The last time comedian, actor and author Michael Ian Black performed on a San Francisco stage, he re-created his role as ’80s summer camp counselor McKinley from the cult flick, “Wet Hot American Summer.”
It was for a raucous audience at a sold-out San Francisco Sketchfest live “radio” show in January—sort of like Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” but with a lot more cursing, Amy Poehler, talking cans of vegetables and Black getting half-naked.
This week sees the release of Black’s latest book, “You’re Not Doing It Right,” which chronicles his nearly 20-year relationship with his wife, Martha, whom he met in his early 20s while working at MTV as a member of comedy troupe The State. Black and members of The State have continued to churn out comedic projects together over the last two decades, including movies like “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Reno 911!: Miami.” He’s also a member of Stella, a comedy nightclub act that includes other State men David Wain and Michael Showalter.
“You’re Not Doing It Right” regales bittersweet tales from Black’s upbringing, including the troubled relationship he had with his father, who died at age 39, juxtaposed with Black’s child-rearing style in chapters like, “I Hate My Baby.”
His twisted and egotistical side comes out, too, as he recalls his sister's sleep apnea as an asset to stay awake and catch Santa Claus’ arrival on Christmas Eve.
“What if I wake up the whole house and it turns out Susan is fine? Then everybody will be awake and then the Santa Rules will almost certainly apply. I don’t think I can risk not getting presents just to save my sister’s life,” he wrote.
This was only to discover that his big gift come Christmas morning was an Easy-Bake Oven. The chapter is called, “(Blank) You, Alan Alda,” as a curt and blunt message to that “New ’70s Man” Black was being urged to become by his mother and her new lesbian partner.
Here’s a portion of my recent chat with Black:
Corey Stulce: What reaction would you love from Alan Alda if he reads the book?
Michael Ian Black: An apology. Like a heart-felt, handwritten apology.
CS: That’s certainly a possibility.
MIB: I don’t think it’s a possibility. That’s what I would like most.
CS: You didn’t send him an advance copy for a quote?
MIB: (laughs) I didn’t. I should. I just want an acknowledgment from him that he was wrong and that he ruined my life.
CS: Maybe he would do a blanket apology for everyone who felt that way in the ’70s.
MIB: It would be great. Just own it and do a blanket apology. The blanket apology does not apply to me because I drew attention to it, which requires a handwritten note.
CS: If you had your druthers, who would be reading the audio version of your book?
MIB: I did it. But barring me, I think I’d get Forest Whitaker to do it. To me, he always sounds a little drunk maybe or on the verge of a coma, and I sort of like that aspect of his vocal quality.
CS: You are a very active Tweeter. Is that an essential part of being a humorist these days?
MIB: No, not at all. I just enjoy it. It’s fun for me, and I’m an attention whore. It serves both the comedian in me and the attention whore in me.
CS: Is it useful as far as putting together material for the road? Is it a good testing ground?
MIB: Surprisingly not. The best I ever get from Twitter that’s applicable to stand-up is premises, not the jokes themselves. Every once in a while, I’ll take a joke from Twitter and use it onstage. Maybe I should do it more because I’ve got like 10,000 Tweets. That’s probably a whole hour of material that I wouldn’t have to write.
CS: You write about turning 40. Did you expect to be wiser or more of what people would consider an adult?
MIB: Yeah, I guess I did. I don’t think anybody ever expects to get to 40 anyway. I think we all expect we’ll be dead by then. There’s a certain amount of surprise that’s inherent to even being 40, and then I sort of thought there would be some sort of change that would happen, and you would feel more confident and capable. As it happens, not at all.
CS: What was the reaction from your wife when she read that you were a sperm donor?
MIB: Surprisingly, she didn’t have one, and I don’t think she knew. She wasn’t concerned about anything I was saying about myself in the book. She was just skimming it to see any time her name was mentioned, and as she wasn’t mentioned in my sperm donor story, my guess is she didn’t see it.
CS: You get really tender in the book which may be surprising for some fans. My father also died at 39 so I really connected to those pieces and the story about Maddie, your dog who died. What did your family think about what you included?
MIB: My kids are too young to get a vote. My wife, stuff from my own life, stuff about my dad—I can’t see why she would have an objection about writing about the dog, but she has objections to things. She was more concerned with about what I was saying about her and our relationship. She definitely had a lot of trepidation about it. I think when she read the book, she realized that it was mostly good-natured, I hope, and that the honesty cuts both ways. I’m honest about the failings in our relationship, but I think I’m also honest about what’s good about our relationship.
CS: Next year will be 20 years since The State went on MTV. What was the connection, the glue, that caused you guys to come together and stick together?
MIB: Coming together is pretty straight-forward. We didn’t know each other, but we wanted to start a comedy club. As to why it became so deadly serious for us, I wish I knew. The group just seemed to attract a group of very ambitious people who really wanted to do this work. I never anticipated that I would be spending my life in comedy, but I think it was a co-mingling of friendship and work and being young, not knowing what else to do with your time and not having any money. So you might as well go make sketches. It just happened to coincide with the perfect time in our lives to do that kind of stuff. In the perfect place and with the right people, it just worked out.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe The NonProphets before moving to the Bay Area with his family in 2008. If you have ideas for future comedy columns, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.