Comedian Michael Ian Black's Memoir 'Navel Gazing' Explores Male Vanity "When I'm acting, I always imagine myself as looking totally different than the person that appears onscreen," Black says. The comedian writes about family, masculinity and vanity in his new memoir.
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In 'Navel Gazing,' Michael Ian Black Lays It All Out, Insecurities And All

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In 'Navel Gazing,' Michael Ian Black Lays It All Out, Insecurities And All

In 'Navel Gazing,' Michael Ian Black Lays It All Out, Insecurities And All

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic, actor and writer Michael Ian Black. He's written a new memoir called "Navel Gazing: True Tales Of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird)." He describes the book as focusing on time, the family and the body, subjects he started thinking about seriously after his mother got sick and after he turned 40.

But even when he's serious, he manages to be funny. Now, in his mid-40s, he's co-starring in "The Jim Gaffigan Show" on the TV Land network and "Another Period" on Comedy Central. He was in the film "Wet Hot American Summer" as well as the recent Netflix prequel. In the '90s, he was one of the stars of the MTV sketch comedy series "The State." In 2009, he co-starred with Michael Showalter in the Comedy Central series "Michael & Michael Have Issues."

Michael Ian Black, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So some of this book is about your body and how your body and life have been changing in middle age, and you say that the person you see in your head when you think me doesn't look much like the person you see when you look in the mirror. Would you compare the two?

MICHAEL IAN BLACK: Well, I was being a little bit tongue-in-cheek when I wrote the book and talked about the description of myself that I imagine myself to be, but not that much tongue-in-cheek.

It's a weird thing. As an actor, I find - and maybe other actors don't have this problem, but I have a very hard time looking at myself on screen because in my head, when I'm acting, I always imagine myself as looking totally different than the person that appears on screen. And then when I see the person appearing on screen, I'm inevitably disappointed. I'm always like, oh no, not that guy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: That's not the guy at all that I had pictured. But sort of my avatar for myself I jokingly call Bruce Whitehall, and he is a rangy, lantern-jawed, 6-foot tall Aryan god.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: He's a Hitler youth, essentially.


GROSS: So bodies are the thing, I think, that make us most self-conscious, and they do weird things when we don't want them to. What has your attitude been about how much to reveal about your relationship with your body and all of the things that make you self-conscious about your body knowing that you are physically going to be represented on screen, knowing that you're going to be standing up alone on stage in front of audiences who have nothing to do with their eyes except stare at you?

BLACK: That didn't play into my thought process. If it had, maybe I wouldn't have written the book. I don't have that kind of foresight.

GROSS: You should've spoken to me. I could've saved you the effort of writing the book.


BLACK: Well, then I would've had nothing to write about. I felt like it was important to write about male vanity because - one, it's something that consumes me a little bit. But also because I don't feel like there's a lot of societal permission to talk about male vanity in the same way that there is to talk about female vanity. There's an entire industry - I mean, the whole female culture is built on female vanity.

And I feel like men don't have the same kind of permission to talk about their own bodies in the same way. I think it's destructive for women in a lot of ways, but I also think it's destructive for men to not have a kind of outlet to talk about their own insecurities. And so I wanted to sort of lay bare my own in an effort to sort of open that conversation.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, reading your book, I was wondering - I have some sense of what women look for when we look at ourselves in the mirror. I have no idea what men look for.

BLACK: When we look at ourselves or when we look at women?

GROSS: No, when...

BLACK: ...Because I can tell you what we look for in women, which is just that they be women.

GROSS: When you look at yourself...

BLACK: ...That's really all we care about.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: When I look at myself, I don't even know that I'm looking for any one particular thing so much as I'm looking for a kind of aesthetic joy that I cannot find.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: All I see - and I think women probably the same - all I see are the imperfections. I see that my nose runs off to the side of my face, and I see that one eyebrow cocks upwards no matter what I do to try to correct it. I inevitably will wake up and there will be some blemish on my face that wasn't there the day before. My stomach, which continues to expand. My arms, which continue to be noodly (ph) and flaccid.

Like, it's everything, you know? And so it's just a constant cataloging of all the things that are wrong. And it's not even like I feel like addressing any one of those things would solve the problem. I feel like it would just start other problems. It's very - it's unsettling. I don't know how to make myself feel good about myself physically other than to just kind of resign myself to I am who I am.

