“Looking back on my career, I made a realization,” Michael Ian Black once tweeted. “I am TV AIDS.” That’s not false modesty. Despite being one of the most consistently smart and funny comics working today, his presence in a television cast almost guarantees a speedy cancellation. His career has included a string of critically lauded TV shows that never had a chance, from The State to Viva Variety to Stella. His latest Comedy Central series, Michael & Michael Have Issues, survived a little more than a month before getting the boot. His biggest successes have come in unexpected places, like being the funniest talking head on those VH1 I Love The . . . nostalgia shows, and having an immensely popular Twitter feed, which was ranked the fifth “best” celebrity Twitter (among the 140 picked) by Time magazine earlier this year and (as of this writing) boasts more than 1,650,000 followers. It could be argued that Black is creating an unconventional comedy career in a unconventional media age, and that might be sort of true, if VH1 hadn’t run out of decades to be nostalgic about and being funny on Twitter was in any way a paying gig.
This summer, Black is giving a conventional comedy career another shot. Very Famous, his first hour-long stand-up special, premiered last week on Comedy Central, and an album version was released on Tuesday. You can also catch Black on his 20-city national tour, which kicks off next Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky. I called Black to talk about his busy summer, which includes way more time spent with Meghan McCain than you might imagine.
Eric Spitznagel: You just released a new comedy album, Very Famous. Which prompts the question, who buys comedy albums anymore?
Michael Ian Black: Nobody, really. The total worldwide sales for Very Famous are projected at zero. Those are the numbers that were presented to me at one of our quarterly meetings. And I’ll be honest, I haven’t rerun the numbers since. I would be very surprised if they budged in one direction or the other.
You don’t have any relatives or close friends who’ll buy a copy?
Nope. I mean, I have relatives, but there’s no chance in hell they’d buy my album.
That’s kind of sad. I remember as a kid memorizing every Eddie Murphy and George Carlin routine. Comedy records used to be a big deal.
Yeah, and there used to be a music industry too. There was a time when people supported audio recordings, not just comedy but all kinds of spoken-word ventures. You could buy Kennedy’s speeches and collections of great oration. And now you can’t. You can still find it, but everything’s on the Internet for free. I don’t look at making an album as anything other than a way to use up the Earth’s natural resources a little bit quicker.
I just got satellite radio and I’ve been listening to the comedy stations. I never realized this before, but most comedy is terribly recorded.
It’s that bad?
Even recent stuff sounds like a bootleg from the 50s.
I don’t really have a discerning ear for those things. I’d love to say that my album doesn’t sound like that, but it probably does. All I know is that when we recorded it, I was talking into a microphone, and the microphone had wires connected to it, and I assumed they were going somewhere fancy.
The album art for Very Famous is an homage to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Are you trying to cash in on the 90s nostalgia that’s apparently all the rage this summer?
Yes, I guess part of me is hoping that somebody buys my album by mistake.
Do you have 90s nostalgia?
Not at all.
But you were the king of those VH1 nostalgia shows. I was led to believe that you loved the 70s, 80s, and 90s, among other decades.
That was only because they paid me for my nostalgia. Had there not been money involved, I would not have been reflective on years gone by.
Are they making any more of those shows, or have they run out of decades?
They ran out of decades a long time ago. Unless they go backwards and start doing shows about the 50s and 40s. I’d definitely do another one if they started it up again.
You have a few one-liners in your back pocket for VH1’s I Love the 40s?
I’ve got some great Thomas E. Dewey shit that I’ve been waiting to bust out. I have an entire trunk full of hilarious Auschwitz material that hasn’t found an outlet yet.
So if you were in the VH1 studios and the director was like, “Eleanor Roosevelt: Hot or not?,” you could riff on that?
Sure, let’s see. Eleanor Roosevelt, everyone’s saying she’s a lesbian. I don’t know what’s giving anybody that idea, other than her mannish demeanor . . . and her female lover.
