If you only know Michael Ian Black from underground comedy classics like Wet Hot American Summer and The State, prepare to be shocked by You’re Not Doing It Right, his new autobiography. I called Black to talk about his strange journey from king of snarky comedy to heart-on-his-sleeve memoirist.
Eric Spitznagel: This is your fourth book, right?
Michael Ian Black: That’s right, yeah.
Before You’re Not Doing It Right, you wrote two children’s books and the essay collection My Custom Van. Is it fair to say you’re getting comfortable with the sexy life of an author?
It really is sexy. The amount of time I spend with Truman Capote alone is shocking.
Before he died?
Oh yeah, never mind. I should probably mention somebody who’s still alive. What about Gore Vidal? He hasn’t shoveled off this mortal coil yet, has he?
I’m pretty sure he’s still with us.
Is it shuffled or shoveled?
I want to say shuffled, but that doesn’t sound right.
Shuffling really isn’t something you should be doing on your deathbed.
Not really. Wow, this interview is already off to a stupid start, isn’t it?
You want the serious answer?
Would you mind?
I don’t necessarily self-identify as a writer, cause it implies a certain level of intelligence. When you call yourself an actor, the bar is set so low. If you can just string a sentence together, people are like, “He’s so bright.” But if you’re a writer and you stumble with your words, they’re like, “That guy is a fucking idiot.”
So when people ask what you do for a living, what do you say?
It’s the question I dread the most. Cause I don’t know how to answer. I just dodge it whenever possible.
You could say “I’m self-employed.”
Yeah, that covers most if it. I’ll never admit that I’m an actor, because the next horrible follow-up question is always, “Oh, what have I seen you in?”
And that’s when you say, “You may remember me as the guy who had sex with Bradley Cooper, People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2011, in Wet Hot American Summer.”
That’s not a bad idea. Because even if they haven’t seen it, it’s at least an interesting anecdote. Usually, if I’m forced to answer that question, I’ll try to assess the thing they’re most likely to have seen me in. For example, if they are a TSA agent at the airport, I know they’ve probably seen me on one of those VH1 shows.
Is that true? How did you figure that out?
Years of trial and error. You learn that TSA people watch a fucking lot of VH1. I don’t know why. I don’t know what the two things have to do with each other. I guess there’s just a lot of down time when you’re at TSA and you’re by yourself, flipping through the channels.
Who are The State fans?
It varies. Sometimes it’s hipsters who are way too young to have watched it.
You think they’re lying?
I’m sure of it. There are a few older people who actually did watch it, but they usually leave me alone. And then there are the people who recognize me from (the 2000-2004 NBC series) Ed. They tend to be from the Midwest.
Are there people who only know you as the voice of the Pets.com sock puppet from those old commercials?
Nobody has ever done that. But for the first time in recent weeks, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re the Expedia guy.” Which makes me want to crawl into a hole and die.
But that may be the perfect thing to tell people who don’t recognize you.
That I’m the Expedia guy?
You know, now that I think of it, maybe that should be my go-to thing. “What do I do? I’m the Expedia guy!”
And they’ll be like, “What does that mean?”
“I do commercials for Expedia!”
Expedia Rewards. Don’t sell yourself short.
(Laughs.) Right, right. And they’re like… (awkwardly) “Oh… okay. Well, nice to have met you.”
Nobody asks the Expedia guy to record their outgoing voicemail message.
And for that I will be thankful. Nobody will say to me, “Hey, will you call my girlfriend? She loves Expedia!”
One of the most surprising things about your memoir is that it doesn’t have the same ironic, lovably smug, smarty-pants tone of pretty much everything else you’ve ever done.
I apologize. I’ll be better next time.
No, I mean that in a good way. My Custom Van had silly, impersonal essays about jug bands and magic unicorns and eating dog shit. But this time you wrote about losing your dad when you were just 12, and wondering whether it’s okay to cry at his funeral. Was that scary terrain for you as a comedian?
It was very scary. I am not comfortable talking about myself in the first place, much less being so open and vulnerable like that.
Because you’re dead inside?
Very much so. My emotions are all for show. No, honestly, that scariness was part of the reason why I wanted to try it. I was like, if writing about these things scares me this much, that’s probably what I should be doing.
One of the chapters is titled “Fuck You, Alan Alda.” For the old Michael Ian Black, the guy who made snarky jokes about the 80s on VH1 shows, that title would’ve been the set-up for something much, much different.
You thought I was going to make fun of Alan Alda?
I did. I was like, “Oh yeah, he’s going to tell Alan Alda where to stick it!”
No, no, no. I love Alan Alda. I couldn’t love Alan Alda more. It wasn’t really about Alan Alda the guy but…
The idea of Alan Alda?
Exactly, yeah. The way my mother held him up as a role model of what all men should aspire to.
And trying to make you, as you called it, a “pawn in their feminist social experiment.”
