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'Michael And Michael' Put Issues On The Table

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are creators and stars of Michael and Michael Have Issues — a series about two neurotic sketch-comedy writers who can't stand each other.

42:47

Other segments from the episode on July 15, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 15, 2009: Interview with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter; Commentary on the bluesman, Little Walter.

Transcript

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'Michael And Michael' Put Issues On The Table

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Tonight is the premiere of the new
Comedy Central series, “Michael and Michael Have Issues.” It was created
by and stars my guests, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter. They
play two comedy writers and performers who host a sketch comedy show.
They’re friends and competitors, they get on each other’s nerves, and
they have to work together every day.

The real Michael and Michal have a long creative history together,
dating back to a college comedy group, and they were in the Comedy
Central series, “Stella,” and the MTV sketch comedy series, “The State,”
which has just come out on DVD.

Let’s start with a scene from tonight’s premiere of “Michael and Michael
Have Issues.” Michael and Michael are at a writers meeting when their
intern, Greg, asks if could interview them both for his high school
paper. And, of course, Michael and Michael disagree on the answer.
Michael Ian Black talks first.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Michael and Michael Have Issues”)

Mr. MICHAEL IAN BLACK (Actor, Writer): Greg, I recently made a promise
to myself and to my therapist to start using the word no because I’m a
people pleaser, and people pleasers sometimes have kind of hard time
with that word. So, Greg: no.

Mr. MATT BENNETT (Actor): (as Greg) Cool. All right, so how about you,
Mr. Showalter?

Mr. MICHAEL SHOWALTER (Actor, Writer): No, we’re kind of a package deal.
So it’s either you interview us both, or neither of us. Right, Mike?

Mr. BLACK: Well, I’m not so sure.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I think that it would be best if we either did it
together or not at all.

Mr. BLACK: Well, I don’t know, we could…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I think probably we’ll maybe hold off on that

decision.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we don’t need to hold off.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I’m not sure.

Mr. BLACK: I’m pretty sure.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I think we’ll save this decision for a later date.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we can make the decision soon.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, we’ll figure it out at a later date.

Mr. BLACK: Well, we won’t, but we can move on.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Okay. Thanks, Greg.

MARTIN: That’s Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter from “Michael and
Michael Have Issues.” Welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the new
show. So is “Michael and Michael Have Issues” based on real issues that
you have with each other?

Mr. BLACK: Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment. We are, you know, very
tight, bestest friends for the last 20 years, and also fierce
competitors and, you know…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Adversaries.

Mr. BLACK: That’s a good one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why is that? Why do you like each other so much and yet have this
competitive streak? And what are you competing about, who’s in the
better movie, or who gets - who writes the funnier line?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah. Pretty much anything. Who’s better at Boggle.

Mr. BLACK: Well, that’s a huge one. Who’s better at poker.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Who’s better at poker. Who’s better at darts.

Mr. BLACK: Who’s better at Scrabble.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah, who’s better at ping pong.

Mr. BLACK: Who’s better at anything that there can be a winner at.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did you decide to come up with a show that’s based on this
friendship-competitive thing?

Mr. SHOWALTER: We, Mike and I, for the last few years, have been
traveling together a lot doing stand-up comedy. And when we’re
traveling, we sort of play a kind of – these sort of games with each
other where we tell the other person that we got a phone call, and then
other person asks who the phone call’s from and we sort of play it off
like it’s not a big deal but that it was a big director, and it’s not
that interesting. We don’t need to talk about.

And then the other person gets curious, like, oh, really, who was it?
And we just sort of enjoy passive-aggressive banter with each other. So
it sort of was something that we thought would be a good formula for a
show.

GROSS: So why - you know the expression schadenfreude, and I think in
Dave Itzkoff’s article about you in the New York Times. He used that
word, too. And schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the misfortunes of
others. It’s a German word for that.