Patton Oswalt has a great bit in his standup about shooting one of those VH1 shows and just breaking down at one point, inexplicably shouting that he wanted Paris Hilton to get AIDS. When you were on the VH1 payroll, did you ever grapple with an existential crisis?
Never, but I don’t have the kind of self-awareness that would allow me to question the sorts of decisions I make. Patton’s a bright guy. He fully understands where he is at all times and he’s able to see things in a larger context. All I’m thinking about is, “They told me there’d be burritos for lunch.”
So the unexamined life is very much worth living?
I never said it was worth living. I’m just saying, I’m living it. Is it worth it? No, probably not.
You’ve got quite the following on Twitter. And judging from some of the tweets about you, quite a few of those followers hate your guts.
That’s true. If Twitter is any indication, there’s a sizable majority that finds me a despicable human being.
They’re not just critical, they’re foaming-at-the-mouth furious. Just last week, somebody on Twitter called you a “powerless pussy faggot.”
[Laughs.] That’s right, yeah.
Was that necessary? There must be a less hostile way to say, “I’m not a fan.”
It’s never clear to me if they mean it or if they just know that I tend to re-tweet the most vile thing that people say about me. I think they’re hoping for the attention. But at this point, you have to get really creative for me to notice at all.
How are Twitter haters different from hecklers?
Hecklers tend to be distracting. The things people say on Twitter aren’t distracting to me; they’re amusing. In a comedy club, people are just trying to have a good time, and the drunk asshole yelling in the back is just ruining it for everybody. But on Twitter, nobody has to pay attention to the drunk asshole. It’s easy to ignore him. I kind of like the Twitter comments. They can be very informative. I don’t always disagree with what they say.
But some of their tweets are so much nastier than anything a heckler would have the stones to shout in a comedy club, no matter how many drinks they had. You’re never bothered by the vitriol?
No, because most of the time, I don’t really believe them. It’s hard to imagine that anybody could get too lathered up about something that I or anybody else could say on Twitter. If I make a bad joke—which I do 30 or 40 times a day—I just can’t believe that it would motivate you to write something sincerely hateful. Unless you have a mental disorder.
Have you ever tweeted something in the heat of the moment and regretted it later?
Of course. Ninety percent of the time I’m thinking, Do I really need to tweet this? And the answer, invariably, is: Of course I do.
Because you can?
Because it’s free. Twitter is like a buffet. Do I really need bread pudding and cherry pie and mashed potatoes? Not really, but I can’t help myself. I tweeted something recently that I was remorseful about as soon as I did it. I wrote, “Confession: I am not, nor will I ever be, a Ryan Reynolds fan.” It wasn’t particularly funny, and it was just banal and mean for no reason. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy.
Was it a response to something specific?
No, that’s the thing. It just popped into my head. He’s done nothing to me, other than that I’m annoyed by any adult male who looks that good, because I feel like they’re just pointing out my inadequacies. His existence is basically saying to me, “Why don’t you measure up, buddy?” I was lashing out at the fact that he goes to the gym.
Earlier this year, you started a Twitter campaign to convince Taco Bell that they should hire you as their official spokesman. You’ve been strangely silent about it recently.
That should tell you everything you need to know.
You’ve given up?
It’s not like there was a job opening. It’s not like Taco Bell posted something on a bulletin board saying, “Wanted: Spokesperson.” It was just me at home, saying to my wife, “You know what I’d like to do? Sell tacos.”
You got a lot of Twitter support from your celebrity friends, including The Office’s Rainn Wilson, who ended his endorsement with the hashtag #analfisting. Did that help or hurt?
It’s a great question. Obviously, Taco Bell probably has a corporate position on anal fisting. I would assume it’s well defined. But I’m not clear on what that position is, so I couldn’t begin to speculate on whether Rainn’s hashtag helped or hindered my efforts.
Why exactly would Taco Bell have a position on anal fisting?
