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Comedian Michael Ian Black Isn’t Doing it Right

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If you were a teen in the mid 90s and had cable television, most likely you know Michael Ian Black from The State, the sketch comedy show that aired on MTV. His new memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right, is best summed up as an unflinching look at finding love, getting married, becoming a father, and dealing with all the trying moments that inevitably come with that life. Black’s humor makes this a wince-inducing, laugh-out-loud-in-public take on adulthood.

Since the 90s, Black’s been busy acting in films (Wet Hot American Summer), on television (Stella, Ed, Michael and Michael Have Issues), and has even written a few children’s books. Recently, he’s moved into stand-up and can be found talking about food on the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.

I had a chance to ask Michael about his career in comedy, his thoughts on the industry today, and what his wife thinks about his honesty. You can read the interview in full at The Rumpus. Here are some highlights:

I’ve heard you talk about how seriously you take your comedic career, The State was meant to rival Saturday Night Live, yet anyone who knows your work could easily describe it as “ridiculous”. Your sketch comedy in particular is truly absurd (in that good, over-the-top way). How do you balance these two, seemingly at odds, versions of yourself—both personally and professionally?

Michael Ian Black: To me, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. From my early work with the sketch group The State until now, I’ve thought a lot about comedy. Probably too much. In some ways, The State was more of an intellectual exercise than a comedic one. What I mean is, we were deliberately attempting to push a new kind of comedy out there. It was a reaction to what we were seeing on shows like SNL and in the observational stand-up that was out there at the time. We wanted to do a more aggressive, edgy, surreal comedy. All of that was very conscious and almost analytical. Of course I don’t know how analytical you can get about fart jokes, but we tried. The point is that silliness can be very serious. Sorry if I come off like a pretentious prick, but comedy is one of those things that, as soon as you start talking about it, you automatically sounds like a pretentious prick. Also: poetry. Also: fashion.

If you were just starting out, how do you think this environment would affect you?

Black: It’s much easier now, particularly if you don’t live in New York or LA. Because you broadcast your work so easily it’s much easier to find an audience. On the other hand, the flood of stuff that’s out there sometimes makes it hard to get noticed. I do believe that the best stuff will always eventually make itself known, though.

Speaking of, in your new book, I was impressed by how strong your voice is. How do you approach your essay writing and how does it differ from when you write sketch and stand-up?

Black: Essay and story writing versus sketch writing. All writing is basically the same: beginning, middle, end. The difference with sketches, and why sketches are actually harder, is that you generally have to establish an entire new world every few minutes with its own rules, get to the joke premise, explore that premise, and then end the thing all within tight time constraints. That’s very hard to do well. Even the best sketch shows generally fall on their faces half the time.

With essays and story-telling it’s a little different. For one thing, my current essay work is all very personal. It’s based on my life and so the world remains consistent. That makes things easier. Also, it’s anecdotal by its nature, so I usually have some idea of how it ends before I start. Finally, I don’t feel the same pressure to be funny when I’m writing anecdotally. The flip of that is that I do feel pressure to actually say something, to make some larger point about something. I don’t feel that pressure when writing sketch comedy.

Go check out the rest. In the meantime, you can buy Michael Ian Black’s memoir, You’re Not Doing it Right, at IndieBound (or find it at your local indie). You can also follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelianblack.

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Written by Gabrielle

April 17, 2012 at 7:11 am

What to Watch: Louis C.K.

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Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” hosted by Jon Stewart since 1999, and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” created in 2005, helped launch a revitalization of comedic television. Colbert, who got his start on “The Daily Show,” had come from the world of improv, and Stewart, who had been in stand-up, brought with him fellow comics Demetri Martin, Wyatt Cenac, and Samantha Bee to work as writers and correspondents.

FOX’s wildly popular show “Arrested Development”, whose cast included stand-up comedian David Cross, welcomed reoccurring characters played by the late Patrice Oneal and featured cameos by Bob Odenkirk and Andy Dick. Two years later, premiering on NBC in 2005, the US remake of “The Office,” was first created in the UK by comedian Ricky Gervais, and starred, until recently, Steve Carell. The show has enjoyed seven highly-acclaimed seasons and is now gearing up for its eighth.

Another sitcom bringing a few million weekly viewers a week to NBC is “Parks and Recreation” starring three actors from the stand-up and sketch comedy world: Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, and Aubrey Plaza. While the fate of NBC’s “Community”—a clever show set on the campus of a community college starring stand-up comics Joel McHale and Donald Glover, The Daily Show’s John Oliver, and legendary comedian Chevy Chase—hangs in the balance, it enjoys a following of hardcore fans willing to stage a flash mob outside of 30 Rock in protest of its possible cancellation.

