Wet Hot American Summer Q&A: Michael Ian Black | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Wet Hot American Summer: Michael Ian Black

Busy Famous Man Keeps Busy, Famous

Jul 28, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Michael Ian Black is a busy man. Just this summer he can be found in not one, but three new television series: in addition to Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Black also has roles on Comedy Central’s Another Period and on TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show. In addition, he’s the host of the interview podcast How To Be Amazing and has a new book, Navel Gazing, arriving in early 2016. Somehow in there he also manages to perform stand-up, develop new projects, and tweet frequently.

In First Day of Camp—set several weeks before the events of 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer—Black reprises his role as teenage camp counselor McKinley Dozen. We talked to him about making the original film and its new prequel series, filming sex scenes, working with his colleagues from The State, and the focus of his upcoming memoir. (All this week we are posting interviews with diifferent members of the Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp cast. All the interviews will be linked to here. Also pick up our next print issue for a separate in-depth article on the show.)

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): It took a while for Wet Hot American Summer to find its audience, but it eventually went on to become a quintessential cult film. I’m wondering how long it was before you felt that there was an audience for more of it?

Michael Ian Black: Ten years? I guess I would have been surprise if, before that, anybody had wanted to make a movie, and before the last couple of years a television show wouldn’t have been an option. I mean, I’m surprised it happened at all. When you’re in something—a TV show, a movie, or whatever—that people like, you hear all the time from people who like it, but at the same time you’re aware that—in the case of Wet Hot—that’s a very small group of people in the scheme of things. [Laughs] So, it’s easy to kind of delude yourself into thinking, “Oh, people love this movie” when in fact most people haven’t heard of it. Or, there’s a substantial number of people who have seen Wet Hot American Summer and think it’s the biggest piece of shit ever.

David Wain’s been talking openly about doing a prequel for a few years now, but the Netflix series wasn’t officially announced until earlier this year. At what point did you find out it was actually happening?

I guess a few months before we started. I mean, there had been serious chatter about it for maybe eight months or a year before that, I think, when they were starting to talk to Netflix. It took a long time. But I never really held out much hope that it would actually come to pass, because these types of conversations happen all the time and most of the time they don’t pan out.

Was McKinley a character you were excited to return to?

No, I wasn’t particularly excited to return to the character, per se, because my character basically has no character. There’s nothing distinctive about my character other than the fact that he has sex with Bradley Cooper, which is notable. That’s definitely notable. He really has no defining characteristics, so it wasn’t like, “Oh, I can’t wait to put this character’s clothes on again.” I didn’t give a shit. I was just excited to hang out with everybody.

You’ve said before that the character was a little more grounded than the comedy you’d been doing up until that point. Was there any temptation back then, during filming, to try to stretch the character?

Oh, there was a huge temptation. And then every time I tried to do it, David and Michael [Showalter] would tell me to stop. I wanted to get laughs, and I didn’t trust that I could get them by just being myself, so I was constantly looking for things to be funny. A couple of them ended up in the movie, but not that much. And so, yeah, they wisely just told me to settle down and stop being an idiot.

I know you can’t say much about the story yet, but we know it’s a prequel. Can we assume that we’ll get to see the love story between your character and Bradley Cooper’s develop and bloom?

Well… I will say that Bradley Cooper’s in the show, and that I’m in the show, and on the last day of camp they get married. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions from that, or watch the damn show.

A few of the actors, such as Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks, who had smaller roles in the original movie—their careers have really blown up in the last decade and a half. Did that change the atmosphere on set for this series at all, compared to the movie?

Well, budget-wise, no. I’m not terribly familiar with the budget, but even though we had more, it was still an incredibly ambitious project, from a budget point of view. I know there was a lot of scrimping and saving just to make it happen, and that’s just the result of, you know, having eight episodes to shoot and a cast of—I don’t know—150 or something. So, there were somewhat limited resources. It wasn’t nearly as tight as it was during the initial film, but it still wasn’t luxurious by any stretch of the imagination.

And in terms of celebrity, no, not really. It’s like, if you’re a big star, you literally have no incentive to come and do this thing unless you think it will be fun. There was no attitude, there was no ego—not that those people have any, anyway. It was just a good chance for people to get together, hang out, and be silly together.

Those of you returning who are part of the returning cast: you’re all 15 years older. Were you slowed down at all? Less drinking, partying…?

[Laughs] There was no partying. It was really professional, which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun. It was really fun. But when we shot the movie, we were living in a camp, and we were all in our late 20s or early 30s. Every night after shooting we would drink, cavort, and hang out and do what people in their 20s do. Now I don’t we have any desire to do all that shit.

But it was fun to hang out with the people I got to hang out with. I wish I’d been there more often so I could see more people. But the craziest it ever got was going out to dinner at 8 o’clock at night, which is nuts.

You say it was very professional, but was there any hazing or initiation process for the new cast members?

I mean, don’t get me wrong: everyone had to go through the paddy wagon. You know, the spank machine. Everyone had to do it. That’s true on any movie set: everyone has to go through the spank machine. That’s just part of the process.

