February 14, 2013
Michael Ian Black prefers uncomfortable situations.
When he has the opportunity to make an awkward moment more awkward, he leaps at it. After polling a crowded Wellin Hall, nearly filled to its 698-person capacity, about who had a Valentine and who was single (the singles let out a roar), Black asked all single heterosexual women to raise their hands. Only a few brave souls volunteered, and Black selected a woman in the front row. Then he asked the inevitable next question: Any single heterosexual men? Another front-row attendee raised his hand. Black, digging deep into the discomfort, paired them off, making them sit next to one another for the remaining half-hour of his stand-up act.
Handing the male student a five-dollar bill, he said, “Take Emma to the Commons after the show, get her breakfast and…who knows? Breakfast might lead to breakfast!”
One of the highlights of Black’s set was this weird insistence on linguistic irregularity: his pronunciation of “subtle” with an audible “b” (a meta-joke in and of itself), his awkward definite article before every “pot” mention in the story of his Amsterdam honeymoon and even his twisted use of the word “breakfast,” which, in the context of his joke, provides a definition that you definitely would not find in Webster’s.
“Strangers don’t find me funny,” said Black at the beginning of his act, “and that’s really bad when your job is to be a comedian.”
Black went on to narrate two encounters with strangers that sounded decidedly unfunny in context. One of them involved a waitress who made the relatively normal claim that her restaurant could make any pizza that he wanted. Black, choosing subtlety over silliness, asked whether or not pepperoni would be a possible topping. When the waitress replied that they could definitely create such a pizza, Black had a moment: Who was now messing with whom in this situation?
It is this strange awareness of how humor works, paired with all these linguistic oddities, that enables us to consider Black’s work a kind of meta-comedy, extremely aware of itself. Humor clearly infects all areas of his life, along with thinking about that humor.
In an interview before the show, Black proved to be just as sharp-witted off stage as he was when on stage. When asked about how much his two children, ages 12 and nine, understand his brand of humor, Black was frank, but weirdly funny.
“I’m basically an intellectual,” said Black. “I’m like a philosopher-king. So my fart jokes probably go over the heads of 90% of adults, let alone children, little children who can’t possibly understand the nuances and social satire of my fart jokes.”
The only off moment in Black’s entire set was a long story about the history of a high school punk rock band. After a string of riotously funny moments, this narrative forced audiences to endure minutes of silence. What felt like a build towards a gutsy punch line ended up being the minor revelation that the bassist who Black fired from their punk band—“the only legitimate punk rocker among us,” as he noted—ended up being the leader of his own successful punk band twenty years later.
But the story lacked the punch that the rest of his material had; it was rambling, inconclusive and not very funny.
Thankfully, that longer story proved at odds with the rest of his set, which explored several episodes of Black’s life so sordid that they cannot be printed in these pages. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?