On Michael Ian Black's most recent stand-up special Very Famous, the comedian is wearing a freakishly shiny, nearly glowing suit. It's luminescent, brilliantly reflecting the bright lights of the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia as he simulates sky-diving and getting a rectal exam. The outfit is much flashier than the plain suit he wore as part of Stella, his comedy troupe with Michael Showalter and David Wain that went from the stage to a single-season television run on Comedy Central. And it's not as tacky as the velvet one he wore as Levon in a recurring sketch on The State, a grunge-era MTV show named for the 11-member troupe of the same name, without which we'd never have Stella, or Wet Hot American Summer, Reno 911, or untold other film and television projects.
We don't know what kind of suit, if any, Black will wear when he performs back-to-back shows at Theatre 99 on Sept. 10 while on his Black is White tour, named in reference to the fact that, yes, Black is white. It's hard to think of that cozy space above a bike shop calling for even business-casual attire. But despite Black's appearances on countless episodes of VH1's I Love the (insert decade here) and a co-starring role on NBC's Ed, he's not above the intimacy of our cherished local comedy club.
"I love little spaces. They're my favorite spaces to play, those tiny little intimate 100-feet, 150-feet theaters or sometimes just clubs where people are standing, where it's very immediate and it's very in-your-face on both sides. I'm in their faces and they're in mine," Black says. "There's something that happens when you get on a big stage and you separate from an audience physically. It takes more effort I think on both parties to cross that physical space, but when you're just there in a little room, it's great.
"I love doing stand up, either by myself or in collaboration," Black adds. "Stella was a live show before it was ever a TV show, and we used to perform in front of audiences every week. Doing that with them or doing that by myself, they're both really fun. I think for any comedian it's always most fun to be in front of an audience and to have that immediate reaction and get that dialogue going with an audience."
In one episode of The State, Black, with a fresher face and more prominent hairline, implored the audience for sex on behalf of the entire cast. That was almost 20 years ago. Now, a wife and two children later, on Very Famous, he talks about his kids' uncreative Halloween costumes and how he's too good-looking to have cancer even though there's blood in his stool. "I think for anybody who does this for a living, the objective is to do what's true for you in any given moment, and what's true for me in any given moment is where I am in my life," he says. "It would be silly to continue to act like I'm 24 or 25 when I'm not. I'm 26 now. Totally different."
Very Famous was also released as an album, though Black's Charleston show, and the other shows on the tour, will be nothing like it. Expect little repetition. "I'm in the process of trying to craft a new hour of comedy, so what the Charleston audience is going to see is somebody starting that process, or in the early stages of that process," he says. "I'm not going to be presenting a finished hour, a perfectly polished hour of comedy, and that can be a really great thing from an audience's point of view, because what you're seeing is really the creative process at work. There can also be nights where that just falls on its face, and in a way that can be a fun thing for an audience too." The audience itself will bring a lot to the show, although "it's impossible to know who's going to come, unless they all e-mail me personally, and then what I can do is I can arrange it like at a wedding where you do seating arrangements. I can do that."
But take heed, Charleston. "For whatever reason, my fan base is just not in the South. I don't know why that is, but it is," Black says, describing a geographical divide in comedy standards that seems to run along the Mason-Dixon Line. "Southern audiences, for whatever reason, don't seem to respond to my — our — sort of alternative voice as well as they respond to some other stuff. And you know alternative means Jew, right?"
Oh, Michael. Don't you know that the American Reform Judaism movement was founded in the Holy City's very own Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim?
Maybe that's something he can talk about during his sets. And when we spoke, he had no idea what he was going to be talking about. "When I say I don't know, I really don't know. I'm experimenting with a lot of stuff right now and what ends up in the show and what ends up out of the show, I have no idea at this point," he says. "And that makes it doubly compelling to come see, because then you're like, 'He doesn't even know what he's doing. This could be the greatest night of my life.' "