'Michael And Michael' Put Issues On The Table Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are creators and stars of Michael and Michael Have Issues — a series about two neurotic sketch-comedy writers who can't stand each other.
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'Michael And Michael' Put Issues On The Table

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'Michael And Michael' Put Issues On The Table

'Michael And Michael' Put Issues On The Table

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tonight is the premiere of the new Comedy Central series, "Michael and Michael Have Issues." It was created by and stars my guests, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter. They play two comedy writers and performers who host a sketch comedy show. They're friends and competitors, they get on each other's nerves, and they have to work together every day.

The real Michael and Michal have a long creative history together, dating back to a college comedy group, and they were in the Comedy Central series, "Stella," and the MTV sketch comedy series, "The State," which has just come out on DVD.

Let's start with a scene from tonight's premiere of "Michael and Michael Have Issues." Michael and Michael are at a writers meeting when their intern, Greg, asks if could interview them both for his high school paper. And, of course, Michael and Michael disagree on the answer. Michael Ian Black talks first.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Michael and Michael Have Issues")

Mr. MICHAEL IAN BLACK (Actor, Writer): Greg, I recently made a promise to myself and to my therapist to start using the word no because I'm a people pleaser, and people pleasers sometimes have kind of hard time with that word. So, Greg: no.

Mr. MATT BENNETT (Actor): (as Greg) Cool. All right, so how about you, Mr. Showalter?

Mr. MICHAEL SHOWALTER (Actor, Writer): No, we're kind of a package deal. So it's either you interview us both, or neither of us. Right, Mike?

Mr. BLACK: Well, I'm not so sure.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I think that it would be best if we either did it together or not at all.

Mr. BLACK: Well, I don't know, we could…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I think probably we'll maybe hold off on that decision.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we don't need to hold off.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I'm not sure.

Mr. BLACK: I'm pretty sure.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I think we'll save this decision for a later date.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we can make the decision soon.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, we'll figure it out at a later date.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we won't, but we can move on.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Okay. Thanks, Greg.

MARTIN: That's Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter from "Michael and Michael Have Issues." Welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the new show. So is "Michael and Michael Have Issues" based on real issues that you have with each other?

Mr. BLACK: Yes, I think that's a fair assessment. We are, you know, very tight, bestest friends for the last 20 years, and also fierce competitors and, you know…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Adversaries.

Mr. BLACK: That's a good one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why is that? Why do you like each other so much and yet have this competitive streak? And what are you competing about, who's in the better movie, or who gets - who writes the funnier line?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah. Pretty much anything. Who's better at Boggle.

Mr. BLACK: Well, that's a huge one. Who's better at poker.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Who's better at poker. Who's better at darts.

Mr. BLACK: Who's better at Scrabble.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah, who's better at ping pong.

Mr. BLACK: Who's better at anything that there can be a winner at.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did you decide to come up with a show that's based on this friendship-competitive thing?

Mr. SHOWALTER: We, Mike and I, for the last few years, have been traveling together a lot doing stand-up comedy. And when we're traveling, we sort of play a kind of - these sort of games with each other where we tell the other person that we got a phone call, and then other person asks who the phone call's from and we sort of play it off like it's not a big deal but that it was a big director, and it's not that interesting. We don't need to talk about.

And then the other person gets curious, like, oh, really, who was it? And we just sort of enjoy passive-aggressive banter with each other. So it sort of was something that we thought would be a good formula for a show.

GROSS: So why - you know the expression schadenfreude, and I think in Dave Itzkoff's article about you in the New York Times. He used that word, too. And schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. It's a German word for that.

So do you feel like you have that, too, that - and if so, like, Michael Black, if Michael Showalter gets turned down on an audition, or if he comes up with a line and everybody agrees that your line is funnier than his, why do you feel good about that? Can you - it's a commonly…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's a commonly felt feeling, I think, schadenfreude, but since your show is, in part, about that, do your best to explain why that kind of feeling exists.

