What can I tell you about Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter? Nothing. I barely know them, and anything I shared with you would just be stuff I’ve Googled. Because I don’t want to waste either of our time, I asked David Wain, their frequent collaborator and friend, to write this intro for me. He was kind enough to throw together the following semi-concise summation of Michael and Michael’s respective careers and promotable upcoming projects…
Although Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter both grew up in different parts of New Jersey, they amazingly never met until they both got to NYU.They ended up co-founding a sketch comedy group, which I later begged to join, on my hands and knees.This troupe (The State) eventually had its own series on MTV, which lasted a few years until the group crashed and burned in an ill-fated attempt at prime time on CBS.(The State’s MTV series comes out on DVD July 14th.)
Around the same time, the three of us started hosting a nightclub “alternative comedy” variety show in New York called Stella, which ran for eight years, and eventually spawned a bunch of dirty web videos (The Stella Shorts), a TV series that was cancelled after one season (even though it was awesome), and a live act that still occasionally tours the USA. (A new Stella “Live in Boston” DVD comes out this fall, and a movie is in the works.)
In 2000 Showalter and I went to Honesdale, Pennsylvania and made a movie together, the first for both of us, called Wet Hot American Summer, which also featured our friend Michael Ian Black as a gay who marries Bradley Cooper. Over the years, the three of us collaborated on tons of other stuff, a lot of which either sucked or bombed or both.But we had a lot of fun playing Scrabble during the down time.
Michael, Michael and I have much in common (e.g. being Jewish, liking chicken wings, liking dick jokes) but Michael and Michael share many things I don’t (e.g. chess skills, knowledge of sports, the ability to read a book cover to cover). That list grew by one on July 15th, when their new TV series Michael and Michael Have Issues debuted on Comedy Central.I haven’t seen it yet but I believe the show takes place in a fictional version of New York where I don’t exist.Thank god it’s fictional, because Michael and Michael are two of the funniest, smartest people I’ve ever met, they are two of my best friends, and if we weren’t a part of each other’s lives, I’d have no one to not cast in my movies.
And now… here’s an interview Eric did with Michael and Michael!
Eric Spitznagel: Based on the title alone, Michael and Michael Have Issues suggests that you guys have some personal things to work out. How much has working on this show been like therapy?
Michael Ian Black: Well, in Gestalt Therapy you do a lot of primal screaming. So in that sense, it’s been very good.
Michael Showalter: It’s also comparable to EST, in that Mike and I go days without urinating.
MIB: Wait, they don’t let you pee in EST? I didn’t know that.
MS: That’s right. It’s because it helps you gain control of yourself. Or something.
Does all this screaming and not urinating have anything to do with the plot?
MIB: No, it all happens off-screen.
MS: It’s part of our acting preparation. Holding in our pee is a very important part of getting into character.
It sounds painful.
MS: Oh, it most certainly is. You’ve seen Apocalypse Now, haven’t you? Martin Sheen’s got nothing on us.
So which one of you had a heart attack in the middle of a scene?
MS: You mean as our characters or as ourselves?
MS: Michael Black’s character seems to find himself in the hospital a fair amount.
MIB: At least once. Wait, no, twice. And Showalter suffers from lockjaw.
MS: Not really.
MIB: No, I just made that up.
MS: It only seems like I have lockjaw because I have—
MIB: A very prominent chin.
MS: I have a William F. Buckley chin.
MIB: He has a rare form of tetanus which makes him appear to be an arch-conservative patrician.
Are the characters in this show based on you in name alone?
MIB: They’re highly autobiographical, although in a James Frey-esque kinda way.
MS: Could you elaborate on that a little?
MIB: We made a lot of shit up.
So you’re telling the truth except when you’re lying?
MIB: There are definitely things that are true in it, and there are definitely things that aren’t in any way true. We’ll leave it to the viewer to discern which is which.