GROSS: Can you effectively do that? The I am who I am thing?

BLACK: Some days I can. Most days I cannot.

GROSS: So it bothers you?

BLACK: Yeah. I mean, it's not something that is ever-present in my mind, but it is something that - you know, it's a little tickle at the back of my brain that I can't ever quite scratch.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Michael Ian Black, who's also an actor and he's a co-star of "The Jim Gaffigan Show." He has a new book called "Navel Gazing: True Tales Of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird)."

GROSS: OK. So when you hear that title that it's a "True Tale Of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's Which I Know Sounds Weird)" it has a kind of creepily sexual connotation about your mother there.

BLACK: (Laughter).

GROSS: But it's not about that at all. It's about - when you refer to your...

BLACK: (Laughter) Well, I would hope not, no.

GROSS: Yes. When you refer to your mother's body in there, it's because it's about how her body has been physically diminished by surgeries and treatments for uterine cancer.


GROSS: And since you bring up the subject of your mother's body in the title - like, before you even open the pages of the book, you see your mother's body. It leads me to wonder if her surgeries and her cancer have kind of forced you to think about or help out with your mother's body in ways that have really changed your relationship with her.

BLACK: Well, yes, in the sense that her illness has forced me to obviously confront her mortality and to confront her ever-weakening state.

No, in the sense that I'm not physically there - we live thousands of miles apart. So I'm not giving her sponge baths. But yeah, I mean, I certainly know much more about her body, both because of her illnesses and because of the interviews I conducted when writing this book. That's a weird thing. It's a weird thing to talk about your mother's body, which is why I wrote, which I know it sounds weird, in the subtitle.

GROSS: It's interesting that you interviewed her for the book because in the book, you ask her if she's afraid of death. And she says - afraid? - I'm petrified. So did you ask her that in the context of interviewing her for the book?

BLACK: Yeah. All of the dialogue that's in the book is verbatim from interviews that I did with her for the book. And yeah, that moment was really kind of startling for me because she's been dealing with this for, like, 15 years - these illnesses and her body slowly failing her. And I guess I sort of thought at a certain point in dealing with constant illness and bodily deterioration, that you'd make some accommodations with death, and she hasn't.

And when I asked her why she felt so terrified of dying, she said because I feel like I haven't done anything with my life. And that was such a kind of heartbreaking and startling and upsetting thing to hear from one's parent. And it wasn't at all the answer I expected.

GROSS: Well, part of what you did do, as you point out, is give birth to and raise you, which is not an insignificant thing.

BLACK: (Laughter) Well, I sort of jokingly say that in the book - you know, that, you know, I was insulted. How dare you say you did nothing with your life? I'm right here. But she mean that - on a kind of macro level - in a way of, like, making a mark on the world or doing something creative or doing something professional that would have some lasting impact on society.

And, you know, I found it upsetting to hear that she felt that way. And also, it is so at odds with how I look at my own life because I don't feel any of those desires. Even though I'm in a very public profession where I'm constantly sort of putting myself out there and, you know, affecting the culture in some tiny, tiny way, I feel no desire to leave any kind of legacy whatsoever other than with my kids.

And I didn't know how to reassure her. I didn't know how to reassure her that being a mother and having love in her life and having a family and people who care about her is enough. I mean, if she doesn't feel that way - I mean, I know she does feel that way to a certain extent. But I also know that, you know, she wished for more for herself.

GROSS: It's interesting to me that you asked your mother if she was afraid of dying - in the context of interviewing her for the book. You know, I ask people all the time, in the context of interviews, how they feel about facing death. When my parents were dying, it was hard to talk with them about it because I think they were uncomfortable talking about it. Were you able to ask your mother things in the context of - mom, I have to interview for my book - that you maybe would have been uncomfortably asking her without that pretext?

BLACK: Oh, everything. Everything was uncomfortable. I mean, I asked her all about her sex life, which is not something I recommend a son does to his mother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: (Laughter) I mean, it's very awkward, particularly because my mother's sexual life is complicated. I mean, she came out as a lesbian when I was about 5 and that broke up my parents' marriage, not that it was on very firm footing to begin with. And then she entered a very long, kind of abusive relationship which is the relationship that I grew up within - with a woman I call Elaine in the book. And we talked a lot about the traumas of her sexuality, and a lot of it was traumatic. Her parents forced her to undergo shock therapy when she was in her late teens because they believed...