So do you feel like you have that, too, that - and if so, like, Michael
Black, if Michael Showalter gets turned down on an audition, or if he
comes up with a line and everybody agrees that your line is funnier than
his, why do you feel good about that? Can you - it’s a commonly…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s a commonly felt feeling, I think, schadenfreude, but since
your show is, in part, about that, do your best to explain why that kind
of feeling exists.

Mr. BLACK: Well, the real-life Michael Ian Black does not take enormous
pleasure in the real-life Michael Showalter’s failures, and there have
been many failures on his part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Thanks, Mike.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: But in the very specific example of if everybody thinks
Michael Showalter’s line is funnier than my line, then yeah, I’m
enraged. I’m absolutely enraged, and he feels the same way.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think there’s just something very - to me personally,
there’s something very sort of almost frightening about people that are,
like, perfect and never do anything wrong and have no flaws. So…

Mr. BLACK: He’s describing me, thank you.

Mr. SHOWALTER: So there’s something about seeing someone who appears,
you know, invincible, to see them, you know, crumble in some ways
reminds you that they’re human.

GROSS: This reminds of something that, Michael Black, that you wrote.
That’s I think you probably original wrote it for McSweeney’s, and it’s

in your book, and the piece is called “Hey David Sedaris - Why Don’t You
Just Go Ahead and Suck It?”

Mr. BLACK: Yeah, that’s right.

GROSS: And you write: Geniuses are the worst. If you are at all like me,
you believe that geniuses were put on this each to rub your nose in the
stink of your own mediocrity.

Mr. BLACK: That’s exactly right. That’s not narcissistic, is it? To
think that other people think…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And I often really do feel that way, that other people’s
success is only there to remind me of my own failures.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right. It’s a personal affront to Michael Black.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, since you have a lot of disagreements…

Mr. BLACK: And incidentally, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that
way. I think many, many people feel that way.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think David Sedaris probably feels that way.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, that (Beep).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Michael.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, I can’t…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: It’s NPR. Things are, like, totally relaxed on NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: They don’t care.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now what are some of the characteristics you’ve each exaggerated
in yourself for the Michael that you play on TV?

Mr. BLACK: Well, I’d like to think that I’ve exaggerated a certain
pomposity, arrogance and egomania. Showalter may disagree that that is
an exaggeration.

Mr. SHOWALTER: No, I think that it’s an exaggeration, but it’s, you
know, there’s always a hint of truth in exaggeration.

Mr. BLACK: (Beep) me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: My character is actually quite similar in a lot - very
much my own character. He’s a little more impish than I am. The Michael
Showalter on the TV show is really flaky and sort of completely in his
own spaced-out world. And I think that I’m – I’d like to think that I am
a little bit more self-conscious than the character I play on the show.

Mr. BLACK: Well, yes, that is absolutely true.

GROSS: And by self-conscious, you mean self-aware?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Self-aware…

Mr. BLACK: To the point of self-obsessed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah, neurotic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now you guys are also in the MTV series, “The State,” which has
just come out on DVD, and that was a sketch comedy show. Describe how
you wanted “The State” to be different from other sketch comedy shows,
like “Saturday Night Live.”

Mr. BLACK: One of the things that we did very specifically is we wanted
our show to have more sketches on it. “Saturday Night Live” tends to
have very long sketches, and we wanted our show to have so many sketches
in it that if you didn’t like one sketch, there would be another sketch
coming up so fast that you couldn’t even have time to decide you didn’t
like the one that came before it.

So in a 22-minute show, we would have sometimes 13 or 14 actual segments
of different sketches.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Another thing that I think distinguished us or that we
did differently was we were very conscious of not doing the kind of
traditional sketch comedy sketches that “Saturday Night Live” was doing,
meaning, the kind of, like…

Mr. BLACK: Impersonations.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Impersonations, news parodies, recurring characters.

Mr. BLACK: Anything that was topical.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right. We were very - we really did not want to do
topical material because we felt like it had a very short shelf life and
because we felt like they were doing it better, and why compete with
them on their turf?

