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What Is Michael Ian Black Elk Speaks, Alex?

If you only recognize Michael Ian Black as the talking head on VH1 or the guy hawking Sierra Mist between first downs, than you have truly been missing out. And you're an idiot. Because although those appearances are certainly smirk-inducing, Black is a bona fide alternative-comedy superhero, dishing out some of the most cerebral comedy this side of 1990. An original member of the legendary sketch-comedy troupe The State as well as one of three brains behind the short-lived Comedy Central series Stella, Black has also appeared in such cult films as Wet Hot American Summer (think guy in short shorts) and this summer's The Ten. And he ain't too shabby at standup, either, which he proved at Saturday night's show with Michael Showalter at the Gothic Theater. Recently, Black took some time to talk with Westword writer Adam Cayton-Holland on the phone:

Westword (Adam Cayton-Holland): Do you prefer Mike or Michael?

Michael Ian Black: I prefer Michael but honestly it doesn’t make a difference.

WW: Where are you right now?

MIB: At a playground with my kids in Redding, CT, where I live.

WW: So in all the interviews that I’ve read with you it seems like I’m supposed to ask what’s up with the DVD of The State, cause that’s what everyone does.

MIB: Right, well you can just take one of the answers that I’ve supplied as your answer.

WW: Good, I was going to cut and paste most of this any way.

MIB: I would. I’m certainly going to can most of my responses with you.

WW: I know you started out doing sketch comedy at NYU and then moved on to The State.

MIB: The State was at NYU. We were The New Group before that but we changed our names. It was the same people though, the same thing.

WW: When did you get more into actual stand-up?

MIB: A couple of years ago. Stella played in a part in that we were doing a lot of stage shows, the three of us on stage together. And The State or The New Group was a live group before we were on television, so I’ve certainly done a lot of acting, a lot of performing in front of live audiences. And I sort of messed around with this alternative comedy scene in New York which still exists that was very new in the '90s. Doing a lot of experimentation in those rooms. Performing in those rooms sort of led to the creation of Stella. When Stella started it wasn’t a three-man thing, it was just a night called Stella that was hosted by the three of us. And then eventually the three of us became known as Stella. I didn’t really start pursuing stand-up in the way that one thinks of stand-up comedy until a couple years ago, but it all kind of evolved from The State onward.

WW: It’s interesting, usually it’s the other way around, people start out doing stand-up and go towards sketch, it seems like you were the complete reverse.

MIB: I had always admired stand-up and wanted to do it, but what I didn’t want to do was pay my dues. I didn’t want to be the guy showing up at two in the morning and doing an open mic for three drunk guys. So I didn’t want to do stand-up until I was sort of well-known enough so that I could show up at a place and people would be there to see me. I was just too proud or to lazy to do it the other way around. My advice to you would be to first get famous then do stand-up.

WW: How long did it take for Stella to get to the point where you were all really proud of it and think, “Alright we really got our legs here. This is resembling what we had hoped for or envisioned?”

MIB: We were doing these live shows for a couple of years before the voice that we identified as Stella really emerged. It started when we started making videos, the videos we were making were for the live show. Through the videos we really started forming an identity as Stella, separate from what we had going on on-stage at the live shows. It was a gradual evolution.

WW: Did gradually you evolve into being the characters on stage that you were in the videos?

MIB: Yeah. That was all an evolution and all conscious and all the result of a lot of talking and figuring things out. It’s a very deliberate and conscious aesthetic that we created, but what’s funny is that some of it was happenstance. The suits were an accident. The way it all came together was mostly thought out, though. Not really successfully, but it was thought out.

WW: When the show went to television was it Comedy Central approaching you or you guys shopping it around?

MIB: We went to Comedy Central. And that was the only meeting we took. We said this is where we want to do it. And we knew a lot of people there and they were very supportive from the very beginning. They were great to us.

WW: How did the live show and the TV show differ and were you happy with the way it translated?

MIB: The live show and the TV show have almost nothing to do with each other. The videos that we made are much closer to the TV show than the live show to the TV show. In terms of whether I’m happy or not with it? I’m actually very, very proud of it. I think that the work we did for television is excellent. You know, unfortunately it’s not for everybody. We didn’t set out to alienate the entire Comedy Central audience which is what I think we ended up doing.

WW: You say work that we did, “for television.” With this new, supposedly more free forum for comedy online, is that sort of the goal nowadays with alternative comedy in terms of actual network television? To go and get something out there that you’re proud and screw it if it’s not renewed?

MIB: For me personally the goal is to be successful. I want to be successful in the business and I want to be able to pay my mortgage and I want to be able to feed my children. So, I’m definitely not like a snob about the work that I do but at the same time I know that I can only be happy doing a certain kind of thing. And I’ve done those other kinds of things, and I’m not happy having done them and not happy doing them. I’ve just come to a point now where if something doesn’t feel right I just won’t do it, even if that means sacrificing some money in the short term; and I definitely don’t take money lightly.

WW: The press release I read said that you have two completed pilots under active consideration with Comedy Central, what does that mean?

MIB: It means we made two pilots, me and [Michael] Showalter made two pilots and they’re actively considering them, they haven’t given up on them. We’ve shot the pilots but they haven’t picked them up for series yet and we don’t know if they will. The way they do things over there is they meet every quarter, it’s corporate, you know? So you might make a pilot for them and then sit around for a few months waiting for them to make up their minds, and right now they just haven’t decided.

WW: Can you talk about what they’re about?

MIB: Sure. One of them is called Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand, which is a sketch-ish show where I pick a culturally relevant topic each week and then do a half-hour of comedy about it. And the other one is called My First Time, which is a show that Showalter created where stand-up comics talk about their first time doing comedy. They can either reenact it, or do commentary about it; the way the comedians interpret it is entirely up to them.

WW: You’re starting out this next tour with Michael Showalter in Denver. Is that something you demanded as the only city fit for starting the tour?

MIB: Yeah, I was insistent that it had to be Denver. Basically I said we start the tour in Denver or I don’t tour. They were like, “Don’t you want to play Giants Stadium, don’t you want to play Madison Square Garden, don’t you want to play Wembley?” And I was like, “No. I want to play a tiny club in Denver or I’m not doing it.”

WW: You really do stand by your artistic integrity, I admire that.

MIB: I really do.

WW: Have you ever been out here before?

MIB: I actually spent a couple of months in Denver when I was in my early twenties doing a play called Junk Bonds. I really liked it out there. I liked the vibe. I went to a Klan rally.

WW: How long is the tour?

MIB: About twenty-five cities. I’ll go home in-between gigs, couple weeks out, then go home. Showalter and I had a long tour last year and we had a great time. It’s fun traveling with one of your best friends, fun being on the road and being only responsible for yourselves. As a middle-aged father of two that’s a great feeling.

WW: And I imagine that at some point the two of you got together and said no more of this David Wain (State/Stella comrade) guy?

MIB: (Laughs) Yeah, but that was during Stella.

WW: Who headlines?

MIB: The way it works out is Showalter goes first then I go. We each do about an hour.

WW: Are you aware that you have three MySpace pages?

MIB: They’re free, so I don’t see a problem with it.

WW: Two-part question: A) if I ask you to be my MySpace friend will you accept? and b) is there anything you want me to leave you as a comment?

MIB: I will accept you as a MySpace friend and in terms of comments, no. I think people usually try to be clever with their comments and it usually doesn’t go over well. At least not with me.

WW: Good to know. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

MIB: No. Just I love you.

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Sean Cronin