Mr. BLACK: Well, the real-life Michael Ian Black does not take enormous pleasure in the real-life Michael Showalter's failures, and there have been many failures on his part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Thanks, Mike.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: But in the very specific example of if everybody thinks Michael Showalter's line is funnier than my line, then yeah, I'm enraged. I'm absolutely enraged, and he feels the same way.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think there's just something very - to me personally, there's something very sort of almost frightening about people that are, like, perfect and never do anything wrong and have no flaws. So…

Mr. BLACK: He's describing me, thank you.

Mr. SHOWALTER: So there's something about seeing someone who appears, you know, invincible, to see them, you know, crumble in some ways reminds you that they're human.

GROSS: This reminds of something that, Michael Black, that you wrote. That's I think you probably original wrote it for McSweeney's, and it's in your book, and the piece is called "Hey David Sedaris - Why Don't You Just Go Ahead and Suck It?"

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: And you write: Geniuses are the worst. If you are at all like me, you believe that geniuses were put on this each to rub your nose in the stink of your own mediocrity.

Mr. BLACK: That's exactly right. That's not narcissistic, is it? To think that other people think…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And I often really do feel that way, that other people's success is only there to remind me of my own failures.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right. It's a personal affront to Michael Black.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, since you have a lot of disagreements…

Mr. BLACK: And incidentally, I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way. I think many, many people feel that way.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think David Sedaris probably feels that way.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, that (Beep).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Michael.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, I can't…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: It's NPR. Things are, like, totally relaxed on NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: They don't care.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now what are some of the characteristics you've each exaggerated in yourself for the Michael that you play on TV?

Mr. BLACK: Well, I'd like to think that I've exaggerated a certain pomposity, arrogance and egomania. Showalter may disagree that that is an exaggeration.

Mr. SHOWALTER: No, I think that it's an exaggeration, but it's, you know, there's always a hint of truth in exaggeration.

Mr. BLACK: (Beep) me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: My character is actually quite similar in a lot - very much my own character. He's a little more impish than I am. The Michael Showalter on the TV show is really flaky and sort of completely in his own spaced-out world. And I think that I'm - I'd like to think that I am a little bit more self-conscious than the character I play on the show.

Mr. BLACK: Well, yes, that is absolutely true.

GROSS: And by self-conscious, you mean self-aware?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Self-aware…

Mr. BLACK: To the point of self-obsessed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah, neurotic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now you guys are also in the MTV series, "The State," which has just come out on DVD, and that was a sketch comedy show. Describe how you wanted "The State" to be different from other sketch comedy shows, like "Saturday Night Live."

Mr. BLACK: One of the things that we did very specifically is we wanted our show to have more sketches on it. "Saturday Night Live" tends to have very long sketches, and we wanted our show to have so many sketches in it that if you didn't like one sketch, there would be another sketch coming up so fast that you couldn't even have time to decide you didn't like the one that came before it.

So in a 22-minute show, we would have sometimes 13 or 14 actual segments of different sketches.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Another thing that I think distinguished us or that we did differently was we were very conscious of not doing the kind of traditional sketch comedy sketches that "Saturday Night Live" was doing, meaning, the kind of, like…

Mr. BLACK: Impersonations.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Impersonations, news parodies, recurring characters.

Mr. BLACK: Anything that was topical.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right. We were very - we really did not want to do topical material because we felt like it had a very short shelf life and because we felt like they were doing it better, and why compete with them on their turf?

Mr. BLACK: So instead of ripping "SNL" off, we decided to rip off Monty Python.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what's one of the most famous sketches that came out of the show?

Mr. BLACK: Well, one of Showalter's famous sketches was a character called Doug who was a sort of classic, rebellious teen who was rebelling against his father. And his father turned out to be so much cooler than Doug that the joke sort of folded back in on itself, and so - and Doug had this kind of catchphrase, which I would encourage Showalter to do right now.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, basically, you know, he would get so frustrated because he'd be trying to test his father's patience by, you know, talking about that he was going to be having sex with his girlfriend, and his father would say why don't you bring her home so that you don't do it - you know, he was just tolerant of everything.

