Michael Ian Black was born in Chicago in 1971 and grew up in New Jersey. While attending New York University for college, he and several other classmates started The New Group sketch troupe, which later was renamed The State. Michael performed with The State for years and acted in several television programs including Ed, The State, and Stella. He has acted in numerous films including Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter, and The Ten. He wrote and directed the film Wedding Daze and co-wrote the screenplay for the recent film, Run Fat Boy Run. He co-stars in the new Comedy Central show Michael and Michael Have Issues with his friend, and former The State/Stella collaborator Michael Showalter starting July 15th at 10:30pm EST.
HYLTON: When did you know that you wanted to get involved in comedy?
BLACK: I didn’t really know that I wanted to be a comedian. I just thought I would like to be an actor. And I guess I just figured I would spend my career doing repertory theater, struggling, traveling around the country, and hoping to make a living. I didn’t really consider comedy as a career. As it happens, I’m naturally hilarious. So I didn’t choose comedy, it chose me. When I was in college, in my freshman year, I thought I’d like being in an improv troupe, because I’d seen one and thought that would be fun. But there weren’t any improv groups at NYU. There was a sketch group and so I set about trying to get into that. And through a series of circumstances, that’s how the sketch group, “The State” was formed.
HYLTON: Since you hadn’t had experience at that point doing improv, how was it that you learned how to go about performing?
BLACK: Well I didn’t know what I was doing at all. None of us did. We taught ourselves how to write sketches, perform, and direct comedy. Eventually we learned how to make short, comedic videos and films. It was a continual learning process and continues to be.
HYLTON: And at the beginning, as a group, did you have a goal other than just writing and performing sketch?
BLACK: I think we all vaguely thought that it would be fun to do this for a living. I do not know that any of us thought that you could or that it was a realistic possibility. But we treated it as if you could. We were very professional, in the sense that we spent all of our waking hours working on sketch comedy. That’s what we did. And I guess we thought that maybe we’d get a TV show or something. It was sort of a stupid, naive thought and the fact that we actually did end up with our own TV show is even more unbelievable.
HYLTON: Did you have plans for marketing yourselves back then?
BLACK: No, we didn’t know how to market ourselves. We didn’t know how to do anything. We were just focused on trying to be funny. We used to spend three or four months, working on a show that we might do three or four times and never do it again. And maybe that’s a good thing. For us the process was far more important than the result. I don’t think we would have said it in those terms but that is what it was. We were writing and directing and rehearsing and the amount of hours we spent doing that versus the amount of time we actually spent performing, it doesn’t even compare.
HYLTON: Can you tell me a little bit about your independent work and how your writing/directing work on Wedding Daze came about?
BLACK: The first time I sat down to write a screenplay it was more as a challenge to myself. I had been working with others since I was seventeen and I just wanted to know if I could do it by myself. So I just sat down and didn’t really have an idea. But I figured that if I just kept writing eventually there would be a screenplay. And that’s pretty much what I did. And I did that two other times. I think, in my experience, persistence is as important, if not more important, than talent. I’m not even sure that I believe in talent. I think that persistence is what it’s really about.
HYLTON: And the first script that you wrote was Wedding Daze?
BLACK: Yeah. it was called The Pleasure of Your Company, which later became called Wedding Daze.
HYLTON: Did you have an agent at that point?
BLACK: I’ve actually had professional representation since I was, maybe, fifteen years old. I went to a theater camp and somebody saw me there and wanted to represent me. But I didn’t do really any professional work until I was out of college.
HYLTON: And how did The Pleasure of Your Company end up getting produced?
BLACK: Well the process of getting any film made is tortuous. Particularly if you, like me, are not successful in that industry. Again it’s just persistence. It’s knocking on doors and sending it out and meeting people. And talking to people and eventually lining it up step, by step, by step and not giving up. And it’s a very, very daunting process that I wouldn’t recommend to anybody. It’s horrible.
HYLTON: Can you tell me a bit about how Run Fat Boy Run came about?
BLACK: Run Fat Boy Run was another film that I wrote, but did not direct. And that was also a writing exercise. And the exercise was, “Can I write what I would consider to be a more main-stream commercial comedy without sacrificing what I think is funny and worth writing.” And originally I wanted to direct it, but nobody would give me any money to direct it. And David Schwimmer, who ended up directing it, is obviously a much more known quantity so he got his hands on it. And then Simon Pegg came on board and they worked on a draft of it that set it in England, as opposed to New York where it was originally set. And it eventually got made. You know, every film has its own unique story in terms of its process to production… and it’s never easy.
HYLTON: Did you stay involved with the film at the point that Schwimmer and Pegg were working on it?
BLACK: No, I didn’t stay involved… not really by my choice. I don’t think they wanted me involved. I understand. At that point it was kind of theirs. They invited me out to London, to the set for a week, and I watched them shoot it. That was pleasant but boring, and then they were done. I was pleased with it. I thought it came out well. But I can’t say that I felt any real sense of ownership over it.
HYLTON: Would you compare the experience, in terms of creative control, when working on a big film production versus working for a television show, like Michael and Michael Have Issues?
BLACK: Both mediums, in my experience, have limitations. Both have a lot of voices yammering in your ear. Both of them are highly collaborative. Any situation in which you can write your own material you’re going to be better off. “A” because you know the material better and “B” I just think there’s more flexibility in terms of the way you approach the material. I don’t think I did a particularly good job out, my first time directing. One, because I don’t think I was a very good director. Two, because we were really strapped in terms of time and so that made everything difficult. But mostly “A” or “One.” I don’t remember if I said “A” or “One” but mostly the first reason. I just wasn’t that good at it. But that’s like anything. You get better. I don’t know that anybody is going to give me the chance to get better at it again, but I certainly don’t regret going out and making a movie. I think it was a great experience.
HYLTON: You mention persistence as being one of the key elements to breaking through. Are there any other suggestions you’d have for an aspiring comedian or actor who is trying to break in?
BLACK: Well, I think most people are too willing to listen when somebody says, “No.” And if you do that, if you listen, you’re done. Because everyone will say “No” to you. For every “Yes” there’s 999 “No’s.” You have to learn to ignore the “No’s,” because there will be a lot of them. The other thing I would say is you have to control your own destiny as much as you can. In my case that means writing. You have to be able to be an active participant in your own career. The people who wait for the phone to ring are the people who don’t work. You have to control your own career as much as you can.
And then, work begets work. Once you start working other opportunities will start to present themselves. Maybe slowly, but they will. And you have to be willing to take risks and do things that are uncomfortable. You have to trust yourself and know that you’ll make mistakes and know that you’ll be bad in something. Or you may wish that you didn’t do something. But I would have rather tried and failed, than have failed to try. It’s a scarry business and most people fail in it. And there are many, many reasons for that. But the ones who succeed, I think have those things in common. Along with persistence you have to have the ability to ignore the naysayers and just keep plugging along.