Why wouldn’t they? Don’t all companies at some point have to address the anal-fisting question? I imagine they’re sitting in the board room and someone is like, “Where are we on anal fisting?” That’s a conversation they need to have. “I know where we are on the Chalupa. That I’m totally clear on. But where are we on anal fisting?”
There’s a pretty good chance that Taco Bell, and the entire Yum! Brands corporation, is anti-anal fisting.
That could be. And that would explain why I didn’t get the job. And it explains why Rainn Wilson also didn’t get the job. Because I don’t see him doing Taco Bell commercials either.
If this conversation doesn’t get people to buy your album, I’m out of ideas.
Unfortunately, this conversation is my album. It is literally word for word what my entire album is about. It’s all anal-fisting jokes. We’re just reciting it.
You’re writing a political book with Meghan McCain, Senator John McCain’s daughter, called Stupid for America. I have so many questions, my brain’s about to explode.
Let’s start at the beginning.
This book is actually happening?
It’s actually happening. It’s not some Joaquin Phoenix performance-art piece.
I wasn’t sure. Because never in a million years would I have thought, You know who’d be perfect to write a political book with the spawn of John McCain? Michael Ian Black.
That’s why we’re doing it, because it’s such an odd thing to do for both of us. It’s bizarre shit.
Was it her idea or yours?
It was my idea. And what makes it even odder is that we had no relationship before this. We didn’t know each other at all. I asked her on Twitter if she wanted to write a book with me, and she said okay. But she thought I was kidding.
So the book is about . . . what exactly? Is it a political good cop/bad cop, he said/she said?
We’ve just started writing it, but yeah, it’s a little he said/she said, a little Rashomon. It’s a little bit Kerouac’s On the Road.
Your publisher, Da Capo, described it as “Chelsea Handler meets Hunter S. Thompson on a political cannonball run across America.”
No, that wasn’t the publisher. I wrote that. Publishers can’t write clever shit like that.
Is Meghan McCain supposed to be Chelsea Handler, and you’re Hunter?
I have no idea. I was just looking for buzzwords. I don’t think we’re either of those people. But that’s how you sell things in this country. You make up bullshit comparisons, and then people go, “Yeah, that sounds great.”
So when you compared your book with Rashomon, you were just blowing smoke up our ass?
A little bit. I just thought, Hey, it’s Vanity Fair. They’ll know what Rashomon is. You think I’m going to drop a reference to Rashomon in an interview with SanDiego.com?
I heard that you and McCain were going on a national tour this summer. Did that happen already, or is it still in the works?
We did it already. But it was a research tour—we weren’t performing. We spent a month traveling across the country, gathering material for the book.
Meaning what? Can you give us an example?
Well, we spent a night in a seedy Vegas strip club with some strippers. The strippers took us on an X-rated tour of Las Vegas.
And how did politics come into play?
Politics is the pussy, as the old aphorism goes. [Laughs.] No, we were just trying to talk to as many different people as we could, from as many different walks of life, about their thoughts on our nation and politics.
That sounds horrible.
I don’t understand why anybody would willingly become involved in a political discussion. From my experience, it almost always leads to screaming and hurt feelings. It’s like Twitter times a thousand.
That’s what we wanted to get at. Part of the book is examining if people can have conversations about politics without ripping each other’s heads off.
Can you and Meghan do that? Do you have anything in common politically?
Nothing. But I think we’re both open-minded enough to understand that just because somebody doesn’t agree with you, doesn’t mean they’re a fucking moron. I feel like that simple concept would probably serve us all. If we could just wrap our heads around the idea that the people who disagree with us aren’t crazy or mentally unbalanced or looking to destroy America, that they might just have a different opinion, we’d all be a little happier.
With that kind of mature outlook, how are you still allowed on Twitter?
That outlook isn’t reflected in my Twitter feed at all. The next time I get on Twitter, I’m going to Republican bash Meghan McCain all day long.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)