GROSS: To make her un-gay?

BLACK: To un-gay her. Yeah, they thought she was gay. And she didn't believe herself to be gay at that point, but they did. And in fact, it kind of wiped her memory clean of a lot of her early life. So I mean, the toughest questions were probably just the first ones. You know, just tell me about, you know, being gay, you know, just the first question. And then once we got into it, it became easier and easier to talk to her about it.

And I think she was very happy to have those conversations because, you know, I'm a parent, and I know that my kids - they express no interest in me whatsoever in terms of what my life was like before they came along. And I think that's probably a familiar feeling for parents. Like last night, I was trying to tell my daughter something - she's 12 - and I was going to tell her about something when I was her age. And I started to say the words - when I was 12. And she said I don't want to hear it. I said OK, that's fair.


GROSS: When you said that your mother's partner after she left your father - that her partner was abusive, did you mean physically or verbally?

BLACK: Well, I knew she was verbally abusive because I grew up in it. And at one point, I asked my mom - expecting the answer to be no - if she was ever physically abusive, and my mom said she was, which was a surprise to me. I don't think it was a common thing in their relationship, but I think at least a few times, it turned physical, yeah.

GROSS: That must have been upsetting for you to hear.

BLACK: Yeah, it was upsetting. You know, and once she said it, I guess not that surprising in the sense that I easily could imagine that kind of rage - I described her as a rage addict in the book - could turn physical.

And you know, my mother was much - I don't know much bigger - but was physically just a bigger person than her partner. Her partner was considerably shorter and smaller in stature, but she had this hair trigger temper that would just go off. I mean, I know she had undiagnosed whatever - depression, bipolar, whatever she was. But it just created a very tense and upsetting household in which to live in. And then my mother kind of caught the rage, you know, the way you might catch a cold. And so my mother was also filled with rage in those days, and that often came out.

GROSS: How old were you when your mother came out?


GROSS: What year are we talking?

BLACK: 1976, maybe - '77?

GROSS: How did she explain it to you, that her new partner was going to be a woman?

BLACK: She didn't - not that I recall. I mean, they been together before this. But my earliest memory of seeing them together in a way that I understood as couplehood was after they had moved in together, which they did very shortly after my parents broke up. And I walked into their bedroom one morning, and they were in bed together, you know, just laying there, you know, whatever. And in that moment, I feel like I understood something about their relationship that I hadn't before. I didn't put any judgment on it. I didn't think of it in negative terms at all. I think I was too young to understand that the larger culture wouldn't approve of this. But I felt like I understood it in that moment.

GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. My guest is comic Michael Ian Black who's also an actor. He co-stars on "The Jim Gaffigan Show." He has a new memoir called "Navel Gazing: True Tales Of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird).

We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Michael Ian Black who is also an actor. His new memoir is called "Navel Gazing: True Tales Of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's Which I Know Sounds Weird.)" So we were talking about how your mother came out when you were - how old did you say?

BLACK: Five.

GROSS: Five, yeah. This was after your parents divorced.

BLACK: It was concurrent with my parents divorcing.

GROSS: Oh, I see. Was that the cause?

BLACK: It didn't help.

GROSS: Right.


GROSS: OK. And then - and I forget how old you were at the time - but at one point when you were a child, your mother talks to you and tries to reassure you that it's OK for you to be gay...

BLACK: Right.

GROSS: ...Because she thought that you were gay which you're not (laughter).

BLACK: Right.

GROSS: That just sounds like the most odd (laughter) conversation that your lesbian mother is assuring you that it's OK for you to be gay when you're not gay.

BLACK: Yeah, she was trying to out me.

GROSS: Yes, describe that conversation.

BLACK: Well, she and her partner invited me to sit in the living room, which should have set off alarm bells because nobody was allowed to sit in our living room because that was reserved for company...

GROSS: Oh, yes.

BLACK: ...Despite the fact that we never had company. Nobody ever came over, but that was for company. And so they invited me to sit in the living room on the floor, incidentally, not on the furniture. And they started by saying that, you know, it's totally natural and fine to be gay. And my first thought was - had I said something that made them think that I disapproved of their relationship - which I did - but not because of their homosexuality, but because it was just a disastrous relationship.

