Guest of Honor

Michael Ian Black’s Pursuit of ‘Amazing’-ness, and a ‘Wet Hot American’ Time Warp

The comedian talks about breaking into comedy, sheds a little light on the new Netflix "Wet Hot" series... and reveals a new development in biotechnology.

Michael Ian Black attends the 15th Annual Webby Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom on June 13, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)

Michael Ian Black first gained notoriety on the ’90s sketch comedy show “The State,” which ran for two seasons on MTV to the delight of smart (and probably slightly tipsy) Gen Xers nationwide. He went on to co-create the hilarious and deeply insane Comedy Central series “Stella” with David Wain and Michael Showalter. Wain and Showalter also co-wrote the 2001 cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer” starring soon-to-be A-listers like Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Bradley Cooper… the latter of whom passionately made out with Michael in the film. A prequel series is set to debut on Netflix on July 31.

At our live show, Rico and Brendan started the conversation by talking about Black’s new podcast: “How to be Amazing.”


Rico Gagliano: Let’s talk about your podcast, shall we?

Michael Ian Black: All right.

Rico Gagliano: On second thought, forget it.  No — let’s talk about your podcast! So the premise is that you interview famous people about —

Michael Ian Black: Well, no.  I mean, you’re already wrong.

Rico Gagliano: Okay.

Michael Ian Black: I mean, I hate to be the rude guest at the dinner party, but God, you’re stupid.

No, fame is not a prerequisite for being on the audio program. The prerequisite is just that you have to be amazing in some capacity.  And fame, as we have learned through reality television, bears no relationship to amazing-ness.

Rico Gagliano: Whatsoever.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Fair enough.

Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter
Michael shows Brendan and Rico how to be amazing. Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter


Rico Gagliano: But let’s say you sort of find out how people took their path to be amazing, correct?

Michael Ian Black: That’s right.

Rico Gagliano: So, first of all, is there somebody that stands out as having the most unusual path to amazinghood?

Michael Ian Black: Yeah, well, so far the most unusual path is a guy we interviewed named Carl Tanner, who is an operatic tenor. One of the most sought-after operatic tenors in the world.

Rico Gagliano: Not famous at all.

Michael Ian Black: Well… I had never heard of him, but I’m not as big an opera fan as I might be. He started his career as a bounty hunter and ended up as an operatic tenor.  As one does.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So… when you’re being chased, you’re shrieking?  What was the connection?

Michael Ian Black: He always had a great voice, but was afraid to pursue a life in opera. Took a job as a bounty hunter, eventually got tired of being chased and shot at, and decided to follow his dream.

Rico Gagliano: Actually, have you found — amongst all of the people that you’ve had on the show — that there’s anything that they have in common that sort of leads them on that path to amazing-ness?

Michael Ian Black: If there’s one thing people tend to have in common, it’s a willingness to confront the terror of the unknown.

Most of the people, if not all the people I’ve interviewed so far, entered their fields with a lot of passion, but not necessarily a lot of conviction that they’d be able to make a living at it. Nate Silver, who is probably the most famous statistician in the country at the moment —

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s pretty amazing.

Michael Ian Black:  — He created the 538 blog, which is a very well-known political prognosticating and sports prognosticating site. He knew early on that he wanted to do something with statistics, but what do you do with that? He turned a love of, like, rotisserie baseball, into a highly paid profession.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Into a career.  And now he has his own ESPN website.

Michael Ian Black: He’s amazing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So what about you?

Michael Ian Black: I haven’t figured it out yet. That’s why I’m here tonight.

Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter
Michael sort of explains why he’s joining the guys on stage. Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter

Brendan Francis Newnam: But when did it first occur to you to finally take the path of being a comedian?

Michael Ian Black: Oddly enough, I was a professional comedian for probably… oh, I don’t know, 10 or 12 years before I was even willing to think of myself of those terms. I never planned on being a comedian. It was never a dream of mine. I just sort of fell into it.

Rico Gagliano: But was there a moment where you were like, “I’m going to definitely pursue this, and it’s what I’m going to become?”

Michael Ian Black: Well, there was a moment where I transitioned from kind of denying that that was what I was, into just accepting it. It’s the way a lot of people deal with alcoholism. The first step is just accepting you have a problem. My problem was comedy.

Rico Gagliano: But what was it, what was that moment?

