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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Michael Ian Black & #sadsadconversation

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On Wednesday we published our interview with Joshua Malina and the primary topic of our conversation was the sadsadconversation YouTube channel he co-created with Michael Ian Black (example video post above). Today we bring you our conversation with Michael Ian Black who provides even more insight into how sadsadconversation got started and what it means to him. Sadsadconversation is an online video thread of participants discussing the everyday reality of working in show business. The ever expanding list of participants includes (but most likely won't be limited to) Joshua Malina ("Sports Night," "The Larry Sanders Show," "The West Wing"), Michael Ian Black ("The State," "Stella"), Steve Agee ("Jimmy Kimmel Live," "The Sarah Silverman Program"), Steven Weber ("Wings," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), Martha Plimpton ("Raising Hope," "How to Make It in America"), Sarah Thyre ("Strangers With Candy"), Phil LaMarr ("Futurama," "Family Guy"), and comedian Morgan Murphy.

We also find out what the incredibly prolific Black is up to: he has an hour-long Comedy Central special, "Michael Ian Black: Very Famous," which will be airing on August 6th; you should check out his stand-up CD,I Am A Wonderful Man because it is well worth listening to; his most recent children's book, A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea, came out last fall and he's working on multiple new books, including one for adults, comprised of essays on politics to be co-written with Meghan McCain that will be out early next year. You can find out more on Michael Ian Black at his website as well as follow him on Twitter. Thank you Michael for the great (not sad) conversation!

Thomas Attila Lewis: Hi Michael, can I ask your permission to record the call?

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Michael Ian Black: You can ask it but it won't be granted.

TAL: ...OK, then I'll just throw this equipment away.

Michael Ian Black: I would just get rid of it entirely.

TAL: Welcome home, you were just in the Southwest. I know this as I follow along on your sadsadconversation YouTube channel. I just talked to Josh Malina about this - would you call yourselves the co-creators of it?

Michael Ian Black: I think so, it's an apt description.

TAL: According to Josh, you guys were doing these one-off video messages to each other that you decided to put online. Is that the way it came about?

Michael Ian Black: Mostly yes, out of technological ineptitude on both of our parts. I think in his mind he was going to cut together something. I'm not sure he was even sure about what he was going to cut together. But I couldn't figure out how to send him video files so I just put it on YouTube and then it started going back and forth that way and then we made it public. Then Steve Agee stuck his big fat nose into it, and he did such a good job with it we opened it up a bit more and it became a wider forum.

TAL: People who are enthusiastic about what you do are getting a lot of access to what you guys are thinking about or going through. How much of what we see is performance?

Michael Ian Black: On my end, almost none that I'm particularly aware of. I think it's impossible to not have there be some level of performance, just by the nature of filming oneself. There's definitely not a conscious decision to perform. In some ways there's a kind of anti-performance that goes into it that might actually be more of a performance than if I were actually setting out to perform. Meaning that, a lot of times I feel that I'm stripping away almost too much of myself in a way that is not exactly how I would speak to somebody. When I speak to somebody I bring my full compliment of conversational skills to that dialogue. When I'm doing this, sometimes all I am is morose - and I'm trying to watch that because that's not how I am. I'm trying to be my truer, fuller self.

TAL: Sometimes there's a moroseness, or a drained feeling to some of them but I wouldn't characterize that as what you always do or what the rest of the participants are doing. For example, Steve Weber voices similar frustrations to what you guys have, but he always looks so dashing, or whatever...

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Michael Ian Black: Yes, probably because he's fucking rich. It's easy for him, he's just coasting on "Wings" money. He's just in a forever glide path of "Wings" money.

TAL: He's riding the "Wings" thermal.

Michael Ian Black: [Laughs] Exactly! I'd be happier too if I was him. Plus he's handsome. I think he just looks like that.

TAL: We go from Weber, in his perfect dress shirts, to Steve Agee, in his basement apartment.

Michael Ian Black: The decreptitude that is Steve Agee. [Laughs]

TAL: Other than the chance to put more of yourself out there creatively, is there also a kind of cathartic benefit for you?

Michael Ian Black: No. I wish there were more of a cathartic benefit to it. In fact it's almost the opposite. It provokes a tremendous amount of anxiety in me to do this. I think, perhaps, because it is so.... raw. It is so, kind of, unscripted and unedited in every way, I often feel extremely vulnerable and scared. I've woken up in the middle of the night being a little freaked out about it. I spent several weeks questioning whether or not I should continue doing it because I worried that it was too much.

TAL: That's interesting because Josh mentioned something similar in the way that he felt. He had to camouflage or cover up the fact that he was doing the videos - waiting until everyone [at his house] was asleep and then whispering into the camera because he didn't want his wife or kids to hear him doing it.

Michael Ian Black: Oh yeah, I don't record them in front of anybody. That would be worse than ...I don't know. It's stupid because you're putting them out into the public, and yet the act of recording it feels secretive and I think every single person feels that way.