And then over the course of the conversation, it occurred to me that they were talking about me. I was probably 13, 14, something like that, and I was, you know, mortified and infuriated. And it was so presumptuous of them, and so - sort of crossing so many boundaries. I didn't even know how to respond. I mean, I was just sputtering with rage when they said this to me. And in retrospect, I get it. I mean, I do understand why they thought I may have been gay, but - and the answers are because I was interested in theater and because my friends were mostly female and because - I don't know. I maybe expressed myself a certain way or spoke in a certain way.

And maybe had I been an adult looking at me, I would've thought, oh, that's the gay kid, but they could've asked. You know what I mean? They could have said, are you? Are you having these feelings? But I wasn't at all. I mean, being straight was the only thing I knew about myself to be true. I mean, I knew that I was straight. I adored girls. And the reason that I had so many friends who were girls was because I adored girls and preferred their company to the company of my peers who were all - I had skipped a grade - and they were all a year to two years older than me and sort of were more advanced in terms of their just physical development. And it was intimidating to be around a lot of the guys in my school. And so I just surrounded myself with these girls and loved them.

GROSS: You write about your mother and her partner.

(Reading) While they struggled for women and girls to be free, to become whoever they chose, it never occurred to them that some men and boys felt just as stifled, boys like me. Nobody ever told me that there were different ways to be male, so I felt forced to improvise - play with masculine conventions and find ways to bend them to meet my own needs. They misinterpreted that improvisation as sexual confusion.

So what are some of the ways of being male that just didn't fit for you?

BLACK: Well, I grew up in New Jersey. In - you know, my formative years were kind of the mid-80s. And the mid-80s in New Jersey became kind of like ground zero for American culture in general. It was sort of like where Bon Jovi came from and sort of the big, hair sound and the kind of like dumb metal culture that pervaded America in that time. And there was a huge emphasis on sports in the town where I grew up in. And there was just a kind of - sort of masculine swagger that guys had, and they were expected to sort of - I don't know - have letter jackets and be interested in cars and be interested in talking about football teams. And none of that meant anything to me. It's a familiar story. I mean, I think a lot of boys grow up feeling that way.

But I didn't have a dad in my life. My dad died when I was 12. And my parents were estranged anyways. so I didn't see him that much. And I just didn't know that I didn't have to conform to that. I sort of intuited it, and the way I rebelled was to do things that were sort of anti-masculine. I would cross my legs the way a girl crossed her legs or I would dress in a way that didn't conform to the way the guys in my school dressed, and I surrounded myself with female friends. And all of that was an attempt to assert myself as an individual and as a kind of young man. But I didn't fully understand that at the time about myself. Like, it all felt improvisational. It all felt like a kind of formless rebellion.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Ian Black. His new memoir is called "Navel Gazing: True Tales Of Bodies, Mostly My Own (But Also My Mom's Which I Know Sounds Weird.)" He has a new comedy special that will debut on Epix May 13. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic and actor Michael Ian Black. He co-stars on "The Jim Gaffigan Show" on the TV Land network and on the Comedy Central series "Another Period." His new memoir is called "Navel Gazing: True Tales Of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird)."

When we left off, we were talking about how his mother - who came out as a lesbian when Michael was 5 - assumed he was gay when he was in his early teens because he loved theater, didn't love sports, most of his friends were girls, and he didn't dress in a style that was considered masculine. Did the things that made your mother think that you were gay make other people think that you are gay?

BLACK: Oh yeah, everybody thought I was gay. (Laughter) I mean - you know, New Jersey culture - and I think it's probably still this way - is very - it's very regimented for guys. You know, it's where Bruce Springsteen comes from. You know, it's got a very peculiar flavor of masculinity, and it's hard to not be a part of that.

Maybe it's different growing up there now than it was - I mean, maybe we've kind of expanded, you know, what it means to be a man. But when I was growing up there at least, it really felt very confining and I couldn't wait to get out.

GROSS: So what was it like for the, what, teenage you or adolescent you to have everybody - like, a lot of people assume that you are gay?

BLACK: I guess it was frustrating in a lot of ways, but I also began to understand that I could flip it and wear it as a kind of badge of honor. I could take pride in their assumptions about me, whether they were correct or incorrect, that I could use their attitude towards me as a kind of - as a strength, that in being different I could be attractive to girls.

