Being “that guy”

Michael Ian Black knows about pain. Maybe not the paycheck-to-paycheck pain of the blue-collar worker, or the heartache of a tragedy-drenched life, but it’s a real pain all the same. And it’s a refreshingly postmodern kind of pain at that. Black, like so many cable-generation celebs, knows the pain that comes with constantly being asked, “Hey, aren’t you, y’know, that guy?”

He doesn’t just love the 80s: Michael Ian Black is a familiar face on shows like VH1’s I Love The 80s, but his contributions to comedy — such as being a core member of the MTV sketch show The State — go far beyond being a pop-culture mocking talking head. Photo By Jeff Neira, Courtesy Comedy Central

Black is “that guy,” which is to say that he’s immediately recognizable from a number of memorable projects, but has never quite found himself a bona fide star. For instance, he was one of the core performers in the popular early 1990s’ MTV sketch-comedy show The State (creating the absurdist motivational speaker Capt. Monterey Jack, and, with Thomas Lennon, the pudding-loving, suave swingers Barry and Levon).

Later, he performed as the Eastern European cool guy Johnny Blue Jeans in the Comedy Central variety show Viva Variety, starred in the absurdist-comedy troupe Stella and co-starred in a number of low-budget cult comedy films like Wet Hot American Summer. Throw in regular appearances on shows like VH1’s semi-celebrity-filled I Love The … series and Adult Swim’s Tom Goes to the Mayor, and it’s easy to see why Black might be a familiar face to so many.

But being “that guy” is something that Black now takes in stride.

“I guess its better than being ‘that guy’ that you know, rather than being ‘that guy’ who you don’t know,” says Black in an e-mail interview with Xpress.

But now, instead of just carrying the load of being “that guy,” Black is reacquainting himself with audiences around the country with the release of his first comedy album, I Am a Wonderful Man (Comedy Central Records, 2007), which is overflowing with Black’s heaping doses of sarcasm and dry, biting humor. Instead of simply being a working actor, Black is now traveling the circuit as a stand-up comedian, in part to help him gain a little name recognition.

“I wanted to support the CD, and also introduce audiences who might be familiar with me as a ‘talking head’ on VH1 or a sketch comic to my stand-up,” Black explains.

By returning to his roots as a comic by working the club circuit, Black says that he’s finally getting to experience the benefits of life on the road.

“It’s really fun, and it gives me a chance to eat at Denny’s a lot,” he says.

On I Am a Wonderful Man, Black comes across as his same smarmy self, doing bits on satanic messages on albums (“I got worried about the Devil because he was putting all of his marketing money in the vinyl-record industry, so when CDs came out, he was like, ‘F@#k!’”), white power (“It’s not my thing to judge a man by what he looks like—that’s how you judge a woman”), and catching a football (“I know what’s going to happen when I catch a football: I’m either going to jam a finger or the wind’s gonna get knocked out of me”). It’s a solid album of stand up that isn’t afraid to be silly, but is devoid of the ruminations on pop culture icons like Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez that people more familiar with Black’s work as a VH1 talking head might be expecting.

“Nobody [has] specifically asked me to riff on J-Lo during my sets. Thank God,” says Black.

For this tour, Black is bringing along his former The State collaborator Michael Showalter. But just because both are sketch-comedy veterans doesn’t mean that audiences will be treated to prepared sketches in the vein of both performers’ previous work together.

“For the most part, we just do stand-up,” says Black. “Occasionally, we intrude on each other’s sets, but we don’t have any scripted sketch comedy material.”

With their Asheville show recently rescheduled for this week to make up for a canceled performance last month, expect Black and Showalter to pull out all the stops to win over a crowd that has been waiting weeks to catch their act. In fact, Black promises special treats for his Asheville audiences.

“After the show, I’ll probably lead a walking tour of Biltmore.”

[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

who: Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter
what: Ex-The State comics do stand-up
where: Orange Peel
when: Friday, April 4 (9 p.m. $17. or 225-5851)

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