Comedian Michael Ian Black will say pretty much anything for $85. [podcast + transcript]
Plus, I ask him about conversations with political opposites.
Parker Molloy: Hello, hello. My guest this week, today, whatever, you're listening to this podcast is Michael Ian Black. Hey.
Michael Ian Black: Hey.
How's it going?
That was quite an introduction.
It was. I'll record something. I'll record something before this, talk about... I'll be like—
You're making a big assumption that people are going to know what that means or who I am.
That's just a giant leap that you're making.
I'm going to be like, “He's the guy from that show Ed.”
“He's that guy that maybe you saw on TV several years ago.”
“Did you have VH1 in the early 2000s?”
“That's right. Then you know my next guest.”
Yes. That will be the intro I'll record. Yeah. So thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me for this podcast, which will be listened to by tens of people. Maybe hundreds if we're lucky.
Well, that's more than come to my comedy shows lately, so I'm thrilled.
Yeah. Which kind of leads me into what I wanted to chat with you about. So my podcast and newsletter are both about communication. That's just the general idea, which is great for me because it gives me the opportunity to talk about pretty much anything, because pretty much anything falls under the category of communication. But specifically I have been really interested in stories about how the pandemic has forced people to change how they communicate. For instance, pandemic's caused a lot of people to recalibrate how they interact with the world. You've got bands forced to put off touring and instead trying to sell tickets to livestream concerts, reporters had to rethink news gathering to account for a world where people isolated themselves away from society and just ate up whatever the Facebook algorithm gave them that day. How has the pandemic affected your work, and your ability to work, for that matter?
Well, it devastated it. My main sources of income are acting, performing, and I guess those are my two main sources of income. So showbiz shut down, venues closed, and so there was a year and change where it was very, very difficult for me to make any money whatsoever. I joined Cameo. That was helpful. I made Cameo videos for people. That was my main source of income for 2019 and 2020, which, you know, that's not great, but it was a help.
Cameo is interesting to me because half the time it's like, oh, that's really sweet. You got that celebrity to wish so and so a happy birthday. And then the other half of the time it's “haha, you tricked such and such celebrity into saying something coded and really weird.” And “tricked” is questionable, as it is, because some people just might be like, “Sure, I'll say whatever you want.”
That's me, I'll say whatever you want.
If you want to pay me 85 bucks to say, “You know what? Hitler had some good ideas,” I'm happy to do that.
Whatever you want.
That right there is just going to be my promo for this episode, just you saying...
I'm service-oriented, I just want to make people happy.
Yeah, I'm like, how can I get more people to listen to my thing? I'll let Michael come on and talk about—
I'm not saying it's my opinion. I'm just saying you paid me to tell you, and I'm fine with that.
But yeah, that's kind of the general vibe is just this idea that... Especially people involved in performing, whether it's comedy or acting or even writing. Your book came out last year, right?
Yeah. My last book came out in September 2020.
Yes. It was called A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to my Son, which you sent me a copy of that, and I read it, and it was great. And it was mostly serious, but also funny. One thing I found interesting about it was really just the fact that you focus on a lot of darkness in that book. I think you opened it with talking about mass shootings, right? Or something like that. How challenging is it to be funny in a world that is not funny, that has so much darkness; climate change and the pandemic and mass shootings and all of that stuff?
Well, I'll take the question generally speaking first. Which is, I'll say it's... Humor has always been the way that people cope with terrible circumstances. Humor will always find a light through the cracks. It's just a coping mechanism, it's genetic, it's just who we are. The way you alleviate suffering often is just to make light of it, just to make a joke of it, just to flip the awfulness on its head, even if it's just for a second. So I think that's just who we are as a species. Specifically, with this book that I wrote, which does start with school shootings, I gave myself permission to not try to be funny. I gave myself permission to just say what I thought about stuff, and if there were jokes along the way, so be it. But I definitely wasn't trying to make it a funny book in any way, shape, or form, which is why the subtitle is A Mostly Serious Letter to my Son, because that's what it was.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, If someone bought that thinking they were going to get a lively romp of happiness, that's not-
A lively romp of school shootings and the problems with contemporary masculinity, this wasn't the book.
Yeah. That's not the book for you. Yeah. So that's interesting, just kind of how comedy as sort of a release valve to cope with things outside of our control.
So comedy is just a form of creative expression. All art is just... I think it's all the same thing. It's all how we deal with the condition of being a human. It is just our natural impulse to create. We don't have a choice. It's just part of who we are as a species. So it's going to express itself as art or music or comedy, or whatever else. I was going to say architecture, but I don't think it really will express itself as architecture.
I mean, it could. Did you hear that there was a recent that article about the billionaire who was like, I'll give you $200 million if you let me design it?
“If you let me make a giant coffin for your students.”