I think not conforming made me feel like I didn't have to be in this world, that I could escape this world, that I could do something that maybe was beyond the horizons of my peers. And for me, that meant going to New York and being an actor or trying to be an actor. And that wasn't something that anybody else in my town was considering doing. It wasn't the kind of profession that somebody from my town would consider.

GROSS: So you co-star in Jim Gaffigan's comedy series, which is loosely based on Gaffigan's family about him...

BLACK: ...Where I play a gay guy.

GROSS: Yeah. Him, his wife and many children...

BLACK: ...You can say - yes, I play a gay guy on the show, yes.

GROSS: And you're the wife's best friend who is gay. And you basically live in their house. You're always there. And you don't get along with Jim Gaffigan in this series, so you're always kind of, like, getting in these little digs at him. So yeah, it's kind of funny that people assumed you were gay and now, like, you're playing somebody who is gay. Do those...

BLACK: ...Oh, I'm almost always hired to play gay. Like - you know, like, it's never left. Like, that whole thing - I mean, you know, my first movie role was in "Wet Hot American Summer" where I play a gay counselor, and I've played gay in so many things.

And, you know, it's like with anything else, you know? You just kind of make peace with it at a certain point and you're like, all right. You know, I can do that for you. I can do other things and hopefully people see me and let me do other things - and they have, thankfully, particularly in recent years. But yeah, I always get hired to play gay.

GROSS: So let's get back to middle age. And you're in your 40s now. That's an age where you have a lot of responsibilities. You are one of those people in that position where you have a mother who's sick and you have - you know, you don't live geographically close, but you have, you know, emotional and I'm sure some more, you know, physical responsibilities for her.

You're the father of two. Your sister has Down syndrome. She lives in a facility. You end your book by explaining that your wife has had a few recurring bouts of pneumonia. So you just have responsibility on all ends right now, including, you know, making sure some of your TV shows actually stay on the air (laughter) so you have more income coming in. Do you feel, you know, kind of, like, weighed down by all of this? Or -

BLACK: Yeah, I do. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I mean, as much as the responsibilities sort of pile on top of each other as I've gotten older, I also find myself increasingly happier.

And I don't know if that's just the kind of natural aging process or if that's a result of the antidepressants I'm on or what it is. But I'm happier than I've ever been and feel a sense of gratitude almost all the time when I stop to think about it, which is often, actually.

I do have a lot of responsibilities and I am responsible for a lot of other people's well-being either physically, emotionally, financially or what have you, but I'm OK with it. And I guess I like it. I mean, I guess I like having that on my shoulders. A lot of what I write about is, as we talked about earlier, masculinity, and not just the way a man, I think, presents himself to the world.

But what I'm learning about masculinity as I get older is a lot of the kind of male archetypes ring true to me. The idea of the man shouldering the burden and doing it willfully, that rings true to me. I feel like it gives me purpose and it gives me optimism in a way. It inspires me both because I want to do right by the people who depend on me and also because I'm terrified that I won't.

And so I'm inspired to do things professionally that maybe I wouldn't otherwise - you know, if I didn't have these burdens. And that has - that's been great for me. It's been great to have the responsibility of other people because it forces me to engage with the world in a way that I might not.

GROSS: What do you turn to to prevent yourself from going crazy when you think, like, oh my gosh, it's just too much?

BLACK: You know, I haven't found a good way to do it other than to trust myself that when I'm feeling overburdened and overmatched by the world and terrified about the future that it will pass, that that feeling will pass. And also there's - this is going to sound flippant, but it's really not - I have a kind of resignation in terms of everything which is like, you know, what's the worst that's going to happen?

You know, like, we're going to lose our house and we end up in an apartment? OK. You know, that would be fine. The financial stuff often scares me the most, but in a certain way it's the least of it. Like, there's nothing that's going to happen me financially that I won't be able to handle.

There are things I can imagine that could happen that I wouldn't be able to handle, like the loss of a child or the loss of my wife, but, you know, I hope that I never have to deal with anything remotely approaching that. You know, and obviously the, like, looming loss of my mother is something that is often on my mind.