So he would just get frustrated, and they he'd go: I'm outta here. But it's been a long time since I've done it. So I'm sort of…

Mr. BLACK: And I specifically asked him to do it because I know he hates doing it.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that scene?

(Soundbite of TV show, "The State")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, your mother and I think you're on drugs.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Drugs? Hey, I'm Doug, man, not Bob Dylan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, do you even know who Bob Dylan is?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) No, but I know he died of drugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Doug, Bob Dylan's alive and well. I produced his last three albums.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Oh, you mean Uncle Robert?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) He didn't die of drugs.

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, are these your cigarettes?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Yeah, and what if they are? Are you going to send out to grandma's house so that she can teach me pinochle and make me bland?

Unidentified Man #1: No, can I bum one?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Oh yeah, sure. Go ahead. No, Doug, no. Like bumming a smoke from Doug is going to make things copacetic 'twixt me and you. I'm Doug, and you're dad. Teens and adults don't mix. Forget it, I'm outta here. I'm outta here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, what is your problem?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) I don't have a problem. That's my problem. You're too cool, dad, and it makes me sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: You want me to sell my hog and quit the Hell's Angels? Is that it, Doug?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Just do whatever, dad. I'm outta here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that's a sketch featuring Michael Showalter, who also wrote it, from the MTV series, "The State," which has just come out on DVD. Michael, did you experience that in your own family? I mean, your parents are both university professors.


GROSS: Your mother is actually pretty famous in the world of feminist literary criticism.


GROSS: So were your parents, like, too cool, very tolerant?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah, they really were. And it was frustrating because I wanted to have, you know, I wanted to have stories to tell about how difficult my childhood was. But the reality was, was that my parents were just really cool, and so I actually really related to Doug.

You know, my parents had - they were young in the '60s, and they were a part of that whole world, and so, I mean, what am I supposed to do? I was a teenager in the '80s. It was sort of like a blowout.

GROSS: Well, here's something I was wondering about. Like, your mother, Elaine Showalter is a feminist literary theorist. She coined the term gynocritic to apply to a critic who constructs a female framework for the analysis of women's literature. So you're growing up with a mother who's a self-described gynocritic, and in the '80s, when you were growing up, all teen comedy, you know, all the teen comedy movies are just about getting girls into bed. And…

Mr. SHOWALTER: As opposed to now, where they're about getting multiple women into bed. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Exactly. So you have this enlightened, feminist, gynocritic mother, growing up in this pop culture that's all about getting girls into bed. So how did you reconcile that, particularly wanting to go into comedy yourself?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, it took me a long time to get in touch with my inner chauvinist, was basically - it was basically the story of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: It was - you know, I have to say, looking back, it was probably a little bit of an interesting upbringing to sit at the dinner table every night with my mother and hear her thoughts on the world, of which she has many. But she's also just kind of a normal mom, which I am grateful for.

GROSS: But did you look around at popular culture and say this is crude, this is sexist, this isn't right, women aren't being treated fairly? Or did you want to be the people in those movies?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I feel like the right answer is number one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You know, I think a little bit of both, honestly. I think there were certain things that I think both my parents probably didn't like that I ultimately absorbed that, but then there was - you know, I loved John Hughes movies and John Cusack, and I loved all those teen movies. So it was a little bit of a conflict, I suppose, a conflict of interest.

GROSS: My guests are Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, the creators and stars of the Comedy Central series, "Michael and Michael Have Issues," which premieres tonight. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, two comics, actors and writers who have a new series on Comedy Central called "Michael and Michael Have Issues."

