Catching Up With... Michael Ian Black
Actor, director, pop-culture commentator and self-described "retarded basic cable comedian" Michael Ian Black has finally tossed his hat into the author ring. My Custom Van And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face came out on Tuesday (July 15), accomplishing that which its lengthy title promises to do. If one's mind is left intact, it is it advisable to check on the guts (which will likely be busted).The short, snappy essays delve into whimsy, absurdity and consistent hilarity. Vulgarity is oftentimes made adorable, and the table of contents alone is one of the funniest and most bizarre of its ilk. Black's wit and abilities as a crafter of guffaws are given a medium in which they can be adequately explored and expressed throughout.
Paste caught up with the modern-day renaissance man and discussed crossing the line, what hurts his feelings and whether or not he'll fist fight Tucker Max.
Paste: You picked an Internet fight with the beloved David Sedaris. Did it accomplish what you intended?
Michael Ian Black: Well, my intention was to draw attention to my book and to viciously attack a beloved best-selling memoirist, and I think I accomplished both those things. Did it draw positive attention to my book? I can’t say that it did. But it definitely drew attention to my book.
Paste: This kind of humor—the tongue-in-cheek phony feud with a writer you’ve said you respect—inevitably seems to lose about 50 percent of the people who come across it. Do you care about that or do you just kind of accept it and continue onward?
Black: I guess for the most part I accept it, but it hurts my feelings when people compare me radically unfavorably to whomever I’m feuding with. So if somebody says, “Oh, you’re not fit to carry David Sedaris’ shoes,” then it hurts my feelings—I’m very sensitive—because I’m not being mean to David Sedaris. I like David Sedaris. I wouldn't say he's not fit to carry my shoes.
Paste: Do you think it’s absurd that people don’t catch on to the fact that it’s all in good fun?
Black: Right—they clearly think I’m being serious and it’s so obvious to me that I’m not, but sarcasm is often lost in print. And also if you’ve got a beloved figure in your life, and many people love David Sedaris, as they should, and somebody even gives you the appearance of attacking them, that’s going to get some people’s hackles up. I riled some hackles.
Paste: Are you surprised that Tucker Max responded to your blog post about fighting him?
Black: I was surprised how quickly he responded to it. I mean, I posted and like within an hour he had accepted my challenge to fist fight. Now that’s one that people are taking crazy seriously. His fans are just going bonkers and writing the most hateful things about me. Calling me just terrible names.
Paste: Like what?
Black: Uh, like douchenozzle. Things like that. Like, I’ve never thought to put the words “douche” and “nozzle” together before. But these people do. It’s actually pretty clever; I kind of like it. Douchenozzle.
Paste: Do you intend to pick any more phony fights?
Black: No, I think this is probably it. I think I’ve worn out my welcome. Well, I mean, I had a literary feud, and I felt like that was good, and so I felt like I had to raise the ante a little bit, and actually have a fist fight. So that’s what I did, not thinking it through to the point where I thought to myself, “Oh, well, he might read this and accept a fist fight,” so I was surprised at the alacrity with which he responded. He was almost instantaneous. He can’t wait to kick my ass. And you know, in fairness to Tucker’s fans, they’re all saying the same thing, which is that Tucker’s going to kick your ass, and they’re right, he will, but just how mean they’re saying it. If they just said it objectively, if they just [said], look, objectively speaking, Tucker’s going to kick your ass, I would go, “Well, yeah, that’s probably true.” So when they say things like, “Hey, Tucker’s going to kick your douchenozzle ass,” what am I supposed to say?
Paste: You’re not going to fight him.
Black: I might.
Paste: You might.
Black: How could I not? ...If I back down—I can’t back down. I’m just hoping if I draw this out long enough he’ll die of cirrhosis of the liver before [the fight].
Paste: I think that’s the most likely scenario.
Black: It’s not unlikely.
Paste: Have you already done book signings and readings?
Black: No, I haven’t. I haven’t started that yet. But I imagine...my big concern is that people aren’t going to show up and I’ll be reading to myself. Which I can just do at home, you know what I mean?
Paste: How do you anticipate Barnes and Noble dealing with detailed accounts of coloring your dick yellow and other such things?
Black: I’m not going to censor the words in the stories I read, but I’ll probably be a little bit selective about what I read. So I probably won’t read, for example, “A Series of Letters to the First Girl I Ever Fingered,” because, you know. Maybe there’s children around. They didn’t bargain for that. They don’t want to hear about some girl getting fingered. They want to hear about Elmo. Unfortunately, I don’t have any stories about Elmo. Or even fingering Elmo.
Paste: Back to your blog and fans: You ask them to do things through it, and they do, such as posting reviews of the book on Amazon.com. How does it make you feel that they’ll do things you tell them to? Is it weird?
Black: Very few of them actually go and do those things. I think there’s only 10 people who post reviews, but of those 10, I’m very grateful. It was a very nice thing for them to do. I feel like they’re my Internet buddies and that they would go and take the time to do something like that is very flattering. I know you didn’t do it. What’s your problem?
Paste: I’m busy concocting interview questions.
Black: Just fucking get on it, just write a five-star review on Amazon. I don’t even care if you read the book.
Paste: I did read the book.
Black: Right. And that’s as far as you’re willing to go with it. “I read it.”
Paste: I read it!
Black: Just write a nice review on Amazon!
Paste: The interview for Paste isn’t enough?
