Michael Ian Black sits on the ideal throne of fame. He’s a well-regarded actor, comedian, host, screenwriter, director, podcaster, and author. By face alone, he’s recognizable. He’s McKinley in Wet Hot American Summer, the funny one on VH1’s I Love the… series, and pretty much everyone on The State. Then there’s the books he’s written (three for adults, four for children), the podcasts he’s created (How To Be Amazing is essential), and his slew of stand-up comedy (get lost in Comedy Central’s archives). Despite his major involvements in the entertainment industry, he gets the income and appreciation of celebrity status without the sacrifice of privacy that usually comes hand in hand. Well, at least that’s how it looks from the outside.
In his new novel, Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom’s, Which I Know Sounds Weird), Black confronts his legacy on and off screen. In the process, readers learn far more about the guy than they would have assumed – though a title like that may actually have them assuming vaguely correct assumptions. The dry delivery that’s earned him a cult following once again translates perfectly on page, turning stories about religion, genetics, and the life of his parents into deadpan wit that endears with its self-deprecating vignettes.
Judd Apatow’s recent film This Is 40 (which Black has a cameo in) was criticized for its surreal take on adulthood in the 2010s. Navel Gazing is somehow far more on point, even though its protagonist lives a life unfamiliar to many of its readers. Michael Ian Black does comedy best, and even over the phone, throwing out quips en route to one of his book readings, he turns his life anecdotes into grounded reality that’s worth laughing over despite the pain of it all.
DIGBOSTON: This may sound a little weird, but I grew up in a small town in Connecticut next to the one you currently live in. Personally, I had a love-hate relationship with the place for all the reasons that come to mind about classic Connecticut people—stuck-up neighbors, snooty classmates, and insane beauty expectations—but it’s scenic and the school system was amazing. How do you fit into that?
MICHAEL IAN BLACK: Well, my intention is to be one of those snooty neighbors. I’m raising my kids to be the stuck-up students. We went to Connecticut specifically to be elitist.
DIG: So you guys hang out with—
BLACK: Keith Richards.
DIG: Exactly, and 50 Cent?
BLACK: Yep. We hang out with Keith most of the time, though.
DIG: When did you move there?
BLACK: Like 12 years ago. We’ve been there for a while actually and I really love it, living in the woods.
DIG: It’s a nice place to hide out as someone who has so many professions. How do you tell people what you do when you have so many job titles to choose from?
BLACK: I do my best to avoid it whenever possible. It’s the question I like least in my day to day life when I meet somebody new and they ask what I do. I try to change the conversation as fast as I possibly can. When you’re in my business—which I’m going to call the business of entertainment—you end up feeling defensive. If I say I’m an actor, they say, “Oh, what have I seen that you’ve done?” And then, you know, I have no idea what they’ve seen. I feel defensive and don’t want to list my resume because what will happen is I will say all the things I have done, which I have some pride in, and they will say that they haven’t heard of any of them… and then we both feel like idiots. If I were to say I’m a writer or a comedian, that doesn’t feel quite right either. Besides, then you become the least funny person at the party.
DIG: It sounds like an aversion to expectations.
BLACK: Yes, I’m terrified of other people’s expectations of myself. I have a hard enough time living up to my own expectations.
DIG: Have you ever had an identity crisis over your numerous professions?
BLACK: No, but I’ve had plenty of crises separate from that. They sometimes have to do with how much or little I have succeeded in these professions, but never about what I’m doing. I never feel like I’m doing the wrong thing or have chosen the wrong paths. I get freaked out when something I’ve done doesn’t go very well… and that happens a lot.
DIG: Like what?
BLACK: There have been various television projects and a movie I directed—which, by the way, ended up being called Wedding Daze which was not my choice—and various scripts I wrote that didn’t get made. Sure, business is a business of failure first and foremost. You live your life in a perpetual rejection. The fact that anything ever gets made is a minor miracle. If anything that you made comes out well, it’s an even bigger miracle. You learn to deal with it over the years. It gets a little bit easier, but not that much. It’s always hard.
DIG: Absolutely. You were on a TV show a while ago that I loved called Ed. In your eyes, is that one of the shows that did well?
BLACK: It did well enough. It was on for three and a half years on network television and it was fun to do, so yeah, I’d think so. I made good friends, financially I felt good about it, and geographically it was shot near my house, all three of which are great things.
DIG: It was my introduction to you way back when and, for that reason, I’m still very fond of it. What shows or projects you’ve worked on are the ones fans often tell you mean the most to them?
BLACK: The two primary ones are the sketch show I started called The State and the comedy trio I have called Stella. Those two things were impactful for people interested in comedy.
DIG: It seems like you fall in this space of comedy and show business where clearly you’re well known—people see you and recognize who you are—but you’re also not being mobbed on the street or dealing with paparazzi in your hometown, at least that I’m aware of.
BLACK: I can assure you I am not.
DIG: There’s comforts that come with that like getting to live a relatively normal life, of course. Are you satisfied with your place in the entertainment world? Do you enjoy being at this middle ground?
BLACK: Not really. I don’t mind it in the sense that I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve been able to make a living doing what I do for over 20 years, but there’s a little bit of frustration because, you know, it was never my desire to be a cult hero. Not that I’m anybody’s hero, but I’m a strange figure. I don’t necessarily crave Kevin Hart success. I’m not looking to star in Ride Along 3. But I’d like to know what qualified commercial success is like.
DIG: Do you not feel like Wet Hot American Summer counts?
BLACK: Oh god no. That’s a niche film. A lot of people love it, but compared to the broad culture most people haven’t heard of it.