Michael and Michael Have Issues isn’t the first time you’ve both played narcissists. Even if you’re being ironic, is it at least partly a reflection of your own genuine narcissism?
MIB: The thing about narcissistic people is that they don’t think they’re being narcissistic. So I would answer your question by saying no, not at all.
MS: Narcissists are very fascinating people.
MIB: And it’s fair to say that you find yourself very fascinating.
MS: I think narcissists are endlessly watchable. The way they view the world and the way they interact within the world. Like Mike said, they have no concept of their behavior or how it might be affecting other people. So comedically, it’s a very fun type of character to play. They are bulls in a china shop, twenty-four seven. They’re human bulls in the china shop of life, and you can quote me on that. I’m trade-marking it as we speak.
MIB: That was a great way to spin a trite cliche…
MS: Thank you.
MIB: …into something equally trite.
MS: Oh. Not thanks.
But aren’t you just having your cake and eating it too? Isn’t playing a narcissist like saying “I’m being so racist right now just to point out how not racist I actually am?”
You get to be a narcissistic asshole and because it’s all done in air-quotes, you can’t be criticized.
MS: Yes, yes, yes, yes, that’s it. You nailed it. It’s a disclaimer. We get to act on all of our uncivil impulses in a make-believe way and it’s very cathartic.
On the hierarchy of entertainment, how insecure and fucked-up are comics?
MIB: How are you defining this hierarchy? Are you doing it on a number system?
Maybe hierarchy isn’t the right word. Within the vast array of creative vocations available….
MIB: How fucked-up are comics?
Yeah. Is a musician more fucked-up than a writer, and are they all less fucked up than sitcom actors?
MIB: Showalter may disagree, but I think comedians are not any more or less fucked-up than anybody else. It’s just that they make their livelihood talking about it incessantly.
MS: I totally agree. I’m probably going to get into trouble for saying this, but I think comedians, by and large, are fairly normal. Most of the comedians I know exist within the continuum of “people.” (Long pause.) Does that make sense? Is that just a very weird way of saying something?
You’re saying something, I’m just not sure what it could be.
MS: I think comedians see themselves as people among people. So their fuck-uppedness is the same as it would be in the world. There are non-fucked up comedians and there are fucked-up comedians.
MIB: The self-serious comedian is rarely funny.
MS: That’s the thing that most people don’t realize. In real life, comedians aren’t funny. They save it. They save it up.
MIB: Alex Rodriguez isn’t going home every night and hitting home runs.
MS: That’s exactly what I was going to say.
MIB: He’s in his basement, hitting the stationary bike.
MS: It’s like saying, does Stephen King go home every day and write? No, of course not.
MIB: Except he does. That’s the thing. He writes from home.
MS: O.K., that was a bad example.
MIB: But the point is very good.
MS: The point was good, yeah.
MIB: But it was a terrible, terrible example.
You’re both former cast members of The State, and it seems like everybody from that show continues to work together in some variation, from Reno 911 to Stella. Why is that? Is it like drunk-dialing an ex-girlfriend? You know the sex is going to be, if not good, at least predictable?
MIB: No, because unlike with old girlfriends, we never really broke up. It’s more like a booty call that never ends.
MS: Or a polygamist’s marriage. You just go knock on the door of one of your ten wives. You can pick a different door every night.
You’ve done quite a few shows for Comedy Central. Is that out of obligation or necessity?
MIB: Neither. It’s a fun place to work.
MS: I see us as Italian Renaissance painters and Comedy Central is the Medici Family. They give us money and we paint.
MIB: They’re our patrons. Our patroni.
And you feel like they understand your comedy sensibilities more than any other TV network?
MIB: No, they’re the only ones who will hire us.
MS: That’s why the only family of patrons you’ve ever heard of is the Medici Family.
MIB: Listen, if the CW would have us, we’d jump ship in a heartbeat. There’s no place I’d rather be than at Comedy Central. But if another network calls, that’s where I’ll go.
