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Michael Ian Black Is Back, All Right!

Ophira Eisenberg talks with comedian Michael Ian Black on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.
Mike Katzif
Ophira Eisenberg talks with comedian Michael Ian Black on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Among comedian, actor and author Michael Ian Black's weirdest accomplishments? Starting a joke feud — and ostensibly, the first "Twitter war" — with LeVar Burton, actor and host of the PBS children's series Reading Rainbow. "When LeVar Burton and I did that, it was all fun and games, and a desperate ploy to get followers," Black told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another, at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. "It wasn't the personal, vitriolic attacks that I engage in now on a daily basis."

It's this dry, deadpan wit that defines much of Black's career: 2005's Comedy Central series Stella; 2001's satirical Wet Hot American Summer; and his big break, the 1990s sketch comedy series The State.While Black still collaborates with his State castmates all these years later, the group didn't have an official celebration to mark their 30th anniversary. Instead, they went to Las Vegas for a member's 50th birthday. "You know what you do in Las Vegas when you're 50? You go to bed early," Black said. "I think I was in bed asleep at 9:45."

In recent years, Black has used his social media presence to advocate for political and social issues like gun control and the #MeToo movement. He said there's a natural relationship between comedy and activism. "None of it's deliberate, none of it's like, 'I'm going to speak out about this particular topic,'" Black said. "It's what every comedian does: You just speak out about the things that you care about."

Michael Ian Black appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.
Mike Katzif / NPR
Michael Ian Black appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Black has commented extensively on the effects of toxic masculinity — and people have been listening. His New York Times op-ed, "The Boys Are Not All Right," amassed more than 2,000 comments on the site; this fall, he's following that up with A Better Man: A Letter to My Son, a book addressed to his son on how to live life as a healthy, happy man. "It's hard work for guys to understand the s*** that we're constantly depositing all over the landscape," Black said. "And I'm specifically talking about white dudes."

Black isn't interested in changing masculinity as much as he is redefining and expanding it. "So much of masculinity is defined in very narrow slices, which erases so much of who we are," he said. "Even though men have these rich internal lives that are filled with every human emotion, the way we express that and the way we are forced to live that comes out through such a narrow opening that we don't know just how to live as fully human beings."

Black said it's this unadulterated expression of one's identity that fosters empathy. "When we acknowledge our full humanity, then it becomes easier to acknowledge everybody else's full humanity," he said. "What I hope will spread through this country and globally is a conversation that will make it easier for my kids and my kids' kids to grow up and feel freer to be who they are and to also be able to change as they age."

In addition to his activism, Black still finds time to work on new, unorthodox comedic projects. In his podcast Obscure,the comedian reads the entirety of Thomas Hardy's heavy novel Jude The Obscure while commenting on it along the way. "My inspiration was two-fold. One: unemployment," Black said. The second was his wife: A comparative literature major in college, she had saved the classic text for nearly 20 years and refused to let Black throw it away. Rather than watching the book continue to collect dust, Black thought reading and commenting on it in his trademark deadpan style had potential for a comedic podcast. "And I also thought, as I was thinking that, 'Oh, that's a terrible idea,'" Black joked. "It made me more excited to do it."

For his Ask Me Anotherchallenge, Black played a game of "Jude the Obscure Words," where the comedian had to correctly guess the definitions of obscure words from the titular book, including "dew-bit" and "lirruping hobbledehoy."


On the main takeaway of his podcast:

"Apparently there's some dude doing all of James Joyce in a similar manner, which sounds interminable. So I guess the takeaway is: At least it's not that?!"

On why he knows the word "mullion:"

"We built a mansion in Connecticut and we had to decide on mullions... millions of mullions. But we got it wrong, so we had a Mulligan on the mullions."

Heard on Michael Ian Black Is Back, All Right!

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