You may know Michael Ian Black best from cult comedy hits such as The State, Stella, Viva Variety, Wet Hot American Summer and Michael & Michael Have Issues; his work on VH1’s I Love The…series; or NBC’s Ed. But he’s also an author, having penned several children’s books, including Chicken Cheeks (which received a star), as well as a collection of comedic essays, My Custom Van.
His new book, You’re Not Doing It Right, focuses on his relationship with his wife and their growing family while also delving into Black’s own childhood. Here, he talks with us about the craft of writing, the power of marriage counseling and the importance of not being funny.
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While a lot of books written by comedians have an “I’m writing a book and here’s my struggle with writing a book” focus, this book really has a central theme of your marriage and children. What that a conscious effort?
I had written another book called My Custom Van and that was a disparate collection of essays, which, even at the time when I wrote that book, wasn’t what I wanted to write. What I wanted to do was write a book, first and foremost, the first time out. But I was afraid and I didn’t know how. I had resisted writing comedic essays for a long time because it felt like a cheat to me. I wanted to write a proper book, but eventually I felt like I just needed to write something to prove to myself that I could do it. So I wrote [My Custom Van]. And, as a writer, I felt like, “All right, you did that, and that was a very good first-grade effort.” Meaning, it’s not cohesive.
So it was important to me that the next book be cohesive, be about something, and be personal. And also progress my craft of writing. So I didn’t know exactly how the spine of this book would be formed, I didn’t know what that would be, but I had a general sense. I had to write a lot to figure out what the book was. It took me a long time. The book was probably a year and a half overdue by the time I submitted it because I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t know how to write! I had to teach myself how to write with this book.
Are there huge chunks of material you didn’t use?
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t use. Sometimes because it wasn’t good, sometimes because it wasn’t germane, sometimes because it bored me. I went through tons and tons of false starts, just trying to figure out how to write about myself in an honest way that was still hopefully humorous and entertaining on some level. But then I also had to trust myself to not be funny, which was hard for me.
Do you feel like therapy helped you speak so directly and openly, or is that generally how you are?
I’ve never had a problem being open in my personal life. Well, maybe that’s not true. Everybody I know would disagree with that. I’m often not very forthcoming, but I’m not secretive in the sense that if something is bad, if I’m going through a rough time in my marriage or with my kids, I’m happy to express that. I probably express it more than I should. I don’t know if therapy necessarily helped with that aspect, but what it helped with was trusting myself to be myself. And to trust that that’s enough. That’s the main lesson that I’ve been taking from therapy. Because I think, for a lot of comedians, we use comedy as a way to prove to the world that we are good enough—that we are enough, that we are funny and that we are worth spending time with. I think a lot of comedians fear that they are not. This book was my attempt to prove myself that I am and that just telling the truth is enough.
What was your wife’s reaction to the book?
Who gives a shit about her reaction? You know what I mean? I’m making the money. She likes to wear nice clothes, and she likes to eat good food. So she’ll keep her opinion to herself.
In the book you talk about how going to therapy with your wife revealed to you that some of your behavior came off as rude or dickish to her. But in your mind, you were the star of a show with a nonexistent audience. Now, with this book, you’ve retroactively attained the audience for those private moments. Is that vindicating?
No, because when I write my own actions and reflect them back at myself, I’m like, “Yeah, most of the time you are kind of a dick.”…In my mind there’s an audience of people cheering me on when I stand up to the Man—even if the Man is my wife asking me to empty the dishwasher. When I say, “Fuck you; you empty the dishwasher,” in my mind that’s heroic. I’m learning now that it might not be as heroic as I thought.
Will you be sharing your book with your kids at some point? Because you have some pointed words about how they impacted your life.
I’m sure they’ll read it at some point. I’m not reading selected excerpts for them now. But we tell them all the time that they were shitty babies.
How do they take it?
They love it.
When you’re describing “baby jail” and colicky babies, could people go back and see the effect it had on you if they watch certain shows or movies?
The worst of it was when I was doing Ed on NBC, and I don’t think you would have seen anything because the makeup ladies were so good. They covered the dark circles and the psychic pain. I was just exhausted and crabby. Being at work was actually such a relief—I was happy to be away from home, to be away from my fucking children.
Were there parts of the book that were particularly hard to revisit?
I didn’t have the kind of cathartic reaction that I think some writers have to revisiting aspects of their life. What was more difficult for me was knowing that I had something to say about a certain topic but not really knowing what that thing was and struggling to find it. For example, there’s a chapter about buying a BMW. And I knew that there was something about that, that was important to me, but I couldn’t identify what it was, and I had to really struggle to figure that out for myself. The deep thinking that’s involved was hard for me. I’m not particularly good at deep thinking. Or thinking.
That’s surprising because you have philosophical turns in there—the “déjà who” concept and moments expanding forever.
I didn’t know that I wanted to say that until I was saying it. Some of that didn’t require a lot of thought; I just knew it to be true for myself. And some of it did require a lot more mental work. But the idea of infinite time is a theme that runs through the book, and I wasn’t really aware of that until I started writing and I didn’t know how important that concept was to me until I started writing it.
Are you doing a promotional tour for the book?
Yeah, they’re sending me out to a few cities. There’s no money anymore for a promotional tour, so they’re scraping their pennies together and putting me on a Greyhound bus.
Perry Crowe is the director of Kirkus Editorial.