Now something you've both done comedy about is not being the leading man type, not being the really attractive type who would be very alluring to women. And I want to play examples of that from each of you, starting, Michael Black, with you. And this is a sketch from "The State." And - well, you're on stage, Michael Black, with the whole cast of "The State," and you tell the audience that people think once you get a TV show, it's really easy to get girls to go to bed with you. But you say that's not true. Let's pick it up from there.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The State")

Mr. SHOWALTER: Which is why we've come with a great new idea: MTV's Sleep with "The State" Essay Contest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Well, actually, the fat-asses in the legal department won't let us call it a contest, so we're calling it a concept: MTV's Sleep with "The State" Essay Concept.

It's easy. You write to us, you tell us in 100 words or less why you want to sleep with "The State." We don't care what you look like. We don't care if you're a boy or a girl. We don't even care if you're conscious. Chances are, Tom won't be conscious, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: The only rule is you have to be alive and, well, Ben's flexible on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BLACK: Here's a sample entry: Dear State, I want to sleep with "The State." Great, you win.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Here's another one that's just a phone number. Terrific. Less work for us. What do you like for breakfast?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yeah? Yeah, go right ahead. You don't have to be creative. Hey, you don't even have to write it. Have your friend write it. Is your friend cute? It doesn't matter because you're beautiful, and nobody understands you the way we do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: MTV's Sleep with "The State" Essay Concept, because we're not getting any better-looking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love that sketch. Michael Black, how did you come up with it?

Mr. BLACK: I think it was more or less truth-telling, that I was probably feeling like exactly what I said. When you think - when you have a TV show, people think it's really easy to get girls, and I certainly didn't find that to be the case.

So that's how I came up with it. But it was also - it also spoke to something larger, which was this idea that I was interested in that continues to our new show, which is that I've always been interested in the mythology that comedians create around themselves and the idea of creating a kind of - presenting yourself as a real person and walking the line between what's true and what's not true about that person's life.

And the reason I'm interested in that is because it's what "Saturday Night Live" used to do when it first started out, and I used to be really interested in specifically John Belushi and what was real about him and what wasn't real about him.

As it turns out, all the jokes that they made about him, you know, being a drug addict and everything were real, unfortunately. But that idea, that idea of mythology, has always fascinated me.

GROSS: And Michael Showalter, you wrote and directed the film "The Baxter," and I want to play a scene from the opening of the movie. and I'm going to ask you to set it up.

Mr. SHOWALTER: The movie "The Baxter," a romantic comedy, sort of starts at the ending of another, more mainstream romantic comedy that I've imagined but that is sort of archetypal, where the leading lady is about to get married to the wrong guy. And as an audience, we are wishing that the leading man, played by Tom Hanks or whoever, would burst in the door and sweep her off her feet at the last minute. And my movie sort of starts at that moment, only stays with that poor, wrong guy who got left at the altar.

GROSS: Okay, and this is the scene at the altar, from the opening of "The Baxter."

(Soundbite of film, "The Baxter")

Ms. AUDRIE J. NEENAN (Actor): (As Pastor Pritchard) We are gathered here today to bring these two people together in holy matrimony…

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Elliot Sherman) Just as you think she's about to make the biggest mistake of her life…

Ms. NEENAN: (As Pastor) …object to these two people being married, please speak now or forever hold your peace.

Mr. JUSTIN THEROUX (Actor): (As Bradley Lake) Caroline.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Elliot) The leading man barges through the doors.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Caroline Swann) Bradley?

Mr. THEROUX: (As Bradley) I got on a plane and I flew all the way back to Malta, but then I realized something.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Elliot) But did you ever wonder about the guy left at the altar, the wrong guy? My grandmother had a word for those kinds of guys - nice guys, old-fashioned guys, the kind of guys who wear sock garters, guys who get hay fever, like, raking leaves, the kind of guy you settle for because you can't be with the one you love. She called them Baxters. Well, I'm a Baxter, and this is my story.

GROSS: That's Michael Showalter, from his movie, "The Baxter." Did you make up the expression, the Baxter?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I did. I did.

