TORONTO – Comedian, actor and author Michael Ian Black’s recent memoir “You’re Not Doing it Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations” was notable in large part for its unblinking, unyielding honesty.
So it’s not necessarily surprising to hear the 41-year-old respond to a casual query — “what have you been up to recently?” — with unexpectedly blunt candour.
“I was working on a TV pilot for ABC that died an inglorious death,” he responds in a recent telephone interview from his Connecticut home.
The show was to be based on his memoir, written by and starring Black and produced by Ben Stiller’s production company.
He reports the news of the project’s demise almost off-handedly, as if it was as inevitable and routine as the weather.
“Look, that’s been the story of my career: one inglorious death after another,” he adds.
As is usually the case with Black, it’s not entirely clear to what degree he might be joking.
It’s a similar situation when he’s reminded of his upcoming performance at Randolph Theatre on Tuesday as part of the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival.
“This Tuesday?” he asks. “I need some jokes.”
Since getting his start as a founding member of the influential MTV sketch comedy series “The State,” Black has been a part of several TV and film projects that only found passionate audiences when it was too late.
He had a role in David Wain’s uproarious 2001 camp-movie spoof “Wet Hot American Summer” alongside such future stars as Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni and Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (whose character shared a memorable sex scene with Black’s). The film grossed a paltry $295,000 before becoming a beloved cult comedy years later.
A similar fate found his clever 2005 comedy series “Stella,” which he co-created with frequent collaborators Wain and Michael Showalter. The critically approved show was cancelled after 10 episodes, but the troupe’s live performances remain a draw.
And his next show, “Michael & Michael Have Issues” — in which he and Showalter played themselves as narcissistic, perpetually feuding man-children — followed the same pattern: acclaim and a short shelf life. (It lasted seven episodes).
While Black finds gratification in the fact that dedicated fanbases have eventually gathered around these projects, it’s typically been too late to keep them alive.
“It’s obviously frustrating. Because when you make something, you want it to find an audience, and you want people to reward you with riches,” he deadpans.
“But I guess it’s better that they find it at some point than not at all.”
The response to his memoir has been something totally different.
Although frequently hilarious, the book is also a clear-eyed examination of Black’s life.
While his rocky childhood might provide the headline-grabbing bedrock to a lesser memoir — his parents split when his mother came out as lesbian, his father died when Black was 12 from complications caused by a mysterious assault, and the gains from a lengthy malpractice suit that followed set up a trust fund for his sister, who has Down syndrome — Black seems determined to wring as little sympathy as possible from his personal trials.
Instead, most of the book finds Black discussing the challenges of fatherhood and marriage with persistently disarming honesty, free of the typical hacky tropes often trotted out by stand-up comics.
In one story, he explains how his anxiety over becoming a father combined with the radio thrumming a song by the cornball Florida post-grunge outfit Creed caused him to begin weeping in his car. In many others, he examines the darkest corners of his nearly 15-year marriage — the resentment, fights and insecurity that led them to try counselling — in starker terms than many would employ even in a conversation with a close friend.
“I think people who bought it were somewhat surprised at its tone. Because I wrote another book that was just a collection of stupid essays — truly, truly stupid stuff,” he said, referring to his essay compendium “My Custom Van.”
“While I think this book has its share of humour, it’s also got a lot of — I hesitate to use the word pathos, because that’s a pretentious word, but I don’t know another word for it.
“The goal was to be as honest about my feelings as I could be,” he added. “I wanted to write something pretty sincere. I wanted to be as snark-free as I could.”
For someone who has built a career on irony and irreverence, it was certainly a departure. Black acknowledges it was “kind of terrifying.”
It was important, then, that his wife, Martha, was fully onboard with the project.
“People who I’m close to who are in the book or mentioned in the book were really supportive of it,” he said. “My wife in particular. I say terrible (stuff) about her in the book, but ultimately it’s more or less a love letter to her and I think she recognized that.”
Of course, despite Black’s studious self-deprecation, things aren’t really going that badly for him.
On the witty “The Bachelor” spoof “Burning Love” (airing in Canada on E!), Black portrays glib host Bill Trundle. The series is gaining fans in real time rather than in hindsight, and has reeled in an impressive array of A-list guest stars including Jennifer Aniston, Ben Stiller, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell and Michael Cera.
He’s also a force on Twitter, where he’s amassed more than 1.88 million followers who hang on droll missives such as these:
“People who claim to be their own harshest critic have never been on the Internet.”
“If you’re making lemonade because life gave you lemons, it also implies life gave you sugar, which destroys the metaphor.”
“My wife just made me put the fitted sheet on the bed by myself so I guess we are going back to couples counselling.”
He’s not sure how the large Twitter following has affected his career beyond “keeping (his) name out there,” although he says there must be some benefit in flexing his comedic muscles.
“It’s like going to the gym and just doing reps,” he said. “Not that I go to the gym or do reps. But if I did go to the gym, it would be like that.”
Conjuring all those pithy dispatches can be enormously time-consuming, though.
“Keep in mind that I have a kind of addictive personality, so when I’m not working — which is like now — I can spend hours on Twitter,” said Black, who has also written several children’s books. “I’m always looking for a distraction to keep me from doing whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing.”
As a comic who frequently hopscotches around the line of good taste, he paid attention to the recent controversy over a tweet by satiric news source the Onion about nine-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.
Does he worry about a similar firestorm developing around something he writes?
“I don’t get offended by things, so it’s hard for me to know,” he said. “Sometimes you just don’t know where the line is, or you think something is fairly — if not innocuous, then so absurd that it’s not going to really upset people.
“I think they handled it the best that they could,” he added. “They felt like they needed to say something, so they did, and within an hour they were just posting more awful things. So good for them.”
Black has a different lifestyle than many in show business. For one thing, he lives far off the Tinseltown grid in a region of Connecticut he describes only as “woodsy.”
He says he didn’t want to raise his kids in New York or L.A., which he calls “a terrible place.”
“So I decided to sacrifice probably advancing my career for maintaining my soul and sanity,” he said.
By the way, he eventually follows up his grave pronouncement about the end of his TV series with a slightly more chipper outlook: “Like all things in showbiz, just because something’s dead, doesn’t mean it’s dead.”
OK. So, is he really as down on his career as he says he is?
“I’m dissatisfied, but that’s just the nature of, I think, humanity,” he replies.
“I’m a miserable human being. But on the flip side, I’m standing in a house that I bought with showbiz money, and I certainly never thought that would be possible. So I guess I don’t have that much to complain about.
“And drug money,” he adds belatedly. “I mean, it was a combination.”