Loyal audiences and rave reviews for these programs shows an appetite for smart, offbeat humor. These successes, it could be argued, have had an unintended side effect: they’ve paved the way for a wider appreciation of television comedy’s often darker, raunchier cousin: the stand-up show. This is how one might account for the rising popularity of once-underground comic Louis C.K.

For those looking for something harder than PG-13, there’s “Louie,” C.K.’s part-live show, part-sketch sitcom on FX. Written, directed, edited, and produced by C.K., Louie stars the comedian as himself making his way through everyday life—uncomfortably and usually without grace.

The show begins with a few minutes of C.K.’s stand-up act, with him at the Comedy Cellar in the West Village or Caroline’s in the Theater District, followed by a scripted sketch, a hyperbolization of his life as a somewhat-depressed, out of shape, divorced father of two girls.

Louis’s comedy tends to focus on two topics: sex and parenting. While you might not think admittances to thoughts of sexual deviance—often involving errant bodily fluids—would be endearing, C.K.’s self-deprecation and amused smirk gives him a certain charm.

Switching effortlessly between debauchery and fatherhood, and without creepy segues, C.K. says what’s on the mind of every parent: your own kids are boring and you hate other people’s. But his love for his two young daughters is obvious and his bits come off like a roast without the guest of honor’s presence.

Recently, C.K.’s been in the spotlight for the non-traditional release of his one-hour special, “Live at the Beacon Theater”. In an age where self-publishing and other independent ventures are lauded with the volume cranked way up, the reception for Louis has been especially loud.

Bypassing traditional television outlets, making the show available DRM-free on his website for five dollars, C.K. is currently the poster boy for DIY film production. At the time of my writing, the small fee allows you to stream the special twice on your browser and download it three times, which you can then watch as much as you want on any device and burn it to a DVD.

Louis is an ideal guinea pigs for this sort of digital distribution experiment. The success of his TV show meant he had the start-up money, a fan base, and name recognition. Unlike many artists trying to earn a living from such projects, Louis thought that if he could just break even, it would be worth it.

From years of doing stand-up and writing for such shows as “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Dana Carvey Show,” and “The Chris Rock Show,” he had the support, and admiration, from peers and could rely on a certain amount of promotional airtime. A few days after the release he was on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and, as a favorite of Terry Gross, he was on the national radio program “Fresh Air”.

The release was also well-timed, intentionally so or a stroke of luck I don’t know. This year, “Louie,” now in its second season, made it onto various year-end top ten of 2011 television lists, including New York magazine’s, Entertainment Weekly’s, and NPR Fresh Air’s television critic’s. This top tier publicity along with the media’s coverage of his chosen business model, created a momentum that surprised the comic himself.

After just 10 days the show grossed one million dollars. Having grown up poor, C.K. didn’t feel comfortable having that much money so he broke it up into pieces. First he recouped on the film, putting the money back into his company, next he gave bonuses to all the people who work for him, and finally he donated $280,000 to various charities for women, children, and humanitarian relief.

Riffing off the opening for the FX show, the beginning of “Live at the Beacon Theater” shows Louis in his signature black t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers walking through the streets of Manhattan. This time it’s towards the Upper West Side venue. He shows up alone, wades through the crowd of fans waiting outside, and heads up to the green room. It’s this lack of pomp and circumstance that adds to his likeability.

“Live at the Beacon Theater” is C.K.’s best stand-up yet. From the moment he steps on stage to introduce himself, telling the audience to take their seats and the technicians to kill the house lights, the crowd is roaring. He adds, “don’t text or Twitter during the show, just live your life,” which, of course, gets another round of applause.

As one can imagine, if you’ve ever heard his stand-up, the hour-long routine is full of inappropriate humor, largely about masturbation, but, as Slate’s David Haglund points out in his review, there’s more political commentary in his act as well, including a bit on global warming where Louis, imagining himself as God, asks what we did to the polar bears.

With “Live at the Beacon Theater,” not only has C.K. proven himself a gifted entertainer, he’s shown himself to be an astute businessman. The entire project is brilliant and being a small part of it was well worth the five dollars. Watch “Louie” on FX, get the Beacon Theater special, and, if you’re not already, get on board for what I hope will be a very long ride.

::[Links]::
Buy Live at the Beacon Theater (Louis C.K.’s website)
Louie Official Show Site
Louie on Netflix (stream instantly)
Interview on NPR’s Fresh Air
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (Part I)
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (Part II)
Louis takes questions from fans on Reddit
Slate’s review

Written by Gabrielle

December 28, 2011 at 6:30 am

Posted in film

Tagged with , , , ,

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