DIG: Does it have to do with being candid? The places where you appear to be the most honest like stand-up and your books, places where your voice is clear, represent a comfortableness. Does that play into the types of success you seek?
BLACK: I have no idea. What I’ve learned is that all I can do is do the things that interest me and not try to control the outcome. You can’t control how people will perceive something. All you can do is follow your interests and be true and hope that there’s a market for them. That’s not always the case and I have to learn to be okay with that. Overall, I’m happier being honest and doing the stuff that speaks to me and having less mainstream success instead of chasing some big thing that doesn’t mean much to me.
DIG: Where does writing novels fit into that picture?
BLACK: I always knew it was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. I was afraid. In 2005, I started putting together a book of short comedic essays because it was the only way I knew how to start the process of book writing. That was My Custom Van, my first book. It was fun and nonsensical, but it was really, for me, the first step. It was me trying to convince myself that I could put something together in book form. My second book, You’re Not Doing It Right, was a bit more study, and then came the more political, and now this one. It’s a process of learning how to write. That’s what I’m most interested in book writing: literally the craft of writing and hopefully having something to say.
DIG: What are the lessons you learned from writing those books? They’re all very different from one another.
BLACK: They are. The ultimate takeaway as the writer of them is that I need, artistically, to open up. Being truthful while still making jokes is key. That process has been really good for me, just as a human being.
DIG: You’ve written numerous children’s books as well. Which do you prefer?
BLACK: Writing children’s books is the equivalent of writing sketch comedy. It’s almost the same thing: you have a short amount of time to communicate an idea with as many laughs as you can and then dip out. It’s a joyful thing. It’s fun when kids get their hands on them. That’s so satisfying when a kid likes what you’ve written. It’s probably more satisfying than when an adult likes what you’ve written.
DIG: Kid laughter in general is better than adult laughter.
BLACK: Absolutely. Adults have mastered the art of bullshitting. If a kid laughs, you know it’s a real laugh.
DIG: Have you read any of your books to your own kids?
BLACK: Oh yeah. My kids are too old now… to care. When they were little, I read them to them.
DIG: How old are they now?
BLACK: Well I don’t know, who cares. Just kidding, they’re 14 and 12.
DIG: Ah, definitely too old for those books.
DIG: When you reread your own books, either to yourself or others, does your voice sound a bit foreign compared to when you wrote these stories down?
BLACK: Not at all, which is a good thing. Any writer wishes they phrased certain things differently, but the voice of it reads true. It does sound like me – which isn’t necessarily a natural thing to have happen. Finding my own voice on the page is not a given that I’ll get it right. I had to work at it.
DIG: When you’re out reading from Navel Gazing now, which story makes you laugh the most?
BLACK: Because the book has only been out several days now, I’ve only read a few chapters, maybe three, so I’m still finding it. I’ve been reading the story about how I started my punk band in high school and some of that makes me laugh at how pretentious I was and how arrogant I was. Those themes haven’t changed much in my life. I remain fairly pretentious and fairly arrogant.
DIG: What was the name of your band?
BLACK: The Pleased.
BLACK: Oh yes.
DIG: Have your kids read any of this book?
BLACK: Oh no, no, no. They haven’t read it. They haven’t read any of my books. They probably won’t read them until I’m dead – which could happen at any moment, by the way.
DIG: How do you think you would die if it were within this week?
BLACK: A zeppelin disaster I would hope.
DIG: That’s the dream.
BLACK: For everyone, really.
DIG: What about your mom? She’s gets a spot right in the title, so I’m hoping she’s made some headway in it.
BLACK: She has and she loves it, actually! She is surprisingly cool with everything and she’s proud of me. I think she thinks she’s funny in the book which is probably the main reason she likes it.
DIG: Aw good. The rest of the title had me thinking about when you’re a kid and you literally look at your bellybutton for the first time. I remember thinking mine was disgusting, like some mutant abnormality. Do you have any recollection of being put off by your own body?
BLACK: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I have an early memory of being freaked out by my body. I know I thought that frequently during prepubescence when I started feeling gross about everything regarding me. That feeling has never quite left.
DIG: I’m sure your kids have thought about that, too. You talked about your family life a bit more in You’re Not Doing It Right. How have things changed, if at all, since then?
BLACK: When you have kids, that dictates every moment of your life. Now that they’re older, things are way different. First off, they’re reasonable. That’s huge. I can have a conversation with them without freaking out. I can leave them alone for hours at a time and not worry about them blowing themselves or the house up. Just in general, as they grow up, life gets easier. It impacts my marriage directly; my wife and I rarely fight anymore because we’re not arguing over who’s going to take care of the stupid kids. They can do their own laundry and help clean up after dinner. All that stuff alleviates a huge amount of stress. Things have gotten way better as they grow up… though that may all change once they start taking drugs.
DIG: The inevitable. Where are you now in fatherhood?
BLACK: I think I’ve done a pretty good job. Neither of my kids hate me yet. They’re both alive. I’ve saved some money for college for them. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.
DIG: It sounds like you’re a very good dad.
BLACK: Yeah, because I’m great.
DIG: You’re already so acknowledged for many things, but what goes unmentioned when it comes to Michael Ian Black? What do people not address on your giant scroll of accomplishments?
BLACK: Well, the phrase “ruggedly handsome” is rarely used in conjunction with me. I feel like it’s probably the most appropriately phrase of them all. That’s the one thing that’s overlooked.
MICHAEL IAN BLACK NAVEL GAZING BOOK READING. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, 279 HARVARD STREET, BROOKLINE. WED 1.20 6PM/ALL AGES/$5. BROOKLINEBOOKSMITH.COM.