If I was really rich, that is exactly the kind of thing I would want to do. I'd be like, yeah, I'll give you money, ... if. And then just put one really strange condition on everything.
“No, it's going to be a state... Look, guys, it's going to be a state-of-the-art dorm. I'm going to pay for the whole thing. The only thing that's a little weird about it is to get up and down it's chutes and ladders, and the chutes are all water slides, and they all end in a vat of hot chocolate. Can we just agree that that's okay?”
I want to build Willy Wonka's factory. We can house people in there. Yeah, that's totally what I would do.
One thing that I also wanted to ask you about, because you are so much better at this than I am, is you listen to people a lot on Twitter when it comes to... Because your comedy isn't necessarily political, but that doesn't mean that you're not involved in the world around you or anything like that. And I've watched some really interesting interviews that you've had. You went on Dave Rubin's show five years ago, or something like that, and had an interesting conversation with him. You went on Adam Corolla's podcast last year, which I mean, he's a comedian, but he's also extremely political. And you have these really interesting conversations where you're able to kind of diffuse, cause them to put down their defenses for a little bit, to have honest conversations, which is honestly lacking in now.
Because half of the time if you watch Dave Rubin, he'll be going on some rant about how trans people are bad or something like that [Ed. note: in the off chance that Rubin or his fans see/hear this, before they respond, “Uh, he’s never actually said ‘trans people are bad,’” understand that I am speaking generally about his tendency to invite anti-trans people on his show to give them a supportive space to argue against basic legal protections for trans people — with virtually no pushback from Rubin; additionally, while he’s had a couple trans people on, they’re “pick me”s who’ve essentially adopted the right-wing stance on whether or not trans people should be legally protected from employment/housing/health care/public accommodations discrimination]. But the conversation that the two of you had was really interesting, because it was focusing on these commonalities and how to agree on the goals and maybe disagree on the methods of getting there. What's the secret to doing that, to breaking through to people? Because I think that's something where I find myself hitting a wall when speaking to people who have extremely different political views than me, but you seem to be better at it.
Well, I think it's a couple things. The first is, part of what I learned on Twitter was you got to understand what you're trying to accomplish. If you're just trying to rile up people that's easy to do and fun and funny, and you'll absolutely be successful at that, no matter what side of the political spectrum you're on, no matter... If your goal is just to upset people, that's super easy to do. And sometimes that is absolutely my goal. Sometimes that is just the funniest way for me to get through my day is just to upset people. And sometimes, incidentally, people on my side. Sometimes just I'll say something that I know is just going to rile up my political allies and watch them go nuts, because it's funny to me. If the goal is to actually have a conversation and engage with people, and that is absolutely sometimes the goal, I think you said it yourself in the question, just listen, just listen.
And before you listen, take the leap of faith that that person has sincere beliefs that they think are reasoned and logical and come from a good place, that they think that their worldview is the correct worldview, that they're not inherently malicious people. And I think if you do that, those two things, you'll tend to have a pretty good conversation with somebody. And I think most people aren't malicious. I think most people aren't malevolent. I think most people do believe what they're saying. Now there are some people whose beliefs are so abhorrent that I couldn't have a conversation, a reasoned conversation with them, I don't think. Or there's some people who I think are so far up their own asshole that you can't get them to crawl out of there to even sniff around anything else.
I don't know how productive it is to have those conversations. I went on Steven Crowder once and we couldn't even agree, we couldn't agree on anything. We couldn't agree that... He kept using the term rape culture, which I agreed with him wasn't a helpful term, because I wanted to broaden out what the conversation was to include the sort of petty indignities that women, mostly, mostly women, have to deal with on a day to day basis, purely on the basis of their sex. And we couldn't even get there. We couldn't do anything. And I think he's a good example of a guy whose head is just so far up his own asshole that it's impossible. And this is before Me Too, by the way, this was sort of in anticipation of Me Too happening.
Yeah. Yeah. That's actually a great example of someone who I think is, maybe doesn't... Maybe he believes what he says, but he also seems to enjoy making people angry. That kind of seems to be-
And that's a good business model. That's absolutely a fantastic business model. And I wish I could do more of that. I wish I was capable of that, but I don't think I could live with myself.
Yeah. Every once in a while, I'll kind of think to myself, I'll be like, “Man, I could be making absolute bank if I was one of those people who was like, hey, I'm a trans person, and I don't think I should have rights.” You know, it's like, there—
Oh my god, are you kidding me? If you want to run the biggest grift in the world, that's it.
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And there are a few people who do that, to immense success and that's...
Candace Owens, case in point. I mean, she's not trans, but...
Yeah, right. But yeah, that sort of thing, that was kind of... I forgot who made this video, but someone took... It was a video of right after Candace Owens was hired by Charlie Kirk's Turning Point USA group. And it was [after] criticism of the group, which had been falling into this cycle of “accidentally” hiring white supremacists, as one does, and then they hired her. And basically, it was the same stuff that the white supremacist that they just had to fire were saying, but the messenger was different. And so it gave everyone permission to go, “No, see? I'm not saying it, she's saying it. And she's a member of this group and therefore it's fine.”