Black: No. Because nobody reads Paste. Nobody reads your stupid magazine. But millions of people read Amazon. In fact...
Paste: They have to be looking for you on Amazon, though.
Paste: They have to seek you out on Amazon, whereas on Paste they’re just going to see it.
Black: Right, I guess that’s true.
Paste: I probably won’t write a review. I’m sorry.
Black: Look, it would be great. It would be a good opportunity for you, to use your writing skills.
Paste: Yeah, it would be like a clip.
Black: If you want to be a writer.
Paste: It’ll be a clip I can send to future employers.
Black: That’s right, you can say, “I was published on Amazon.com.”
Paste: To what extent did comments that you received on these blog posts that ended up making it into your book determine whether or not you used a particular essay in the book?
Black: Um, not so much. Not so much. I mean, there were a few that just went over like a light bulb, and so those were instructive that I didn’t use those at all. I used my own opinion about whether or not they were good enough. I set the bar pretty low. So pretty much if I wrote it, I put it in the book.
Paste: Were you ever concerned about what effect essentially posting the entire book’s contents for free online prior to releasing it would have on sales?
Black: No, not really, because at the time that I was writing, my blog readership was so little that I didn’t think it would really impact sales one way or another. Now that I’m a bona fide Internet celebrity, I’m going to have to be a little more cautious about releasing my material for free. And when I say “bona fide Internet celebrity,” that means 53 people read my blog every day.
Paste: Fifty-three every day? Consistently?
Black: Anywhere from 51 to 53 people.
Paste: That’s pretty incredible.
Black: Yes. I suspect a lot of that is me looking at my own site, and hitting refresh. It might be slightly lower than that.
Paste: A lot of your humor revolves around you being some kind of dunce—it’s a special kind of self-deprecation unique to you. What’s the deal with that?
Black: Well, I think the deal with it is a lot of self-loathing, that manifests itself into a wonderful brand of comedy. It’s like I put my self-loathing into a food processor, and turn it on purée, and what comes out is a delicious smoothie of comedy. All you need to do is add a little mango.
Paste: I have a couple of favorite images in the book. The one where you and John Steinbeck are kittens playing with the same ball of yarn is pretty good.
Black: Thanks. I feel pretty good about that, too.
Paste: Do you have any favorite moments or essays of the 50?
Black: Nah, I kind of like... A huge celebrity just walked by.
Black: A pitcher for the New York Yankees just walked by. Very sort of a superstar pitcher.
Paste: That’s no big deal. I met Robert DeNiro.
Black: I’ve met Bob DeNiro before. I call him “Bob.” What was the question? Any favorite essays? Nah, I don’t care. They’re all good.
Paste: Do you relate in particular to any of them or are they all based in the fantastical and the absurd?
Black: No, some of them are more true than others. I mean, I really did get a perm when I was in sixth grade, and so I did write an open letter to the hair stylist who somehow convinced me to get a perm when I was in sixth grade. That’s based in truth.
Paste: Was it as devastating as you made it out to be?
Yeah, it was pretty horrible. That’s probably the only one in the book that’s taken directly from my life. Although I think I really would be thinking that if I were Billy Joel on my way to a holiday party where I knew there was going to be a piano. I do think that would be my thought process.
Paste: I like that one.
Paste: You’re welcome. There are a number of jokes that recur in your blog postings. Does this mean you care about people who have bothered to follow them, or is it just for fun?
Black: Wait, like what?
Paste: That your children are named Suri and Maddux.
Black: Oh right, right. There’s that. I’m creating a mythology. A wonderful mythology that will rival the Greeks.
Paste: What kind of audience do you anticipate this book appealing to?
Black: I’m going for primarily people who can read. That’s who I think can get the most out of the book. And people who love to laugh. If they love to laugh, I think they’ll really enjoy this material.
Paste: How do you suggest I type out laugh to translate?
Black: Ah-ah-l-a-h—g-h? Laaahff? I don’t know.
Paste: That’s no help. I’ll figure it out. Going back to your Billy Joel essay, I kind of detected shades of Dorothy Parker. Do you count any writers or comics as influences?
Black: Sure, if you want to say Dorothy Parker’s an influence, absolutely. Who am I to argue with Dorothy Parker?
Paste: It isn’t that I want to, it’s that I’m curious.
Black: I’ve never read any Dorothy Parker.
Black: Well, look, I haven’t spent a lot of time at The Algonquin, I don’t know. You know, I want literate people to read the book, but that doesn’t mean I’m literate.
Paste: Are questions about your influences your favorite?
Black: Yeah, well, if they’re sort of... I never know how to answer them. Because I don’t actually know the answer.
Paste: So you don’t read?
Black: Well, I read, but I don’t read funny books. I read, you know, I read a lot of non-fiction. I read like a lot about presidential politics.
Paste: Most of the essays in your book are short and fairly consistent in length. How do you imagine your writing will evolve from this point?
Black: I imagine in the future I’ll write less, and longer. So less of them, but longer. So instead of 50, maybe there’ll be 25 next time. And then after that, maybe 12 and a half.
Paste: Is that three-page format what you naturally are filling up right now?
Black: Yeah, right now that seems to be where my comfort level is. I wish I could write longer. But I’m not that, you know, like I said, I’m not that literate. A lot of people can’t even string two sentences together.
Paste: Like who?
Black: I don’t know. Certain Amazonian tribes.
Paste: They’ve got their own languages they string together.
Black: Well, they don’t have written language, it’s an oral language.