If there was one comedian/mid-level celebrity whose career I’d like to emulate it would probably be Michael Ian Black (okay, there’s a laundry list of comedian/mid-level celebrities who careers I’d like to emulate, and an even longer list of A-list celebrities whose resumes I wouldn’t mind having. But there are few people out there who I admire and appreciate at the level of Michael Ian Black. One of the reasons I like Mr. Black so much is because, obviously, he’s as funny and smart as anyone else out there (if his work in I ♥ the [Insert Decade] didn’t convince you of that, check out his stand-up album I Am A Wonderful Man, an excellent performance from someone who is not known as a stand-up comedian). But, beyond his humor, I especially appreciate the fact that he has the courage to say or write just about anything, the best examples of which are found on his Twitter feed, where he makes fun of everyone and everything from Asians to his kids to his wife cutting off the tip of her finger to himself. Often times I’ll find myself wanting to tweet something potentially offensive, and I don’t do so because I fear that not everyone will get the joke; sarcasm and satire sometimes don’t play so well in less than 140 characters. But Black has been able to pull that off, so much so that he’s participated in several Twitter fundraisers in which for a small donation he’ll make fun of you mercilessly, usually mocking your Twitter name or criticizing your photo. He has created this persona of being an arrogant, insensitive asshole (again, refer to the name of his comedy album), which is a weird achievement to want to replicate, but it seems clear to me that it’s just a put-on. It might be an extension of the real Michael Ian Black, but, if so, it’s a huge exaggeration. I mean, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and kids (who he appears to loathe, if his tweets are to be believed), so how terrible can he really be?
Amidst this backdrop of bombastic, often crude, tweets and blog posts it was surprising that Black received the most backlash for a tweet he composed on Friday night to commemorate Conan O’Brien’s last night as host of The Tonight Show:
Typical trenchant, insightful, slightly dickish Michael Ian Black commentary. But out of all his tweets this one caused the most commotion (although, as you can see, it was retweeted 100+ followers, so I guess not everyone was outraged). It was a joke, but like many of his jokes, he had a point, a good point. Which is another aspect of MIB I appreciate: his candor. He’s a fan of Conan too, but the truth is Conan fans didn’t turn out in droves until these last two weeks, when it didn’t matter anymore.
So, to clarify his point, Black knew he needed more words than Twitter would allow, so he took to his blog (and spared us from a full on tweet procession), and exemplified another quality I admire: intelligence. He composed his actual, and, as he noted, “unfunny” thoughts on the Conan situation, comparing Conan to Sally Fields in Norma Rae and asking “how did a Harvard-educated, multi-millionaire late night talk show host magically transmogrify into a guy who got laid off at the local car plant?” Now I’ve basically been glued to the computer the last two weeks reading every update on the late night wars and watching every relevant monologue the night before, and I’ve even contributed my own thoughts, but Black does have a point. In the end, it’s just millionaires playing in the sandbox, and Conan doesn’t really represent the oppressed, jobless masses. In his essay, Black puts aside the sarcasm and the deadpan humor, presenting refreshing clarity about the whole thing. I’m not sure I’ve read a better breakdown on the skirmish. Despite the working title of his latest TV show, Michael Ian Black does understand. A lot better than most of us.
I want to also add two somewhat related points. First, Black possesses some special insight into the workings of late night television, as he was one of the finalists to replace Craig Kilborn as host of the Late Late Show in late 2004 (a job that eventually went to Craig Ferguson. Although, on a somewhat recent trip to the Late Late Show, Black showed that he didn’t come away empty-handed). Despite not landing the spot, Black did guest host several episodes, and that grants him a certain level of expertise in these matters. Second, during the time of his audition I went to see Stella live in Boston. It was also the night of my 21st birthday so a few friends and I had a few celebratory drinks before the show, and I’m not ashamed to say we also smuggled in a couple novelty sized bottles of Smirnoff. After the show ended we were fortunate enough to encounter Black in the crowd, graciously conversing with fans, taking pictures and signing autographs. I said hello and asked when he’d next be guest hosting the Late Late Show. After his response, with the liquid courage clouding my judgment, I blurted out “Can I tell you something? I don’t think your heart is really in it.” Black politely replied, “you may be onto something.” and probably to shake me off “I’ll give you a call, we’ll hash it out.” To which my friend, who had gamely been participating in my 21st festivities , and knowing my admiration for Black, interjected “Well, do you have his number??? Maye you should give him yours.” But, having already embarrassed myself, and eager to now move on, I said that he had my number, complimented him on the show and whisked my friend and I towards the exit (where I would subsequently meet David Wain and embarrass myself once again). Several years ago I apologized to Black via MySpace for speaking out of turn, but nevertheless still regret the incident. It was rude and certainly not my place to give him career advice. Still, I stand by what I said; I’m not sure he’s right for that kind of role and, more importantly, I’m not sure that kind of role is right for him. He needs a place where he can be the arrogant, pompous asshole “Michael Ian Black” and also a place where, when the moment calls for it, he can be mean, honest and smart.
So, Mr. Black, if you’re reading this, and you remember that mostly drunk kid from the Paradise in Boston, that college punk who thought he knew what was best, I’m sorry. I only had your best intentions in mind.
Update: Just noticed that Black posted a follow-up (Norma Rae: The Sequel), addressing the negative reaction to his first post and clarifying his argument. Read it. If only all of our comedians could be this serious.