Promotional blurbs for Michael and Michael Have Issues always mention that the show deals with “hot-button topics.” What does that mean exactly? Are you guys making jokes about stem-cell research and gay marriage?
MIB: There’s literally a counsel of hot buttons. Not the kind you push, the kind you find on clothes. That’s what we’re talking about.
So what is your opinion of stem-cell research and gay marriage?
MIB: As they relate to each other?
Or separately. Your choice.
MIB: I’m definitely not of the opinion that you can use stem cells to cure homosexuality. It’s not a disease, no matter what you think. They were born that way and they deserve our respect, and I don’t like the implication otherwise.
You have so successfully turned this interview on me. Well done.
MIB: I just don’t understand why you would make that kind of reprehensible remark.
MS: I think gay people deserve all the same rights as everybody else, it’s just that marriage is specifically for a man and a woman.
That’s a bold statement for a Comedy Central star to make.
(They both burst into laughter.)
MIB: That’s going to be a tough one to sell in print.
MS: Maybe in parenthesis you could say, “I think he’s joking.” Cause I still haven’t said for sure whether I meant what I said.
MIB: That’s true. He was willing to take it on faith that you support gay marriage. He’s bringing his own liberal homosexual agenda to the interview.
I do write for Vanity Fair.
MIB: Well… (under his breath) the website.
MIB: Maybe you need to be more obvious about your liberal homosexual agenda. That’s why you write for the dot.com and not the magazine.
So you’re saying if I was just a little gayer and more obviously liberal, I could be writing profiles of Johnny Depp and the Kennedys?
MS: Instead of asking Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black whether they support the gays.
And your position again is…?
MS: I feel like marriage is a sacred institution that should only be between a man and a woman. If a gay couple wants to be married, why can’t they just be satisfied with a civil union? Why do they have to get “married”?
Let’s talk about something a little less “hot button.” Michael Showalter, your love of cats is legendary.
MS: Thank you.
MS: No, but there is frequent mention of my love of cats. I don’t believe we ever see a cat on the show. Cats aren’t cooperative in the same way that other animals are. You can train a dog to act, but you can’t train a cat in the same way.
You say that with the confidence of somebody who has tried.
MS: No, because it can’t be done. Tell me a famous cat actor and I’ll tell you ten famous dog actors.
I can’t do it.
MS: And I can name ten famous dog actors. Rin Tin Tin, Benji, Lassie, Toto, Old Yeller. That’s just off the top of my head!
Do you enjoy cats because they’re so unpredictable?
MS: Yeah. I don’t want to bore Michael, so I’m not going to give a long answer to the question.
MIB: You already did.
MS: No I didn’t! I haven’t given any answer.
MIB: Oh, I’m sorry. I stopped paying attention.
MS: Cats are unpredictable because they’re wild and domestic at the same time. Watching a cat’s behavior is like a small window into the wild.
Michael Black, you got into a feud with David Sedaris to promote your book. Who are you planning to start a pseudo-feud with to promote Michael and Michael Have Issues?
MIB: The whole show is a feud with Michael Showalter. Except unlike the case with Mr. Sedaris, Michael Showalter knows who I am. And he has heard of the feud.
But isn’t promoting the show with a feud on your show kinda defeating the purpose? If people are watching, they’re already watching.
MIB: Hopefully the feud will be so entertaining that it promotes itself with word of mouth. And heavy marketing from the network.
And if that doesn’t work, you can start a Twitter feud like you did with LeVar Burton.
MIB: I may do that. But again, it will be with Michael Showalter.
MS: He wins. I can tell you right now, he wins. You could take away half a million of his Twitter followers and he’d still have more followers than me.
MIB: That’s not fair! That’s not fair! It would be a lot more!
MS: That’s what I said.
MIB: I thought you just said more.
MS: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
MIB: I just want to clarify that it’d be a lot more.
MS: There are only so many followers I can get when the only thing I do on Twitter is post pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s just a limit on how many people want to see that.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)