GROSS: From what? Why did you decide on Baxter as the name?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I was trying to think of an old-fashioned word, but - that implied a certain sort of awkwardness or nerdiness, uptightness. And I thought of a bowler hat, and I thought of a Dexter, or a Poindexter. And then I just thought the word Baxter. And it turns out, it's the last name of Jack Lemmon's character in the movie, "The Apartment," which I actually didn't know, but it just felt right. It felt old-fashioned and sort of proper, but kind of like a nice, memorable name.

GROSS: Do you feel like that kind of nice, old-fashioned guy with hay fever?

Mr. SHOWALTER: No, I don't. But going back to what you were saying about schadenfreude, I think that that's a great example of what I did - what did sort of get me started on this, with this movie and this idea, was that I always really like the wrong-guy boyfriend more than the kind of perfect leading man. And I think it's because they're flawed and they're human and they're not - it's their imperfection that makes them so interesting to me. And so I sort of said, I'm sort of bored of the Mr. Perfect Guy. Let's see a movie where that schlub gets to be the leading man.

GROSS: Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black will be back in the second half of the show. Their new Comedy Central series, "Michael and Michael Have Issues," premieres tonight. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, the creators and stars of the new Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael Have Issues," which premieres tonight. They play the writers and stars of a sketch-comedy show who are friends and competitors and disagree over just about everything.

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter have a long history together. They worked on the Comedy Central series "Stella" and the MTV sketch-comedy series "The State."

So I think it's time to hear you both sing.

Mr. BLACK: Why?

GROSS: Well, because on "The State" there's a really funny sketch called "Porcupine Racetrack."

Mr. BLACK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And again, "The State" is a sketch-comedy series on MTV that's just come out on DVD, and this is just so much fun. It's a kind of parody of musicals, including musicals like "Guys and Dolls." I think there's a little "My Fair Lady" or maybe "Hello Dolly" thrown in and...


GROSS: ...and a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish sounding stuff. And so in the "Guys and Dolls"-ish part, you both sing. So I just want to play that excerpt. It starts with Michael Ian Black, then there's a deep-voiced person. I'm not sure whose voice that is, and then Michael Showalter, you come in. So here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The State")

Mr. BLACK: (Singing) Have I got a pick for you boys. This porcupine has to win. Yeah. He's strong and fast and ready.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And loaded up with gin.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (Singing) I'm putting my dough on lightning, 'cause it says that he's a sure thing. And the odds are five to four. But boy I hope that he's not slow or otherwise then this here Joe will be back on Skid Row.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter in a sketch from "The State," which is now on DVD.

So do you both like musical theater?

Mr. SHOWALTER: This is one of the things that's actually very different between Mike and I, which is that I absolutely love it. And if I'm not mistaken, you don't.

Mr. BLACK: Well, my feeling about musical theater is it's tremendous fun to perform and tremendous not fun to watch.

GROSS: I love musicals.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I love musicals and I'm not afraid to admit it.

GROSS: So Michael Showalter, you did a movie called "Wet Hot American Summer" that's set in summer camp, and I know you went to summer camp. Did you do camp musicals?


GROSS: I think summer camp music productions are probably some of the best musicals in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: We did - I did. I did "Bye Bye Birdie" my first year of summer camp, and then I did "Oliver" my second year, and I played Fagin.


Mr. SHOWALTER: And I'm pretty sure I was the best 11-year-old Fagin...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: ...that has ever walked the Earth.

GROSS: Now, Michael Showalter, you were in a kind of comedy music band, too?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Oh, sort of. My friends Zach Worth and I did a couple of songs together for my comedy album, "Sandwiches and Cats," and we call ourselves The Doilies. But I wouldn't so much say that we're really an active troop, if that's what you mean. Although I was in a rap group in high school called The Disposable Rappers.

GROSS: And you did what in it?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I rapped.

GROSS: For example?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, we had a song called "Swiss Cheese Sandwich." I could do some for you if you'd like.

GROSS: Please.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (Rapping) Swiss cheese sandwich. Swiss cheese sandwich. First you take the Swiss cheese. The Swiss cheese is sure to please. Then...