That is a source of constant anxiety. It's a little buzzing that's always in my head. And, you know, when the phone rings and it's from her, my first thought is always oh, is she in the hospital again? Oh, is there something wrong? You know, and if it's late enough at night, it's - did she die? You know, it's scary. That is scary.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned - what's the worst thing that can happen? You can lose your house. You'll move into an apartment. Do you plan on losing your house?

BLACK: I don't plan on it, but it feels like it's going to happen at any moment. We just built a house. We bought some land and we built a house, and it was such a great thing to do and such a mistake financially. It was such a disaster financially. But, Terry...


BLACK: ...And this is an exclusive that I haven't mentioned to anybody - we're getting a hot tub.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: And so once that goes in, all worries will melt away.

GROSS: What made you decide to do that?

BLACK: I don't know, it's sort of out of character. I just like hot tubs. Even though I feel like they're cesspools for germs and maybe malaria, I just like them and my wife likes them, so we're getting a hot tub.

GROSS: (Laughter) So are you beating yourself up that you built this house from scratch, hired an architect, and now you're in over your head?

BLACK: Oh God, it's all I do is beat myself up about the house. I mean, it's a nice house. It's not an extraordinary house. It's a nice house. But yeah, it was so stupid. Terry, it was so stupid. Do you want to buy a house?


GROSS: My guest is Michael Ian Black. His new memoir is called "Navel Gazing." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We were talking earlier about, you know, the whole masculine thing - trying different ways to being masculine and trying to figure out - what does it mean to be a boy or a man? And people assumed you were gay. So how do you think that affected your comedy when you were starting out - and you were introducing yourself for the first time to audiences?

BLACK: I was exporting it in a certain sense. One of the very first things I did when I was on a show called "The State," which was a sketch comedy show on MTV, was I wrote a character called the On-Air Personality, which was this very kind of, you know, gross, flamboyant self-obsessed, like, basic cable television celebrity, which is kind of an oxymoron.

And he acted in a way that was sort of, like, a slightly exaggerated version of the way I acted, you know. He was - well, flamboyant, I guess, is the best word. He wore Versace shirts and he just sort of, you know, narcissistic and, like, sort of pansexual and whatever. I think I just sort of carried over that idea that I built for myself from high school - this sort of protective shell of - there's nothing you can say about me, in terms of my sexuality, that's going to hurt me. I'm going to sort of show you this sort of, I don't know, magnified version of my sexuality that will make me immune from your criticism.

And so I exploited it - and it wasn't until, I don't know, years later that I was even aware that I was doing this. Like, all of that was very kind of subconscious. I wasn't purposely trying to subvert masculinity. It wasn't until, really, that I started writing this book, I think, that it really dawned on me that I'd been doing that - my entire life. And in recognizing it, I feel like it's really helped me settle into my own skin and made me much more comfortable expressing myself however I want to express myself without drawing attention to it.

GROSS: Do you think...

BLACK: Like right now...

GROSS: Yeah.

BLACK: ...I'm wearing a leather thong.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: Like, you can't see me because we're in different studios, but I am greased up and wearing a leather thong.

GROSS: Good for you (laughter).

So you know, when you're in show business, age is a demographic issue too.

BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, you know, some people might think at a certain age, you outgrow the demographic that they're looking for and therefore...

BLACK: Right.

GROSS: ...You don't matter anymore. Have you...

BLACK: Well, that's when - that's when you sort of move into the NPR world, you see.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: I started on MTV.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: And then I was popular on VH1 - briefly. And now I'm moving into NPR.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: It's all very calculated.

GROSS: I can see that.

So I want to ask you some questions about your father. You wrote about the death of your father in your first book.

BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: And you did a reading from that on "This American Life."

BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: That was a few years ago. Your father died when you were 12. Apparently, he was the victim of an assailant, and he was taken to the hospital. What he died of wasn't from his injuries. It was from an allergic reaction to medicine he was given.

BLACK: Well, that is - that's the story that I wrote about and believed up until fairly recently. And I think it's still largely true. There is a question of whether he was assaulted or whether he had, like, a stroke or something.


BLACK: And there's a question about what actually killed him in my mind, whether it was an allergic reaction to a medicine or whether it was actually a venous thromboembolism, which I have found that I am at risk for, that my aunt is at risk for and there seems to be a family history of. It's never been entirely clear to me how he died, how he even ended up in the hospital. But yeah, it's always been somewhat of a mystery to me.

