“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.”