Mr. BLACK: So instead of ripping “SNL” off, we decided to rip off Monty
Python.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what’s one of the most famous sketches that came out of the
show?

Mr. BLACK: Well, one of Showalter’s famous sketches was a character
called Doug who was a sort of classic, rebellious teen who was rebelling
against his father. And his father turned out to be so much cooler than
Doug that the joke sort of folded back in on itself, and so - and Doug
had this kind of catchphrase, which I would encourage Showalter to do
right now.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, basically, you know, he would get so frustrated
because he’d be trying to test his father’s patience by, you know,
talking about that he was going to be having sex with his girlfriend,
and his father would say why don’t you bring her home so that you don’t
do it – you know, he was just tolerant of everything.

So he would just get frustrated, and they he’d go: I’m outta here. But
it’s been a long time since I’ve done it. So I’m sort of…

Mr. BLACK: And I specifically asked him to do it because I know he hates
doing it.

GROSS: Why don’t we hear that scene?

(Soundbite of TV show, “The State”)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, your mother and I think you’re on drugs.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Drugs? Hey, I’m Doug, man, not Bob Dylan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, do you even know who Bob Dylan is?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) No, but I know he died of drugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Doug, Bob Dylan’s alive and well. I produced his last
three albums.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Oh, you mean Uncle Robert?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) He didn’t die of drugs.

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, are these your cigarettes?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Yeah, and what if they are? Are you going to
send out to grandma’s house so that she can teach me pinochle and make
me bland?

Unidentified Man #1: No, can I bum one?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Oh yeah, sure. Go ahead. No, Doug, no. Like
bumming a smoke from Doug is going to make things copacetic ‘twixt me
and you. I’m Doug, and you’re dad. Teens and adults don’t mix. Forget
it, I’m outta here. I’m outta here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Doug, what is your problem?

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) I don’t have a problem. That’s my problem.
You’re too cool, dad, and it makes me sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: You want me to sell my hog and quit the Hell’s
Angels? Is that it, Doug?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Doug) Just do whatever, dad. I’m outta here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that’s a sketch featuring Michael Showalter, who also wrote
it, from the MTV series, “The State,” which has just come out on DVD.
Michael, did you experience that in your own family? I mean, your
parents are both university professors.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Your mother is actually pretty famous in the world of feminist
literary criticism.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah.

GROSS: So were your parents, like, too cool, very tolerant?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah, they really were. And it was frustrating because I
wanted to have, you know, I wanted to have stories to tell about how
difficult my childhood was. But the reality was, was that my parents
were just really cool, and so I actually really related to Doug.

You know, my parents had - they were young in the ‘60s, and they were a
part of that whole world, and so, I mean, what am I supposed to do? I
was a teenager in the ‘80s. It was sort of like a blowout.

GROSS: Well, here’s something I was wondering about. Like, your mother,
Elaine Showalter is a feminist literary theorist. She coined the term
gynocritic to apply to a critic who constructs a female framework for
the analysis of women’s literature. So you’re growing up with a mother
who’s a self-described gynocritic, and in the ‘80s, when you were
growing up, all teen comedy, you know, all the teen comedy movies are
just about getting girls into bed. And…

Mr. SHOWALTER: As opposed to now, where they’re about getting multiple
women into bed. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Exactly. So you have this enlightened, feminist, gynocritic
mother, growing up in this pop culture that’s all about getting girls
into bed. So how did you reconcile that, particularly wanting to go into
comedy yourself?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, it took me a long time to get in touch with my
inner chauvinist, was basically – it was basically the story of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: It was – you know, I have to say, looking back, it was
probably a little bit of an interesting upbringing to sit at the dinner
table every night with my mother and hear her thoughts on the world, of
which she has many. But she’s also just kind of a normal mom, which I am
grateful for.