It's beautiful moral licensing. Just a beautiful example of it.
Yeah. And that's what frustrates me, because it makes me feel so cynical about all of this. Because I like to think that my writing is decent or that I make decent content, whatever that means these days. But my income is modest. And if I spent all day writing rage posts on the newsletter and sending it out and picking Twitter fights with people, I'm sure I could be doing much better than I am right now, but that's not why I want to do this. I don't want to be someone who just makes the world an angrier place, which I understand that sometimes we're all angry. Sometimes I'm angry, at things that are both, real, imagined, totally in my head, worries about the future, just all sorts of stuff. But I want to make the world a nicer place, a place where we can all coexist, even though that seems to be-
That doesn't pay as well.
Yeah, it doesn't pay as well. And also it's too easy to say, well, why can't we all just get along? Because some beliefs are incompatible with others. If someone believes that it being illegal to fire someone based on them being gay, because of their religious beliefs say that they cannot have someone who is gay working for them, for whatever reason, I don't know how that's compatible with basic human rights and basic legal protections. And that's where there's those frustrations that come in, because I don't know how you reconcile these things. And because one side needs to win, I guess, or because these aren't necessarily things you can compromise on. You can create cutouts and laws and stuff like that, but when you're really breaking it down to on a societal level, it's difficult to have these conversations because no one wants to do that in good faith.
Because it's not helpful to their cause, especially if the people you're talking to are political activists and not just people hanging out, or someone on a podcast or something like that. It's a lot of really hardcore, I have my lines to say, I'm going to say them, and that's it. I am not going to accept whatever comes into my ears. This is all a performance. And that's what so many of those debates are, when people are like, oh, well, we're going to have a debate on my YouTube channel. No one's ever listening to each other, they're just shouting over each other.
Yeah, of course.
It's exhausting. And I feel like that's part of the problem that we're in these days, is just that that is what is popular and that is what sells, and that's not... there are negative consequences to that. And your style of humor has always been either snarky, deadpan kind of stuff, or just really great storytelling. And I forget what it was, I think when I saw you at... when you came here to Chicago in 2018, that was it, you had a joke about... It was this lengthy joke about Subway sandwiches, that just like... I can't remember it, but I just remember being like, this is just excellent storytelling. This is perfect. This is great. And I guess it would be better if I remembered it, but...
There's nothing to remember. It's about a half hour long story about getting my sandwich made at Subway. And what the appeal of it to me was that I was taking half an hour to describe getting a sandwich made at Subway.
Yes, exactly. And it was good, it was fun. And I can't do that. That's a skill that someone has to have, to be able to make people laugh by talking about something so bland, something so every day, and in my view, I imagine that has to be kind of difficult, in a world where there's a lot of really intense things happening around us. And to be like, hope everyone's ready for my discussion about sweeping the floor today, something like that, where you really just kind of take all of that tension that people have going into a room and you can feel it release with the crowd. But I feel like that might not transfer to settings that aren't a bunch of people in a room, which has to be—
Yeah. You're going into a space where people are there to laugh, and they're very specifically wanting you to take them wherever you want to go. They're inclined to follow, they're inclined to be lost in it the same way you would be lost in a good movie. You don't forget your troubles just because you're watching a Star Wars movie, but for that hour and a half or two hours, you're like, okay, I'm willing to invest in Anakin and Palpatine and whatever. I think a comedy show is similar. There are comedians who obviously really specialize in political comedy and you're going there because you want to be riled up, and because you want to laugh at politicians and the state of the world and everything else. And that's all great, and I do a little bit of that. The gift of it, if it is a gift, it's a craft, is in just taking the room and sort of bringing them along. That's the job.
Yeah. Yeah. Okay. That's good. Are you working on anything right now? What's up in your world?
Nothing. I'm so unemployed.
You're so unemployed.
I'm so unemployed. I'm touring a little bit. I'm doing a couple podcasts. And I'm desperately trying to figure out how to make a living. What does this pay by the way?
Making a podcast? Not much.
My appearance on your podcast specifically, what does this pay?
Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, remember how we gave you a ride to your hotel after that show... We drove you?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So, there. This is just you paying me back.
Oh shit. So I was in the hole? Oh my god.
Yeah, you were, We drove you a whole five minutes from Thalia Hall to wherever you were staying that one time. That's really all I've got. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really appreciate it and hope that... I hope things can get back to normal for the sake of comedians and musicians and just society. I think we all want that. That should be one goal that we can all rally around is-
Yeah. Hey, wouldn't it be nice if this pandemic thing was over? Yeah. No. What?