(Speaking) Do you really need me to continue?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No. It sounds more like a high school cheer...

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: ...than hip-hop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I see cheerleaders in the background.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: There's was one that went - my name's Mike Cool - my tag name was Mike Cool.

(Rapping) My name's Mike Cool, don't wear it out and rap and fame is what I'm all about. Born Michael (unintelligible) in the month of June. Brain dead is my rap not "Brigadoon."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: So even got…

Mr. BLACK: "Brigadoon" in there.

Mr. SHOWALTER: …"Brigadoon" in there.

GROSS: Brilliant.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (Rapping) Fresh swell I'm kicking loud and hot. I got an offer to rap at Julliard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Sort of went on from there.

GROSS: That's great. Michael Black, one of the things you've done is commercials. And name some of the commercials you've done.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, dear. We go from his arty…

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. BLACK: …musical duos and alt-rapping to my whoring out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Precisely.

Mr. BLACK: I can…

Mr. SHOWALTER: But you have a much bigger house than I do and a nicer car.

Mr. BLACK: That's true. But it's obvious who Terry favors, and I resent it very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I've done a bunch of commercials. I've done - I was the Pets.com sock puppet. That was my sort of first big commercial campaign. And Sierra Mist, and Allstate for a little while, and now I'm doing some stuff for Klondike.

GROSS: Now, we have to talk about the Pets.com thing. You were the voice of the Pets.com sock puppet.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: And Triumph, the insult comic dog, the sock puppet creation of Robert Smigel, who is this kind of crude…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …insult comic dog, accused your sock puppet of stealing from him.

Mr. BLACK: Right.

GROSS: Actually accused Pets.com of stealing the whole idea of the dog sock puppet from Triumph. And then Pets.com sued Triumph for…

Mr. BLACK: Defamation of character, essentially.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. So there were two sock puppets, Triumph and your sock puppet basically suing each other more or less.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: What a bizarre situation to be in.

Mr. BLACK: And not, not and…

(Soundbite of sigh)

Mr. BLACK: …so sort of stupid from my point of view, because I was in the camp of Triumph far more than us. I mean, you know, I'm never going to, you know, side with the, you know, the corporate masters in any creative dispute. I mean in fairness, I - no, I didn't design the character. I just sort of breathed life into it.

Mr. SHOWALTER: You put the sock on.

Mr. BLACK: I really put - I put the sock on in more ways than one. And I never heard of Triumph when that - when the whole thing started. In fact, I kept calling it Triumphs and they would say no it's Triumph, it's Triumph, it's Triumph. So I sort of, I didn't feel at all guilty or like I'd done anything wrong. And in fact I thought that it was actually a very sort of smart and funny idea on his part to start, you know, accusing the Pets.com sock puppet of ripping him off. It seemed like exactly the right thing to do. And then when Pets.com started taking it seriously, they literally had me hold a press conference as the sock puppet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: It was one of the most like degrading things I've ever done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So were you visible or were you just like behind the puppet?

Mr. BLACK: No, I was like underneath a podium or something and my arm would be up and I would be, you know, speaking to the press. And there were press there about this ludicrous lawsuit that Pets.com had filed.


Mr. BLACK: And they went out of business probably about a week after that.

GROSS: So what did you say to the press?

Mr. BLACK: Oh god. I don't even know. You know, they had me - you know, it's hard when you're a corporate shill to go up against somebody who can say what they want. You know, if you're Robert Smigel you can say anything. But if you're a corporate shill like I was, then you have to sort of toe the company line and say whatever they kind of want you to say. So I don't know, I don't know what I'd say. You know, are you ripping off Triumph? And I'd be like - you know, and I'd say something stupid like, you know, I think there's enough room in this world for all kinds of puppets, insult puppets, commercial pitch puppets. You know, that sort of thing.

GROSS: Oh, it's really amazing.

Mr. SHOWALTER: And was your soul still in your body when you did that or was it - did you - where was your soul when that was going on?

