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Rebuffed by mainstream, Black turns humor inward

Down a quiet country road in rural Connecticut, in a home with a stone wall out front and glittery pinecones on the coffee table, lives Michael Ian Black.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Down a quiet country road in rural Connecticut, in a home with a stone wall out front and glittery pinecones on the coffee table, lives Michael Ian Black.

It is, if anything, an unlikely outpost for one of comedy's most free-flowing fonts, a prodigious, medium-shifting comic who came up as a member of the sketch comedy troupe The State, went on to make cult TV shows and movies, and has now transitioned into stand-up and book writing. More than 1.7 million follow his steady stream of jokes and observations on Twitter.

The peculiar normalcy of his residence isn't lost on Black. Of his peaceful town, Redding, he says, "most of the crime here is committed by me."

"Even last night, I was walking around this house, and just going, 'This is my house?'" says Black, gazing around on the interiors which house him, his wife Martha Hagen-Black, their two children, their dog and their cat.

It's that sense of curious dissociation that kicks off Black's new book, "You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Death and Other Humiliations." It's a comedic memoir-ish tale that Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, will publish Tuesday.

He opens the book with the self-examination of a midlife crisis, lamenting the mere image of the word "forty" (his age) as "like a shrub that died" while morosely scouring the Internet for photos of "Fat Kevin Federline" — a kind a stand-in for all of Black's fears of failure, irrelevance and "terrible hair decisions."

"I wonder if, like me, there are people who occasionally experience the curious, disembodying sensation of not recognizing their present life as their own," writes Black. "It is a feeling I can only describe as the opposite of deja vu."

What follows is a kind of inspection of that life, principally his relationship with Hagen-Black and their experience raising two children. Though "You're Not Doing It Right" has much comedy in it, its foremost trait is its honesty — a clear-eyed truth-telling about the hardships of marriage (including the admission that both he and Hagen-Black sometimes fantasize about divorce), the death of his father, and the frustrations of child-rearing (the music of Creed, of all things, sparks an emotional breakthrough on fatherhood).

But even uttering the label "memoir" — approximate but unavoidable — bothers Black.

"It's like I'm lashing myself when I say it," he says. "It implies a level of accomplishment that I certainly don't feel. I haven't really achieved anything other than landing on basic television. ... Tina Fey, she can write a memoir."

Black doesn't savor his choice, knowing it rings of bandwagon-hopping. Comedic memoirs have become en vogue in recent years, including those by Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman and Black's fellow State alum and frequent collaborator Michael Showalter, who released the postmodern "Mr. Funny Pants" last year.

It's Black's fourth book following two children's books and the collection of humorous essays "My Custom Van" (sample essay: "What I Would Be Thinking If I Were Billy Joel Driving to a Holiday Party Where I Knew There Was Going to Be a Piano"). With "You're Not Doing It Right," Black wanted to pursue a more personal approach in tandem with his recent focus in stand-up.

"I was trying to figure out ways to expand myself creatively as opposed to just being the smug, smarmy a------ that I'm familiar to most people as," says Black. "It was feeling limiting, so I felt like I need to do more and open myself up a little more."

That persona of "Michael Ian Black" is one familiar to his fans going back to "The State," the mid-'90s MTV sketch show that offered a wry, less topical alternative to "Saturday Night Live." The 11-member troupe, which included David Wain and Ken Marino, remains like a family, with frequent collaborations among them. It also happens to be where Black met Hagen-Black, who was a production assistant.

Even then, Black enjoyed playing off of the mythology of performers. In one sketch written by Black, members of The State reluctantly told the audience personal facts about themselves. Another offered a "Sleep With The State" essay contest.

Since then, Black has been a mainstay on television, either as a supporting actor ("Ed"), a talking head (VH1 shows) or a pitchman (, Sierra Mist and most recently He narrowly missed out on becoming the host of CBS' "The Late Late Show," a job that went to Craig Ferguson.

But arguably his best work was with old friends of The State. Black, Showalter and Wain formed the absurdist sketch group Stella, which was turned into a short-lived show on Comedy Central. The trio played a kind of Marx Brothers riff — a three-headed, suit-clad version of the same id.

After that, Black and Showalter — hoping for broader popularity — created "Michael & Michael Have Issues," about the behind-the-scenes passive aggressiveness of a sketch TV show. It was one of the finest distillations of their comedy, with Black and Showalter playing only slightly exaggerated versions of themselves. It was canceled after seven episodes.

"I wish that I knew how to move into the mainstream, but I don't," says Black. "When I try, I fail. At a certain point, I just threw up my arms."

So Black built up his stand-up act and went on the road. His second comedy album, "Very Famous," turned into his first comedy special, on Comedy Central. He opened: "You guys may know me from such shows as 'Canceled,' 'Comedy Central Presents: No Longer On the Air,' and my sitcom, 'Two and a Half Episodes.'"

In person, Black is more serious and low-key than his boyishly pompous, ironic stage persona. While those characteristics are, in much smaller doses, a part of Black, some have confused the performer for the person. In his popular podcast, stand-up comedian Marc Maron said he had long thought Black was as arrogant as his act.

"I was intimidated by Michael for many, many years," says comedian Mike Birbiglia, a friend of Black's and an inspiration to his more personal storytelling. "I think I just started to be more comfortable with him maybe like three of four days ago."

Wain, whose new film "Wanderlust" includes a Stella cameo, says that Black has a number of personas that go with each project but none are the real Black. "He's just far quieter," says Wain, who first met Black and other members of The State as students at New York University. "Without all the artifice, all the attempts to be funny, that's who he is."

Both Birbiglia and Wain are thoroughly impressed by Black's range. Birbiglia calls him "a master of comedy." Wain calls him "daring" in his medium switching.

"One thing he does always feeds the other," says Wain. "In a way — and I know because I've shared a lot of these with him — when one thing doesn't work out, it creates the time and space in your life to try something else and to take a risk."

Black is still striking out in different directions. This summer, he'll release a political book with Meghan McCain, the blogger and daughter of Sen. John McCain, about driving across the country with her. He's written a screenplay with Showalter and the two have further movie ideas, all of which he says could be mainstream comedies. He'll also be a part of a planned prequel/sequel to the cultishly adored film "Wet Hot American Summer."

In a career full of transitions, "You're Not Doing It Right" is Black's most personal turn yet.

"I don't know that I've ever been happier," says Black. "It's nice not knowing (what's next). Other than the panic, it's nice."

When Hagen-Black slides into the room as the interview is winding down, she notes that the book is, of course, only one perspective on their marriage. Black offered to let her write the prologue — a kind of marital Republican response — but she declined.

She describes her reaction to the book as being impressed by her husband's prose, having long ago read his sillier, even stupid drafts on "The State." It's the kind of backhanded compliment Black would make himself, and as he listens to his wife gently prod him, he looks happier than at any other moment.




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