I don’t even think they were aware they were doing that. This is when my mother just came out of the closet and was with her first girlfriend, and we were living with them. I was only five, but I had such a clear sense of the way her entire world view had shifted, and instinctively understanding that her relationship to men as a species had altered and I was now in enemy territory. (Laughs.) I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t ever phrase it that way.
Has she read the book yet?
Oh yeah. My mom loved it. She’s been incredibly supportive. She didn’t have qualms about anything that I wrote.
What about your wife? Did you get her approval, or are you going for the element of surprise?
My wife’s read it and she didn’t have a problem with any of it.
Not the stuff about her having an affair with you while she was involved in another relationship?
The fertility problems? The constant threats to get a divorce?
Nope. She was fine with all of it.
You have the best wife in the history of the universe.
(Laughs.) Well, she knows I could have written so much worse.
I really shouldn’t say. One of the challenges of writing a book like this, as I quickly discovered, is that you’re constantly trying to find a balance between telling the truth about the people you love and not hurting the people you love. It was a struggle to write in an honest way without ending up in divorce court. Let’s just say that everyone whose real name is used in the book has read it.
What about Kate, your 18 year-old college student girlfriend?
Well, that’s not her real name. So no, she hasn’t read it yet. Actually, she’s the one person I’m worried about. I should probably talk to her about it before the book comes out.
What part do you think she’ll have a problem with? When you talk about how much you wanted to finger her?
That won’t surprise her. But she was so fucking hot. She still is. It’s more the part where I talk about how boring she was.
Yeah, that wasn’t nice.
But she was 18, 19. Everybody’s boring at that age. She’s not that way anymore. She’s grown up and become an accomplished woman and done great things. But yeah, I’m really afraid she’s going to read that and get hurt.
It would be my journalism fantasy if I could say right now, “Well I have a surprise for you. Kate’s on the line with us. Let’s talk this out.”
Don’t even joke about that. You nearly gave me a heart attack.
But you’re right, you should probably talk to her.
I really should. Yeah. She’s fantastic as an adult woman. Just, you know, at that age…. Yeah, I definitely need to call her.
What else should we talk about? You recently turned 40, right?
That’s right, yeah.
I’m 40 too, and so far it seems to be the decade where all I do is go to the doctor.
Well sure, that’s what being 40 is about.
Back in my 20s and 30s, I only went to the doctor if something was wrong. Now I go to the doctor just because I don’t end up like Warren Zevon.
Yeah, you’ve got to be careful. Colon cancer runs in my family, so I’m mostly concerned about that. Although I haven’t gone in for my colonoscopy yet, even though I said in the book that I did. I swear to god I’m going to do it soon. I’m told they give you decent drugs for it.
That does not make the experience any better.
I am so comfortable in my sexual skin right now that if somebody wants to stick something up my ass, that’s fine. Just give me the drugs, I’ll be fine. I guess what I’m saying is, I will willingly trade drugs for gay sex.
As long as you broached the subject…
Did I? Yeah. I guess I did.
You describe yourself in your book with the gay slang “chicken.” I had no idea what that was, so I Googled it.
What’d you find?
You sent me down a very dangerous path, sir.
Let me guess. Chicken led you to chicken hawk. And then where did you go? Did you get to butt plugs?
We really shouldn’t-
Did you get to trunk butt?
Trunk butt? Dear god, no, I didn’t get to trunk butt.
That’s when your anus prolapses from having been fucked so many times.
Please stop. Please, just no.
Am I sharing something that’s disturbing you?
Is it not enough just to say “I look young so I always get carded at bars?” You had to go with “Old men want to fuck me?”
But that’s what it was! I would have had so much gay sex if I wanted it when I was in my 20s and thin and boyish. I could have spent every moment of every day with a dick up my ass if that’s what I had wanted. It would’ve been so easy.
Here’s a sentence from your book. “Women don’t seem to find me nearly as adorable as do fifty-year old men in leather pants.” Why this specific age demographic?
I probably could have gotten thirty-year old men in leather pants too. There was a moment in my life when I was very attractive to gay men. But that moment has since past. I don’t get the whistles anymore. I don’t know who wants to have sex with me these days.
But you’re kinda famous, right?
(Laughs.) Yes, thank you. I am “kinda” famous.
You must have a few groupies out there.
Not groupies exactly. But my options are… broadening.
I feel like I’m in a moment and time where I’m still in relatively good enough shape and have enough money and fame that there’s probably a number of girls in their mid-20s who would have sex with me. Which is especially ironic and sad, because it’s much too late for me.
Because you’re married?
Exactly. The one thing I wanted more than anything — to be sexually desirable to a certain segment of the opposite sex — and I’m too married to enjoy it. It’s heartrending.
How do you know it’s not just your imagination?
What, being married?
No, that women want to sleep with you? Do they hit on you?
Not really. I never get hit on. I just get a sense from my Twitter feed, or from the people that come to my comedy shows. It’s this unmistakable feeling that if I were single and pursuing it I could probably figure out a way to violate young ladies.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)