Mr. BLACK: Well, what I do is, I just keep a locker at the Port Authority bus station.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Oh, okay. Good.

Mr. BLACK: And I just put my soul in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. BLACK: And I just keep the key with me.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Okay. Oh, that's…

Mr. BLACK: So then I can just check it in and check it out whenever I need to.

GROSS: Don't you think this is dying to be a sketch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: What it should probably be is an episode of our new show, where I'm doing…

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. BLACK: …where I'm doing a sock puppet character.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I'm writing that down as we speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: What would be a very good episode of our show.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I'm writing that down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And Showalter can accuse you of selling out your soul.

Mr. BLACK: Of course. Well, he accuses me of doing that on a fairly regular basis. But you know, I always get very resentful when people talk about selling out because to me, as Showalter said, I have a house. You know, I have a mortgage. I have kids, and the idea that, you know, I would somehow remain above the fray of commerce and neglect to pay my mortgage as a result of that to me it's just ludicrous. I mean, you know, doing commercials and doing things that generate income to me are the reasons why I can go off and do Comedy Central, because you know, Comedy Central isn't paying us a fortune to do this, as evidenced by Showalter's living conditions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guests are Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, the creators and stars of the Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael Have Issues," which premieres tonight.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, the co-creators and stars of the Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael Have Issues," which premieres tonight. They play the writers and stars of a sketch-comedy show who are good friends and adversaries.

GROSS: Michael Black, can I ask you a kind of serious personal question?

Mr. BLACK: Sure.

GROSS: And if it's too personal, just tell me and I'll drop it. Michael, I read that when you were young, that your father was like assaulted or something and died after the attack?

Mr. BLACK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I think your parents were already separated by then?

Mr. BLACK: They were divorced. Yeah.

GROSS: That sounds really horrible. What happened?

Mr. BLACK: Well, he was taking graduate classes at Rutgers, and one night, I'm still unclear what happened. But essentially the police found him in his car suffering from a head wound. He was brought to the hospital. He had surgery - brain surgery. He was recovering and then got some sort of infection, was readmitted to the hospital, was given the wrong medicine, and died. That is the, you know, sort of short story version of it.

GROSS: That's so horrible. How did you mother explain to you what happened? You were how old?

Mr. BLACK: I was 12.

GROSS: You were 12. Okay.

Mr. BLACK: And there's no good way to tell somebody that their parent just died. You know, it was totally unexpected. My brother and I were in our bedroom, we shared a bedroom, and she came in that morning and basically just said it. I mean, she, you know, she was distraught and kind of, I don't know if this is just my memory or if this is true, but sort of did it from the ground, meaning she was sort of sitting or on her knees or something. And you know, what I remember feeling more than anything was the feeling like, oh god, I should probably cry or cry right now, which I did.

But it was this feeling of total numbness, and not knowing how to react and feeling totally paralyzed in that moment. Because my father, and my brother and my sister and I were - my dad was not good with younger kids, but we were getting to an age where he was really sort of starting to relate to us and be able to communicate with us. And to lose him then was, you know, it's something that you never fully recover from, I don't think.

GROSS: And also to have that fear that somebody who you love, someone in your own family can be assaulted and then on top of that be administered the wrong medicine and that that would be deadly. I mean that could leave you with a fear of just like being out in the world and a fear of even being healed.

Mr. BLACK: You know, I think about my dad all the time. You know, and he died, you know, over 20 years ago. And you know, in a small way, I don't know if, I mean it's nice to carry him with me in that way. And I recognize certain gestures that I make as an adult that my dad made, and I feel like, you know, even though he's no longer here, I understand him much more than I did certainly, you know, as a kid. But you know, my knowledge of him stopped at the age of 12, and yet I feel like I retain a lot of him.

GROSS: So you know, as a comic and as somebody I presume had a sense of humor and was interested in comedy from a young age, did your father's death have a chilling effect on your ability to be funny or to even care about funny for a while?