GROSS: What reopened this and made you think differently?

BLACK: My aunt almost dying. She had a pain in her leg which is the first symptom of it - ignored it for a little while, eventually went to the hospital. They told her you could've died from this, and you might want to tell your kids to get tested. And she told her daughters and us - my brother and I. I got tested. I have it. And I think she said that her brother - my dad - had been complaining about a pain in his leg shortly before he died. And I think...


BLACK: ...It makes sense that that's what killed him.

GROSS: Must be odd to be rewriting the story of your father's death years after it happened.

BLACK: Yes. It is odd. It is odd to sort of reshuffle what I thought was a fairly fixed biography - and to re-evaluate it. And as I said, I'm still not entirely...

GROSS: Right.

BLACK: ...Clear. And I haven't, like, looked at medical records or anything like that. And the result, of course, is the same. But it is, yeah, strange to revisit that all these years later.

GROSS: So what is this thing that you test positive for?

BLACK: It's just a mutation. I'm...

GROSS: Like a genetic mutation?

BLACK: Yeah. I'm susceptible to venous thromboembolisms, which are just - you know, clots. I could get a clot. So I just take a baby aspirin everyday, and that's supposed to reduce the risk of it.

GROSS: So you were 12 when your father died?

BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your understanding of death?

BLACK: At that age, I definitely understood it in a literal sense. I understood that, you know, losing my father meant losing my father. He wasn't coming back. I did not understand it emotionally at all. I did not have the maturity to deal with it in any kind of constructive way. I really shut down for years - emotionally.

That shutting down absolutely led to the creative stifling that I felt years later. That was the end result - was sealing myself in a kind of - in my comedy - a kind of hermetic shell and really feeling the walls caving in on me and feeling like I needed to break free from it. And I don't think it's a coincidence that as I started doing that is when I started writing about my life and, in particular, my dad.

GROSS: Right.

BLACK: In conjunction with that, I was also extremely emotional as a child. Supersensitive - you know, would cry, you know, at any moment and realized that I couldn't keep living my life like that because, just socially, it was a disaster. And so when I was in eighth grade, I was about 12 because as I said, I skipped a grade. And that was about the time my dad died.

And just everything shut down for me because I couldn't keep behaving the way I was behaving, which is to say weeping constantly (laughter), and I couldn't deal with my dad's death - so I just shut down and didn't recover from that until my 30s.

GROSS: Now we were talking earlier about how you tried different ways of being masculine because the kind of traditional ways of being masculine just didn't work for you. It wasn't you. Crying is - boys are not supposed to cry.

BLACK: Right.

GROSS: So was that one of the things that you felt...

BLACK: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

BLACK: Absolutely. I mean, it just - it was a deliberate moment in my life where I said stop. You have to stop doing this.

GROSS: Yeah, but it's hard to - you know, crying is such a kind of involuntary response. It's hard to tell yourself to stop.

BLACK: And yet, I think I was so desperate to not call attention to myself that I was able to do it. I was able to just turn off the spigot.

GROSS: Do you ever cry as an adult?

BLACK: No, not really. And I feel bad about that. I wish I was able to cry.

GROSS: Because it shows how heartless you really are?

BLACK: (Laughter) You're attacking me in a very vulnerable place right now, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BLACK: And I don't know why you would do that. I don't know if you're trying to make me try crying your show...

GROSS: Yes. Yes, definitely. But you know - but it's interesting when it's not there anymore - when the thing that was, like, embarrassing because you'd cried a lot, just - like, it's not...

BLACK: You know what's interesting? - is I often - every once in a while, I have dreams where I'm weeping uncontrollably - just copious weeping and weeping and weeping and weeping and weeping, not about anything in particular that I can recall. I just know that I'm weeping in these dreams. And you know, it's like the sad version of a nocturnal emission or something.

GROSS: (Laughter) And when you wake up, how do you feel?

BLACK: I feel - I actually - I wake up sad. I wake up sad that I'm not able to quite access that place that I know needs accessing, you know.

GROSS: Right. Michael Ian Black, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

BLACK: Thank you, Terry, so much.

GROSS: Michael Ian Black's new memoir is called "Navel Gazing." His new standup comedy special called "Michael Ian Black: Noted Expert" debuts on Epix May 13. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Batman V Superman."

This is FRESH AIR.

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