GROSS: But did you look around at popular culture and say this is crude,
this is sexist, this isn’t right, women aren’t being treated fairly? Or
did you want to be the people in those movies?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I feel like the right answer is number one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You know, I think a little bit of both, honestly. I think
there were certain things that I think both my parents probably didn’t
like that I ultimately absorbed that, but then there was – you know, I
loved John Hughes movies and John Cusack, and I loved all those teen
movies. So it was a little bit of a conflict, I suppose, a conflict of
interest.

GROSS: My guests are Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, the
creators and stars of the Comedy Central series, “Michael and Michael
Have Issues,” which premieres tonight. We’ll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Michael Showalter and
Michael Ian Black, two comics, actors and writers who have a new series
on Comedy Central called “Michael and Michael Have Issues.”

Now something you’ve both done comedy about is not being the leading man
type, not being the really attractive type who would be very alluring to
women. And I want to play examples of that from each of you, starting,
Michael Black, with you. And this is a sketch from “The State.” And –
well, you’re on stage, Michael Black, with the whole cast of “The
State,” and you tell the audience that people think once you get a TV
show, it’s really easy to get girls to go to bed with you. But you say
that’s not true. Let’s pick it up from there.

(Soundbite of TV show, “The State”)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Which is why we’ve come with a great new idea: MTV’s
Sleep with “The State” Essay Contest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Well, actually, the fat-asses in the legal department won’t
let us call it a contest, so we’re calling it a concept: MTV’s Sleep
with “The State” Essay Concept.

It’s easy. You write to us, you tell us in 100 words or less why you
want to sleep with “The State.” We don’t care what you look like. We
don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl. We don’t even care if you’re
conscious. Chances are, Tom won’t be conscious, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: The only rule is you have to be alive and, well, Ben’s
flexible on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BLACK: Here’s a sample entry: Dear State, I want to sleep with “The
State.” Great, you win.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Here’s another one that’s just a phone number. Terrific. Less
work for us. What do you like for breakfast?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: Yeah? Yeah, go right ahead. You don’t have to be creative.
Hey, you don’t even have to write it. Have your friend write it. Is your
friend cute? It doesn’t matter because you’re beautiful, and nobody
understands you the way we do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: MTV’s Sleep with “The State” Essay Concept, because we’re not
getting any better-looking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love that sketch. Michael Black, how did you come up with it?

Mr. BLACK: I think it was more or less truth-telling, that I was
probably feeling like exactly what I said. When you think - when you
have a TV show, people think it’s really easy to get girls, and I
certainly didn’t find that to be the case.

So that’s how I came up with it. But it was also - it also spoke to
something larger, which was this idea that I was interested in that
continues to our new show, which is that I’ve always been interested in
the mythology that comedians create around themselves and the idea of
creating a kind of - presenting yourself as a real person and walking
the line between what’s true and what’s not true about that person’s
life.

And the reason I’m interested in that is because it’s what “Saturday
Night Live” used to do when it first started out, and I used to be
really interested in specifically John Belushi and what was real about
him and what wasn’t real about him.

As it turns out, all the jokes that they made about him, you know, being
a drug addict and everything were real, unfortunately. But that idea,
that idea of mythology, has always fascinated me.

GROSS: And Michael Showalter, you wrote and directed the film “The
Baxter,” and I want to play a scene from the opening of the movie. and
I’m going to ask you to set it up.

Mr. SHOWALTER: The movie “The Baxter,” a romantic comedy, sort of starts
at the ending of another, more mainstream romantic comedy that I’ve
imagined but that is sort of archetypal, where the leading lady is about
to get married to the wrong guy. And as an audience, we are wishing that
the leading man, played by Tom Hanks or whoever, would burst in the door
and sweep her off her feet at the last minute. And my movie sort of
starts at that moment, only stays with that poor, wrong guy who got left
at the altar.

GROSS: Okay, and this is the scene at the altar, from the opening of
“The Baxter.”