TAL: There is something interesting about how freeing the medium is and the immediacy of what you are doing. Most of the videos are of the participants talking into the computer's camera - you just click one button on the computer and you're recording.

Michael Ian Black: Yes, I agree with you, I think the immediacy is helpful. The uncreative act of turning on the computer and speaking in this spontaneous way is actually helpful to whatever this is. If you take the time to set up a camera on a tripod, load the video onto your computer and do all of that - I wonder if you might be tempted to second-guess what you're doing vs. recording on iMovie and clicking "send." It's a very quick process and I think that has been helpful. I think the few occasions when I've done multiple takes, inevitably the first take has been the best one.

TAL: Has one of these videos by another participant been particularly notable in some way?

Michael Ian Black: I've been struck more by my own reactions to it - the more unguarded I feel people are. I don't know how guarded or unguarded they are, in actuality, but as a viewer, the more unguarded somebody is the more I respond to it and the more I enjoy it. I'm not, as a viewer, looking for somebody to be funny or clever or ...anything. I'm just sort of looking for unvarnished... whatever that is, "truth" sounds like too pretentious a word, but whatever is going on with them, in an unguarded way. That could be funny, or droll, or sarcastic or even schticky, but I find I respond when people are just very open.

But at the same time I struggle to be that open, myself. Some people are really natural, Steve Agee is great at it, Sarah Thyre is great at it, Morgan Murphy is great at it. For me, it's about these unguarded moments, confessional is too strong, but private - these moments of speaking simply and honestly into the camera. I find it very compelling. I find that you get to know people very well, watching this. What's interesting to me about it, and I know that it won't be of interest to a lot of people because the most views a piece has received is about 2500, but what I find interesting about it is seeing my peers in my world, going through the same things I'm going through. Seeing their experienced relayed back to me. I don't think these experiences are confined to the middle class of show business, which is where we all live, but I think it probably applies to a lot of other people.

TAL: The comments from the viewers are really supportive. I think people are pleased to be able to identify more closely with you guys and what you're doing and going through and that you are articulating the same things that they are going through. Was the response a surprise to you? You talk about vulnerability but it seems that the public has been appreciative of it.

Michael Ian Black: Yeah, that has surprised me. I guess I'm surprised that the number of people who watch, do watch, and they're invested in it and that they care about it. I think it would be very very easy to mock what we are doing, and, in fact, I do some of that mocking myself. But there's been surprisingly little backlash against it. I think people who haven't enjoyed it, just haven't said anything, which has been nice. As opposed to just getting on Twitter, or whatever, and totally mocking it and making fun of us although I expect at some point it will.

TAL: As someone who puts a lot of videos on YouTube, a good 50% of the comments I get are completely inane and stupid. It seems like people really get what you are doing.

Michael Ian Black: You're right - most, if not all the comments, have been thoughtful. Even when they've been critical, they're not just, of the "you're a fag" variety. They've been thoughtful and that, actually, has been very surprising that the internet chatter hasn't been the kind that you describe: the mindless, hateful nonsense that we hear so often.

TAL: I think that the concept and the individual videos are guileless. They don't appear to be part of some secret corporate plan. "After another month there's going to be a promo video for...." something, some service or product. For the viewer, you don't feel like your interest isn being taken advantage of.

Michael Ian Black: I hope they wouldn't think that. This isn't being brought to you by Axe® Body Spray and there isn't a Judd Apatow movie at the end of this. I think Josh and I both have a keen desire to sell out, we are happy to sell out whenever the moment strikes. But that is not the aim of this at all.... God, I wish it were. [Laughs]

It's an experiment! I don't think we're doing anything revolutionary, by any means. There's been plenty of vloggers, who have done this exact thing before but what I think has been unusual about it is... perhaps it's the cast of characters. Some of whom you know, some of whom you don't, but all of whom are going through similar things but are trying to explain their, kind of, inexplicable lives. I think that probably has some resonance for people because I think everybody's life is inexplicable. I think most of the time I know I can't make heads or tails about what I'm going through. A lot of times you feel powerless and I think show business in general is a good microcosm of the kind of powerlessness that is pervasive throughout the entire culture.

You feel, in this business, that you are forever trying to swim against the current and the current is fairly unforgiving in show business. I think you're hearing that voiced a lot and that's why it's called sadsadconversation, although, you know, sadness certainly applies to other parts of our lives, and it's meant somewhat ironically of course.

TAL: It's a brutal business on a lot of different levels. I think what you educating us about it. People are not aware of the reality that you guys are going through. People think that if you've appeared on a TV program, you are "set" and that's it. Most people don't understand what happens after that or what you are doing in between projects.

Michael Ian Black: If there is something we're doing in terms of the larger culture, I don't think that anybody has tapped into what I just called the "middle class of showbusiness." There's a lot of stories about the people at the top and there's a lot of stories of people at the bottom but there's not a lot of stories about what it's like to have this be your job and have to be able to support yourself doing this and not be starving, but nor are you at that supersuccessful level where you are choosing projects and you can walk into a room and get things made.