Of course you know what all of the original cast members bring to the table. Out of the newcomers, was there anyone who really surprised you?

Chris Pine was really great. He was really funny. I was only there with him one day, but what I saw was really funny and terrific. Other than that, not really. I mean, I was surprised certain people showed up. Not that I never thought they would come, but I was surprised Kristen Wiig came, and Jason Schwartzman…there were a lot of people I just didn’t anticipate, and it was cool to see that much enthusiasm for the show.

You’ve expressed before that Wet Hot American Summer’s brand of meta-comedy might have been too ahead of its time. I’m wondering whether you feel those of you who were involved in the film—or with The State, or maybe Upright Citizens Brigade—were just ahead of the trend, or if the shows and films you were making had a hand in triggering that shift?

Well, I mean, we were certainly doing it before people liked it. [Laughs] Which sucked for us. Whether or not we were anticipating a trend or starting a trend, I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s that important, really. I just know that our timing was terrible.

I have to ask about your Wet Hot American Summer love scene with Bradley Cooper. That was an early role for him, and I’ve read that it was intimidating scene for both of you at the time. Do you think it would have been any more or less intimidating now, after his Academy Award nominations and other success?

If I was meeting him for the first time, it would be far worse now. But, having known him already, I don’t think so. I think it would be just as awkward. But, it’s awkward with a woman, too. It’s always awkward. It’s not really a function of gender, although I guess gender added a wrinkle it. But it’s just awkward.

I did it with Cobie Smulders in They Came Together, and that was the first and only time I’d met her, and it was awkward, you know? But don’t get me wrong: she was very turned on. I was very professional about it.

One of your latest gigs is hosting the podcast How to Be Amazing, where you interview filmmakers, comedians, and authors. Was it something you pitched to Audible, or did they approach you about it?

It originated through conversations I was having with the two women who ended up producing it. We originally conceived it as a radio show, and they came to me as somebody who might be a good host. And, it happens to be something that I enjoy doing. So we brainstormed what we would like to do and how we would like to do it, and then started talking to different partners that might make sense. Audible and PRX thought it might be something they would be interested in.

Initially it appears on Audible, and then the older episodes move over to PRX later. And then you can get those on iTunes, or wherever.

How are your guests chosen? Do you have first or final say on who does or doesn’t qualify as “amazing”?

I never thought of it that way, but we do have conversations about who we’d like to have. I’ve never put my foot down and said, “This person isn’t amazing.”

I used to listen to your podcast, Topics, while I was at the gym–

Nothing’s going to get you more pumped up than that.

I like to exercise my brain at the same time as my body.


Anyhow, I haven’t been back to the gym since that podcast went on hiatus. Do you have any plans to bring it back anytime in the near future?

We both want it to, but Michael Showalter just directed a film, which he’s been busy with, and he did Wet Hot, which he’s been busy with. He’s also been doing some other writing stuff that he’s been busy with. So, I keep asking him to do it, but he keeps blowing me off. [Laughs]

Another Period premiers soon. [This interview was conducted before the Comedy Central series debuted.] I haven’t seen it yet, but there any questions you anticipate people having about your role once the show airs?

They may ask me, “Is it a real moustache, or a glue-on moustache?”

And? The answer…?

I’m not going to divulge that now. I’m going to let the anticipation of that question grow in peoples’ minds until they’re tearing out their hair.

Twitter is both great information source and procrastination tool. As someone who’s very skilled at Twitter, have you found ways to channel that into your creative productivity elsewhere?

No, the opposite. If anything it’s a procrastination tool. Very little of what I do on Twitter has any impact or bearing on what I do in my professional life. Although, that being said, I have made some good friends on Twitter, and those people I may work with or may not. They’re people I feel comfortable talking to that I wouldn’t have before.

You’ll have a new book, Navel Gazing, coming out in a few months. It’s a memoir, and it’s mostly related to health and the body. Can you tell me more about it?

It’s a lot about health and the body. A lot of it chronicles my mother’s illnesses, which have rendered her immobile. Not immobile, but she doesn’t get around very well. It’s about our relationship, my upbringing and her upbringing, our family history, and all of it tying back to the body. It’s brilliant.

You’ve covered personal stuff before, but this sounds like subject matter that’s pretty serious. Was it a challenge to find humor in it?

Yes and no. It’s kind of the way I write, so if anything the challenge for me is learning how to not put jokes in, and trust that the material can stand on its own. The same way I did with [playing] McKinley. As a writer and as an actor it’s best to strip away the extraneous, and that’s what I tried to do.

While we’re on personal subjects, my first daughter is due to be born the same week this interview will post online. You’ve written about fatherhood before—do you have any words of wisdom for me, a first-timer?

Try to schedule your work life so that you’re away a lot. [Laughs]

In the beginning it’s really hard. But, if you can finagle a way to be out of town for a few days, that will allow you to get some sleep. Really, it’s all about trying to find ways to sleep during those initial stages. If you can sleep, the rest of it’s easy. If you can’t sleep, the rest of it is torture.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp premieres on Netflix on July 31st, 2015.

To read our other Wet Hot American Summer cast Q&As, click here.


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