Far-out comic to land at Guilford

by Amy Kingsley

When describing himself as a stand-up comic, Michael Ian Black sticks to the basics.

“How would I describe myself as a stand-up comedian?” he asks. “Well, about five-ten, one hundred and fifty pounds.”

That description glosses over the fact that for the past decade Black has earned a reputation as the show-business equivalent to an Olympic decathlete. He’s been in front of and behind the scenes, on both big and small screens, contributed the odd essay to literary magazine McSweeney’s and even earned a reputation on the professional poker circuit.

To some he is best known as one-third of the absurdist comedy troupe Stella, which Comedy Central marketed last summer as a zany update on the Marx Brothers. And others recognize Black from his recurring role as a snarky pop-culture pundit on VH1’s “I Love the (insert late 20th century decade here)” series.

Something he isn’t as well known for, but will be bringing to Guilford College next week, is his stand-up. Whether his routine falls closer to his sketch comedy or commentary is something that Black doesn’t reveal, but one thing he does guarantee is this: “It’ll be fucking hilarious.”

Black started doing stand-up about a year and a half ago and has performed solo some two dozen times, mostly at colleges.

“I’m new to the game,” he says.

But as new as he might be to stand-up, Black’s show-biz résumé stretches back more than a decade, to the early 1990s when MTV started producing comedy shows. He was a writer and cast member on “The State,” a show that ran for three seasons before being picked up and unceremoniously dropped by CBS. “Stella” formed from the ashes of that show, teaming Black with fellow ex-cast members David Wain and Michael Showalter.

In addition to TV, Black has made his mark on the silver screen in 2001’s summer camp farce Wet Hot American Summer and The Baxter which came out last year. The films were directed by his “Stella” cohorts, the former helmed by Wain and the latter by Showalter.

Black recently made his directorial debut with a film called The Pleasure of Your Company, which he describes as “a trifle.” The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago and is slated to open in the United States next spring. He also authored another script titled Run, Fat Boy, Run that’s in pre-production and set to be directed by David Schwimmer.

“[Directing] came as a natural extension of writing,” Black says. “When you create a script, it’s kind of a tragic thing to hand it off to Ross from ‘Friends,'” he says. “I mean he’s a good guy, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I wrote it.”

Besides the movies, Black is developing two TV series, one called “Outer Space” which spoofs 1970s sci-fi television and another titled “Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand,” all of which will be going on while Black tries to get his Boy Scout Eagle ranking.

“It’s a hard time to be a Cub Scout,” he says. “I’m in my thirties.”

All of this activity is enabled by the fact that the series that most recently made him famous are on hold indefinitely. Comedy Central did not renew “Stella” after its first season, which was recently released on DVD.

“Comedy Central loves the show but it was an expensive show and nobody fucking watched it,” Black says. “So their hands were sort of tied.”

“Stella,” which filled the slot previously held by “Chapelle’s Show,” proved a bit too far out for most of the audience.

“[Stella] definitely goes against the grain and some critics just hated it,” he said. “But there were some people who just keyed into the show.”

VH1 for its part has run out of decades.

“I’ve run out of things to say about decades,” Black says. “The format is dead at the moment.”

“Stella” is on hiatus, but may reappear as a touring act or on Comedy Central. Those diehards who’ve been waiting for a “State” reunion will get a semblance of one in the upcoming David Wain movie The Ten which will feature all the cast members playing roles in stories inspired by the ten commandments.

As for Friday, Black describes his plans for the performance somewhat cryptically.

“It’ll be a night of stand-up comedy,” he says. “I’m not saying it’ll be good stand-up, that’ll be for you to decide. But it might very well be filthy.”

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