Interview: Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter
Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter need little introduction. The stars of the Comedy Central hit Michael and Michael Have Issues, and two-thirds (with David Wain) of the wildly popular comedy troupe Stella, Black and Showalter have earned the sort of cult following associated with fans who memorize decades worth of sketches and one-liners and movie quotes. [Black is also the Chief Content Officer of Witstream, an aggregated Twitter feed of hand-picked writers and comedians. No banal updates about the weather here, kids.]
So, unsurprisingly, when Rooftop asked Michael and Michael fans to submit questions for this interview, most of them were based on monkey torture and quotes from Wet Hot American Summer. Which we’re cool with. And hell, I even dared to ask Showalter if there were anything that he wanted to dip his balls in. I did it for you, Rooftop fans. I did it for you. (And, for the record, he declined to answer. I’d keep that info private, too, if I had balls.)
I was thrilled to catch up with the Michaels while they’re in the midst of their “Michael and Michael Have Live Tour” (upcoming dates in Oakland, CA, Montclair, NJ, Boston, Washington DC, and Philly. Click here for more info.) and ask them some of your pressing questions. Are you ready? Here it comes! OPEN WIDE!!
1. What would you be doing if you weren’t comedians? – Robert W.
SHOWALTER: I would probably be in the college professor world; a teacher like the rest of my family. I actually am on the faculty at NYU film school, so in actuality I am doing the thing that I’d be doing if I weren’t a comedian. I teach screenwriting, full time. This is my fourth year, and I like teaching quite a bit. I started doing it about five years ago. In my business, but I suppose in my career specifically, there are periods of time in between jobs, and I didn’t like the anxiety of that. I wanted to get another thing that I could count on that wasn’t about getting hired to do something, just something that was a regular normal job. I did it as a therapeutic thing, but it turned out that I really love teaching.
BLACK: Do I have a job in this scenario? I’d probably be continuing my work with Guatemalan orphans. I’m building them water slides. Giant, incredibly expensive water slides. Very intricate water slides. Occasionally I get a thank you note and picture of them as a thank you. The trouble, though, is that most of them can’t afford the admission price to my water parks.
2. What are your favorite books? – Michelle B.
SHOWALTER: Anything by John Krakauer. And I like historic non-fiction. I’m big on any book that’s about world history, European history, art history, you name it. I could tell you anything you want to know about the Roman Empire. I like facts. I get pleasure out of reading something that is true. I like a good biography. The last thing I read was All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal.
BLACK: I like either very well researched historical non-fiction, or very very dumb political thrillers. Right now I’m reading The Thin Red Line by James Jones. The political thrillers I read, and then almost immediately forget.
3. Are there any subjects that are off-limits for you, in your act? – Tony C.
SHOWALTER: I don’t really like making jokes that are at someone’s else’s expense. And there’s a difference between that and making fun of somebody; like, if an audience member is heckling me, I will make fun of them. But I’m not big on telling jokes at the expense of another person’s insecurity. Whether it be their physical appearance or anything along those lines. I like people to feel included, not excluded. You’ll never hear me make a fat joke. You’ll never hear me make a bald joke.
It’s sort of a gut thing. I don’t want to be mean. I don’t feel mean, I’m not a mean person. I don’t believe in that. I never want an audience member to feel like they are excluded in any way.
BLACK: I’m not crazy about jokes that mention 80s culture. It’s different when that’s the topic [like when Black appeared on all of the I Love the 80s pop-travaganzas on VH1], but I’m not crazy about pop culture as gag.
4. Taylor Dayne: Hot or not? – Katie L.
BLACK: I don’t even know what Taylor Dayne looks like. Is that the right answer?
5. Sexier on a girl: lingerie or a button-down man’s shirt? – Robert W.
SHOWALTER: It really depends on the situation. But I’m gonna say a button-down man’s shirt.
6. Would you have become comedy partners if Michael Ian Black had chosen to go by “Ian” instead? - Greg W.
BLACK: He thinks our partnership is based on the fact that we’re both named Michael? I’ll give him the answer he wants. No! We wouldn’t have!
7. Who have been your professional or personal influences? - Mary F.
SHOWALTER: Woody Allen more than anyone. But also I grew up really loving Steve Martin and Benny Hill and Monty Python. Terry Gilliam. Charles Schultz. As for people today, there’s a bunch of comedians from New York, like Eugene Mirman, Leo Allen, Jon Benjamin, Zach Galifianakis. But once I started doing comedy professionally, I really stopped watching comedy. It’s not as enjoyable as it used to be, it kind of feels like work. It’s not as much of an escape.
BLACK: I feel like it’s a question that’s fairly new to me, but I’ve been getting it a lot lately. I guess I’m getting old. Comedic influences I would say Richard Prior, George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, John Belushi. Eleanor Roosevelt,. Joan of Arc, any of the suffragettes. Joan Jett.
8. How do you keep your professional and personal relationship with each other fresh? Do you guys secretly hate each other? - Vanessa C.
BLACK: The best thing we can do for ourselves is spend a lot of time apart.
SHOWALTER: Our friendship and working relationship are wound together, because when we met, freshman year of college, we met at an audition for a sketch comedy group that ended up being The State. So, our friendship has always been in the context of the work that we do. Mike and I are both anti-social people and I think both he and I are most comfortable with social interaction that’s in the context of work. Neither he or I are big partiers, not big ‘go out with friends’ guys, so our friendship is work centered. I think the nice thing about that is that there are unwritten boundaries there. And we get along really well, which is why I think we’ve been able to work together for so long. We do fight, but all of our fights are about work.
9. What are the differences between your creative perspectives? – Sarah B.
SHOWALTER: My sensibility might be a tiny bit more broad than his. At least in television. I think I’m more focused on narrative and plot and he’s more focused on dialogue and jokes. But there’s also a lot of middle ground and I think we learn from each other too.
BLACK: He’s white, obviously, and I’m not. Creatively, he likes puns, I do not like puns. He likes fake commercials, I do not. He likes sandwich-based humor. I like taco-based humor. Ditto with cats and dogs.
10. Is there going to be a second season of Michael and Michael Have Issues? What was the experience like of making the show? – Sam H.
SHOWALTER: We hope to have another season, and I think that there’s certainly a chance. They’ve ordered new scripts of the show, which is definitely a positive sign. We’ll start writing as soon as we’re done with the tour. But there’s been no official word. They tend to take their time. Which is frustrating. You have to stay positive. But I have a good feeling about it.
BLACK: We’re awaiting our fate. For the most part the experience was great, expect when we were fighting, which was most of time. We argue all the time over creative things. It makes us sick of each other at the time, but then we’re still friends at the end. It’s never anything other than trying to make a good show. And succeeding admirably.