Comedian Michael Ian Black’s history with Buffalo is more than just stand up shows and chicken wings - he also has fond memories of traveling to Buffalo to watch men beat each other up in what he claims to be among the greatest nights of his life.
Black’s sharp sarcasm has been only display since first appearing on MTV’s The State sketch comedy show in 1993. Since then, Black has added many additional credits to his resume beyond comedian and actor. He’s also a successful author, producer and podcaster on his weekly How To Be Amazing interview show.
With a five stand up sets scheduled at Helium from March 29-31, Black spoke to The Public about his recent New York Times piece responding to the Parkland school shootings, the gun reform movement being lead by the Parkland students, the role of comedians in politics and more.
See original interview at The Public.
You wrote a widely discussed opinion piece The Boys Are Not Alright last month in response to the Parkland school shooting that may have exposed this non-comedy oriented side of you to a new audience. I’m wondering what kind of feedback you got from that piece.
There was a lot of positive feedback. There wasn't the volume of negative feedback that I was expecting. I was expecting more blow back from the kinds of men's rights people who are out there. But there was very little of it. Maybe because it was in the New York Times and those guys don't read the New York Times? I don't know.
It was overwhelmingly positive... it was pretty heartening, actually.
And now we've seen the response from the students at Parkland and younger generations, who seem to be carrying the gun control issues on their backs.
It's been interesting to me watching it, and watching it really be lead in voice and spirit by these teenagers. It's been really awesome to see... It's been so organic and fantastic to watch, that it feels important that they take the lead. And as best as we can, adults just stay the fuck out of it. And I shouldn't say "stay out of it." Support them, but don't try to lead them.
At the same time, the heartening aspect of it is that they are willing to take on that mantel. I hope the larger adult culture responds and listens. As heartened as I am by them, I don't have a lot of optimism, at least in the short term. Medium term and long term, I do.
I'm sure you've heard this line of thinking before, but a consistent criticism of comedians is that they should stay out of politics and social issues...
Which is hilarious, because that ignores the entire history of comedy. The whole foundation of our nation is supposed to be on the people having a voice and a say. So you would never say to a cop, for example, "Stay out of politics." Or to a plumber, "Stay out of politics." Or anybody. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and in fact, that opinion from the common man is supposed to be the essential foundation of who we are. It's of the people, by the people, for the people. What I think people don't like, and I guess I understand this, is that certain people, myself included, have a larger platform from which to speak. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't speak.
As a father of a toddler, I'm glad that I don't have to explain what's happened in this country over the last few years. You have two teenagers, how do you talk to them about what's going on while helping them not be jaded and cynical?
I'm not trying to make them not cynical or not jaded. I'm hopefully not trying to make them into anything. As a parent, all l I can do is ask questions, and hopefully they will have a thoughtful response.
And if I hear them parroting my opinion back to me, I sometimes play devil's advocate to my own opinion just to make sure they thought about these things. I don't want my kids to be carbon copies of me and I know my wife feels the same way. I don't want them to be Democrats because their parents are Democrats. I want them to question their assumptions and I want them to question everyone's beliefs, including mine.
Do you feel that the public has began to see you as more of a voice on these issues? Do you see yourself differently? Maybe not any less as a comedian, but maybe more as commentator? A pundit?
No, I'm definitely not a pundit. And God forbid I ever become one, because all a pundit does is prognosticating, which means you are predicting the future and getting it wrong. But no, I don't think of myself any differently. I am, frankly, amazed when anybody pays any attention to what I have to say because, you know, nobody in my household particularly cares what I have to say.
Well, I have seen some of your more poignant or thoughtful quotes in those thought provoking social media graphics. I see those and say, "Hey, that's the guy who did the pizza sketch on Stella."
If anything, it's made me think a little more strategically about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. The last thing I think I'm capable of providing is guidance, but what I think I can do is either help amplify a message, or reframe a message or stake out some territory. I often say on my Twitter feed, for example, that the NRA is a terrorist organization. And I believe that.
But, I think it's important for people like me, who are not pundits, but who have a voice, to stake out that territory because it moves the conversation just the tiniest bit. And even if you disagree with the premise, which far more people do than agree with it, it at least makes you go, "Wait a minute, why is he saying that?" I think that's valuable, and I think that's where I can add value to the conversation.
Do you have any fun stories from your various stops in Buffalo?
Buffalo was the destination for a pointless road trip for me in my early 20s. I think we were discussing wings and I think we drove from New York to Buffalo to get Buffalo wings. I mean, it was only pointless in the sense that there was absolutely no reason to go to Buffalo other than to get the wings. And I remember they were very good, and I think it was at Anchor.
Also, my friends and I did a similar thing, we got tickets to a UFC fight when UFC was still brutal and incomprehensible... it was one of the better nights of my life, watching these dudes beat the shit out of each other. And afterwards, I think I was meeting the producer, so we were able to get into the backstage area and it really blew my mind to see these same guys that I'd just seen beating each other up watching a replay of the fight together and laughing and compliment each other on how they beat each other up.
The original Stella sketches (with David Wain and Michael Showalter) that floated around the Internet in the early 2000s is some of my favorite work of yours. At that time, there were limited video outlets online and the sketches were difficult to track down. I feel like the Stella was ahead of its time in terms of technology not being able to distribute the videos en masse.
That is probably true, but we weren't thinking "Oh, if only technology were there, we'd have this thriving online video career." Those videos you are referring to were made for a live show in New York City. We would make a video a week, and we would just show them thinking they'd never be seen again. And then, slowly, a year or two or three into when we started doing that, the capability to put these things online started popping up and I don't think we recognized at the time that they would find an audience. And it wasn't until we took that troupe, Stella, on the road. We would go all over the country and people were showing up. It just never really occurred to us that that would happen. And I was so surprised and happy that it did.
Those early Stella sketched just look like so much fun to make. It just felt like you had no masters... you blatantly used copyrighted music.
Because nobody was ever going to see it. So we could use any actor we wanted, we didn't go through agents. So Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper showing up and shit. Nobody signed any releases. Now, if you see them, they are all highly illegal in the sense that there are James Taylor and Paul Simon songs all over them. There was no reason to secure the rights or any legal niceties because no one was ever going to see them, it was for 80 people in a club in New York City.
Michael Ian Black performs at Helium March 29-31. His new children’s book, I’m Sad, will be released in June.