written by The State. When informed that Aziz Ansari cited them as a formative influence in a recent interview in this magazine, Black scoffs, “He was lying. He was just saying that. They’re lying sacks of shit. Two of the three of them [Human Giant] are lying sacks of shit.” To which Showalter adds, “One is a saint, but he doesn’t know it.”

As the interview wraps up, I muster the courage to reveal to Showalter that I once accosted him at a bar to pay him the ultimate compliment of being the Stephen Malkmus of indie comedy. To my eternal relief, he exclaims, “Oh you were the one who said that to me? Oh my god, I quote you all the time! That’s like my claim to fame.” So to continue in the vein of the concept introduced on the pilot, I ask who Black would be if the GRE analogy were “Showalter is to Malkmus as Michael Ian Black is to….”. Black swiftly answers, “Bert Convy,” to which Showalter responds, “He’s a comedian. It has to be an indie musician.” Without missing a beat, Black replies, “The rhythm guitarist [David Knopfler] from Dire Straits.” Confessing that I don’t know who he is, Black deadpans, “That’s the problem.”


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