There's a lot of people in my situation and the people contributing to this, who are creative people who get some opportunity to express their creativity but haven't reached a level of undeniable success. Jane Wiedlin is in one of the seminal bands of all time, and you see her struggling. She had a great video about her financial situation a couple weeks ago. I don't want to say it's refreshing, it's not, it's sad when people are struggling. You see her in her tour bus, you see her in hotel room, you see her with toothpaste covering her zits, and it's a very real life that she's sharing. It's a real life in the sense that "she's just like me." But it's not reassuring in the sense that you want to go, "Gee, you're 53 and you were in the Go-Gos, and I don't want you to have to worry or have money problems, I want you just to be able to chill out and be a Go-Go and rest on those laurels because they're pretty good laurels."

But it's that same thing, people like me have that misconception of, "Oh, you were in the Go-Gos, you must be set." No! There's a whole life that goes on after the Go-Gos or after "Wings" or "The Sarah Silverman Program." A whole set of challenges that goes into being married to someone famous like Sarah Thyre. To me it's interesting to hear those stories and to see how people conduct their lives in an every day way.

TAL: Well, it's pretty incredible, you have more than 200 videos on the channel. I'm not sure what it's going to lead to, more attention to the channel or what the participants are up to, so I hope you keep it going.

Michael Ian Black: [Laughs] I'm not sure what it could lead to either, but it's interesting.

TAL: I heard you had another book in the works, is this true?

Michael Ian Black: Yeah, I have, I guess three books in the works, if I count a children's book. I have a children's book coming out early next year. Then I have my second book of essays coming out in February, and then I'm writing a book with Meghan McCain that will come out next summer in time for the election because it's a political book.

TAL: That's pretty impressive!

Michael Ian Black: Is it? It doesn't feel impressive. I mean, it's impressive in the sense that I'm impressed by authors, because I'm shallow like that, so having written makes me feel good about myself.

TAL: You published My Custom Van and before that I had interviewed you about your CD I'm A Wonderful Man which is a favorite of mine.

Michael Ian Black: Thanks! Oh, I have a standup special too. It will be on in August. ["Michael Ian Black: Very Famous" will be broadcast on Comedy Central on August 6th] It's an hour, I'm kind of terrified about it. It's done, it's recorded, but having done it and seen it - when you do it, people are laughing but watching it by myself on my computer, and I'm like, "I don't know if this is funny."

TAL: [Laughs] Where did you shoot it?

Michael Ian Black: In Philly, at a place called the Trocadero Theatre which is a great old vaudeville house. It was really fun but I'm kind of terrified about it. It's a big deal but what scares me about it I think is that my peers do not really know me as a standup comedian because I started standup fairly late, I didn't go up the traditional route and to put myself out there in such a big way as a standup scares me to death because I don't want my peers going "That guy's terrible!" When I say peers, I mean specifically Marc Maron. [Laughs]

TAL: There are some purists out there but if their expectation is that you have to have had at least 10 years of straight-up standup experience, that's kind of silly.

Michael Ian Black: I don't know what it is, but look, it's all in my head. Most of them won't even see it and most of them won't even care but it still scares me.

TAL: I think Wonderful Man is a great example of what you do and on that tour you did with Michael Showalter, the kind of exchange you would do with him on stage, that kind of rapport and engagement with the audience is something that I see people are doing now, including Marc Maron, who now brings other performers on stage and talks with them, which is not what I saw them doing 10 or 15 years ago. To split hairs over something like that is-

Michael Ian Black: Yeah - fuck that guy, right? [Laughs]

TAL: [Laughs] Well he's great too, I interviewed him a few weeks ago-

Michael Ian Black: I love Marc!

TAL: -And with his podcast, he's incredible, talk about conversations. Again, that's a kind of accessibility that we didn't have until recently, just like what you guys are doing with video-posting technology on sadsadconversation.

Michael Ian Black: This is a boomtime for comedians, being able to control the access and distribution of your work. We own the game now in a way that we never did before. We can really control our work gets out there, in a very real and significant way. You can build an entire career for yourself on the internet, controlling every aspect of your career. You can turn that into paid performances, or a TV show, or whatever, or not. It's harder in a way to make money or a lot of money but your opportunities are infinite.

There's no entrance barrier anymore, there's no gatekeepers. It doesn't work as well for drama. Even something as simple as Twitter has revolutionized how comedians get their voices out there. You have a one-to-one channel. You are going directly to the people who want to hear what you have to say. That can all be exploited, you can take advantage of that.

TAL: It's great to be able to check in with you both on Twitter, and now in sadsadconversation, about what you are doing.

Michael Ian Black: I think it's good too, I think it gives people a stake in you because you are opening it up and they have a more personal connection with you. It's up to you to decide how personal you're going to get.

Watch and subscribe to sadsadconversation. You can find out more on Michael Ian Black at his website as well as follow him on Twitter.