Way back in 1993, MTV took a flyer on a group of sketch comedians from New York University and gave them a television show.
That show, The State—because that was the troupe called themselves—lasted only two
years, but it left a permanent mark on American comedy. Many of its
members would stay in show biz, turning out such shows as Stella, Reno 9-1-1, Viva Variety on another upstart cable network called Comedy Central, and Wet Hot American Summer.
Michael Ian Black, one of the group’s most prominent members, has since become a strangely ubiquitous figure in pop culture, popping up as a talking head on VH1, hosting podcasts, hawking sodas and ice cream bars in TV ads, fighting with Marc Maron on Twitter, even writing children’s books. Through it all, he maintains an air of self-deprecating smarminess that’s at once infuriating and hilarious. He’s turned his sights on standup comedy in recent years, touring the nation as a solo act between gigs as the host of Burning Love, a pitch-perfect send-up of reality dating competition shows, and various movie and television gigs.
Black is stopping through Portland to play the Hawthorne Theatre on Saturday, June 7, and he took some time to talk about the State, his hatred of The Bachelor, and the book he wrote with Meghan McCain, the daughter of former presidential candidate John McCain.
Willamette Week: Does it surprise you that the members of the State continue to be successful twenty years after the show went off the air?
Michael Ian Black: It’s surprises and delights me that all of us have managed to stay employed and do pretty well. It’s unusual for a sketch comedy troupe to have that kind of success as individuals. So yeah, I’ve been very pleased and proud and delighted by everyone’s success.
Do you think comedy has caught up to the kind of edgy work the State was putting out in the early ‘90s?
I think we were on the edge of a kind of new tone or attitude, a new kind of way of looking at comedy. I think it would have happened without us, but it’s just that we were young, and we were kind of the first ones in the door. I do think comedy kind of caught up with where we were, but I don’t think it’s because of us; I just think we just happened to be the first ones in the door.
MTV was so instrumental for new comedians in the ‘90s, and it’s not like that anymore. Do you have any nostalgia for the old days of MTV?
I don’t give a shit about MTV at all. I don’t even think about it as a network. It’s not even in my consciousness.
Were you a fan of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette before making Burning Love? Did you watch them to prepare for your role?
Oh god no. I hate them. No, no never. I hate them with a passion. But Ken Marino and Erica Oyama who wrote it are huge fans of those shows. They knew the shows inside and out, which is why I think Burning Love works so well. It comes from a place of…well, a place of love, there’s no other way to say it.
Because those shows are so stupid and basically parodies in and of themselves, were you worried that Burning Love wouldn’t hit?
It was definitely a thought that everybody had, that it’s hard to be any stupider than those shows already are. I think they approached it very wisely. It’s almost not a parody. It’s almost just we’re doing one of those shows, and it just so happens that the people who are cast happen to be very, very funny. The different between Burning Love and The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is very, very slight.
Stella—the comedy group, not the TV show—was early to web video. How did that happen?
We were definitely early. There was no easy way to do it; there was no YouTube. I don’t even remember how we released them initially online. They were an outgrowth of our live show. Each week we would show a video, which were originally intentioned just for the audience at the show that night. When we had enough of them, we created a DVD to sell at our live shows. That ended up online, and the videos started to have a life of their own online. It wasn’t a conscious decision to do something people weren’t doing—it was an actual evolution of what we were already doing.
Even if it wasn’t a conscious decision to be the first to put videos online, do you tend to look for new avenues for comedy?
I know that I’m not consciously looking for new ways to do things; it’s more about what’s interesting to me in the moment. I’m doing standup right now, and there’s certainly nothing new about doing standup, but it’s interesting to me because I have to figure out how I do standup, and that’s a constantly evolving process. Within standup, it’s interesting to always be reinventing myself within the form, but I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground. I’m just breaking new ground for myself.
How’s the standup tour going?
I haven’t been on tour in probably a year and a half or two years. I was missing it and I decided it would be fun to go back out. The last thing I did was working toward the special, and then I did the special and afterwards I toured for a bit more and then I kind of got burned out on it so I took a break. Now I’m writing new material and trying it out and touring around. It’s been really fun.
How was it writing America, You Sexy Bitch with Meghan McCain?
Meghan and I very briefly met one day. I purposed to her that we write a book together because I was unemployed and she was unemployed. So she said yeah, and we decided to write a kind of political travelogue. And we had a great time together. When we weren’t at each other throats, which was not infrequent, we got along famously. We’ve become very good friends. She’s such the opposite kind of person that I would have cast myself as being friends with. Not only politically. She’s kind of flamboyant and exuberant in a way that I’m not and eccentric in a way that I’m not. And she’s been a great person to have in my life just because she is so different from me.
What do you know about the Wet Hot American Summer sequel (or whatever it is) rumored to be coming on Netflix?
I know a little bit about it. But I’m not supposed to talk about it at all.
GO: Hawthorne Theater,1507 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., 233-7100. 7 pm. $20 advance, $25 day of show. 21+. Tickets here.