Mr. BLACK: Well, as a young - when I - at that age, I mean I think I was funny the way kids are funny, but I never thought that I was going to have a career in comedy. It was not part of my, it's not what I was thinking I was going to be doing. So I don't know that I was really consciously trying to be funny. To me - and I think to a lot of comedians - humor at that age is more of a coping mechanism than anything else.

Now, what I was coping with, you know, I'm sure his death was part of it. My own sort of social awkwardness was part of it. My own sort of not fitting in was part of it. Puberty was part of it. Like there were many things that sort of led me to comedy and I think his death was, you know, probably led me more towards it than away from it.


Mr. BLACK: As I said, because I think comedy for many, many people is a coping mechanism, and you know, as a kid I was incredibly prone to just bursts of emotion and tears and, you know, hypersensitivity. And I realized that I couldn't live my life like that and I sort of started sublimating that to the point where, you know, now it's, you know, hard for me to express emotion, and comedy is an outlet for that.

GROSS: That's really funny, you know, because you're saying that you're kind of hypersensitive, and your comic persona is the opposite.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: Is it fun to be that person who you play on TV?

Mr. BLACK: Well, it can be. I mean I don't, you know, I think the word snarky has often been applied to me in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. Because I don't think of myself as snarky, even though I guess, you know, I probably come off that way. Because I still see myself as this hypersensitive kid who, you know, everything touches and everything, you know, you - I feel like, you know, I feel too much.

GROSS: Michael Showalter, as Michael Black's, like, really good friend and writing partner, do you see both sides?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah. He's - Mike's - Mike can definitely I think, I think you can be snarky.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, I - there's no question that I can be.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think you can be snarky, you can be smug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You can be a jerk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You can be jerk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You can be a huge jerk…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …with very little effort.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

Mr. SHOWALTER: But Mike is a very, you know, I think Mike is a really good person. And I think that's the highest compliment you can pay somebody.

Mr. BLACK: As good as a smug jerk can be.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Exactly. I think…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …Again, I sort of admire the smug jerk. Because, again, it's like, I like people who are rude. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …and sort of, you know…

Mr. BLACK: Off-putting.

Mr. SHOWALTER: …off-putting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And smell bad.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Because I'm the same way. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: No, I don't like people who don't smell good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: But honestly like people, we've already said it, people that are like too nice or too kind of friendly or like, I - they freak me out.

GROSS: Michael Showalter, in your comedy record you have one observation I just want to ask you about. You describe - and I think everybody has been through this - you describe being in a bath, in a public bathroom and somebody else - the door's locked, somebody's trying to get in and they're kind of like jiggling the handle really hard, as if they can't believe somebody is in there, or they're going to get in anyways, and you holler out, somebody is in here.


GROSS: And then you say, like, why not say: I'm in here. Why is it like…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right. Why…

GROSS: …who's the narrator of a novel or something?

(Soundbite in laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right, right. It's the omniprescient(ph)…

GROSS: Somebody is in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Somebody is in here. Yes, me, I'm in here. I'm - so why are you saying somebody, as if you're an omniprescient voice?

GROSS: I have done that - somebody's in here. I'm sure everybody has done it, somebody is in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: And I thought, how did you realize that that was a thing, you know?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think because I did it, you know, because I found myself doing it. And I think it's also sort of like it's a panic moment too…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …not just somebody's in here. It's sort of like the world is falling, you know, you're in this, you're naked and exposed and your true nature as an animal is at risk and you're like freaking out, you know. Someone's in here. Yeah, you. You.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. It's really been fun and interesting. Thank you.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, thank you.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you, Terry. This has been great for us.

Mr. SHOWALTER: It really has.

GROSS: Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are the co-creators and stars of the new Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael Have Issues." It premieres tonight. Their MTV sketch comedy series from the '90s, "The State," has just come out on DVD. Coming up, Ed Ward profiles blues musician Little Walter, a new box set collects his recordings for the Chess label. This is FRESH AIR.

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