Michael Ian Black: I don’t know that there was an actual moment, I think it was just… I had always planned on being an actor, like a serious actor. I went to school for it, always envisioned myself doing that.  And then probably about the 50th or 60th time I found myself in full drag, running down the street somewhere with cameras trailing me, I thought to myself, “You know, you might not be a serious actor.”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah — might be you took a turn somewhere towards the comedy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, this wasn’t your most serious performance, but let’s talk about “Wet Hot American Summer.” It came out in 2001. It was a parody of late ’70s/early ’80s summer camp comedies. And it became a cult hit.

Michael Ian Black: It did.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And now, Netflix is releasing a series of prequels around this, right?

Michael Ian Black: Yes. It’s an eight-episode prequel, the same cast is in it, but we’re now 15 years older, playing ourselves about three months younger.

Image Credit: Saeed Adyani/Netflix
The cast of “Wet Hot American Summer” 15 years later. Image Credit: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Brendan Francis Newnam: Tell me that you didn’t use any makeup effects or anything.

Michael Ian Black: Oh no, oh God no. And in fact, the guy who co-wrote it and produced it and is one of dearest friends, Michael Showalter, in the time since the first “Wet Hot American Summer,” has gained maybe 80 pounds!  [laughs uproariously]

Brendan Francis Newnam: You took such delight in saying that.

Michael Ian Black: Oh, nothing makes me happier than his gut.

Rico Gagliano: So you’re doing this prequel. It does bring up the question:  Since “The State,” or even since “Wet Hot” in 2001, how has comedy changed? The internet feels like it’s changed comedy tremendously.

Michael Ian Black: It has. And I would say it has sort of gone in two different tracks, kind of simultaneously. Both of which were always there, but weren’t as prominent as they are now.  When we made that movie, I think the most popular kind of comedy was the Adam Sandler-esque sort of big, dumb — I don’t mean that pejoratively — but really dumb and stupid comedy.

And I think since then, you have your kind of Judd Apatow / “Girls” / “Transparent,” very rooted, real-life, almost dramedy-comedy. “Louie,” the TV show, is a little bit of that.

And then on the other end, you’ve got really kind of absurd, surreal stuff that is sort of more cable and internet. But you see some of it on the big screen; like “Anchorman” I think is a good example of that. And the kind of middle-of-the-road Adam Sandler stuff has fallen off a little bit.

Which, believe me, Adam is going to come back bigger and better than ever. He’s a dear friend. I’ve never met him.

Rico Gagliano: But I mean, when “The State” came out, people just weren’t even aware of that many sketch comedy troupes.  And now, if you’ve got a sketch comedy troupe, you can have a podcast tomorrow.

Michael Ian Black: Yeah. You don’t necessarily even need a sketch comedy troupe to have a podcast tomorrow.

Rico Gagliano: Yes, that’s true…

Michael Ian Black: I mean look at you guys.

Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter
Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter

Rico Gagliano: Thank you, thank you. Coming back later for etiquette, Michael Ian Black, ladies and gentleman!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Before we let you go, we want to ask you our two standard questions.  And the first question is: what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Michael Ian Black: Well, I get this a lot. Not necessarily in interviews, but often when I’m on the street it’s: “Hey, were you in ‘Kids in the Hall?‘”

Rico Gagliano: Oh, no.

Michael Ian Black: Which is a sketch comedy troupe from the ’90s that I am recognized for being in far more than the sketch troupe I was actually in. So I get a lot of that.

Rico Gagliano: So our second question, sort of the flip of that: tell us something we don’t know. And this can be about anything, yourself or a piece of trivia.

Michael Ian Black: Well, there’s a new process called CRISPR. Which is a method of copying and pasting strands of misbehaving DNA. So you can actually insert a protein into a body of a living organism, snip out the part of DNA that you don’t want, replace it with a piece of DNA that you do want, and thus change your genetic code.

Rico Gagliano: Your own genetic code?

Brendan Francis Newnam: You can do that to yourself? Like get rid of cancer?

Michael Ian Black: Eventually yes, yes. They’re doing it on mice and smaller organisms right now. In China, they’re testing it on people. Bioethicists are saying, “Hold on a second, guys…”

Rico Gagliano: “Maybe we should think for a moment.”

Michael Ian Black: “We might want to think about this for a second.” But in China they’re like, “Full steam ahead!”