(Soundbite of film, “The Baxter”)

Ms. AUDRIE J. NEENAN (Actor): (As Pastor Pritchard) We are gathered here
today to bring these two people together in holy matrimony…

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Elliot Sherman) Just as you think she’s about to make
the biggest mistake of her life…

Ms. NEENAN: (As Pastor) …object to these two people being married,
please speak now or forever hold your peace.

Mr. JUSTIN THEROUX (Actor): (As Bradley Lake) Caroline.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Elliot) The leading man barges through the doors.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Caroline Swann) Bradley?

Mr. THEROUX: (As Bradley) I got on a plane and I flew all the way back
to Malta, but then I realized something.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (As Elliot) But did you ever wonder about the guy left at
the altar, the wrong guy? My grandmother had a word for those kinds of
guys - nice guys, old-fashioned guys, the kind of guys who wear sock
garters, guys who get hay fever, like, raking leaves, the kind of guy
you settle for because you can’t be with the one you love. She called
them Baxters. Well, I’m a Baxter, and this is my story.

GROSS: That’s Michael Showalter, from his movie, “The Baxter.” Did you
make up the expression, the Baxter?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I did. I did.

GROSS: From what? Why did you decide on Baxter as the name?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, I was trying to think of an old-fashioned word, but
- that implied a certain sort of awkwardness or nerdiness, uptightness.
And I thought of a bowler hat, and I thought of a Dexter, or a
Poindexter. And then I just thought the word Baxter. And it turns out,
it’s the last name of Jack Lemmon’s character in the movie, “The
Apartment,” which I actually didn’t know, but it just felt right. It
felt old-fashioned and sort of proper, but kind of like a nice,
memorable name.

GROSS: Do you feel like that kind of nice, old-fashioned guy with hay
fever?

Mr. SHOWALTER: No, I don’t. But going back to what you were saying about
schadenfreude, I think that that’s a great example of what I did - what
did sort of get me starter on this, with this movie and this idea, was
that I always really like the wrong-guy boyfriend more than the kind of
perfect leading man. And I think it’s because they’re flawed and they’re
human and they’re not - it’s their imperfection that makes them so
interesting to me. And so I sort of said, I’m sort of bored of the
Mr. Perfect Guy. Let’s see a movie where that schlub gets to be the
leading man.

GROSS: Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black will be back in the
second half of the show. Their new Comedy Central series, “Michael and
Michael Have Issues,” premieres tonight. I’m Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Michael Ian Black
and Michael Showalter, the creators and stars of the new Comedy Central
series "Michael and Michael Have Issues," which premieres tonight. They
play the writers and stars of a sketch-comedy show who are friends and
competitors and disagree over just about everything.

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter have a long history together.
They worked on the Comedy Central series "Stella" and the MTV sketch-
comedy series "The State."

So I think it's time to hear you both sing.

Mr. BLACK: Why?

GROSS: Well, because on "The State" there's a really funny sketch called
“Porcupine Racetrack."

Mr. BLACK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And again, "The State" is a sketch-comedy series on MTV that's
just come out on DVD, and this is just so much fun. It’s a kind of
parody of musicals, including musicals like "Guys and Dolls." I think
there's a little "My Fair Lady" or maybe "Hello Dolly" thrown in and…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Sure.

GROSS: …and a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish sounding stuff. And so in
the "Guys and Dolls"-ish part, you both sing. So I just want to play
that excerpt. It starts with Michael Ian Black, then there's a deep-
voiced person. I'm not sure whose voice that is, and then Michael
Showalter, you come in. So here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, “The State”)

Mr. BLACK: (Singing) Have I got a pick for you boys. This porcupine has
to win. Yeah. He's strong and fast and ready.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And loaded up with gin.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (Singing) I'm putting my dough on lightning, ‘cause it
says that he's a sure thing. And the odds are five to four. But boy I
hope that he's not slow or otherwise then this here Joe will be back on
Skid Row.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter in a sketch from
"The State," which is now on DVD.

So do you both like musical theater?

Mr. SHOWALTER: This is one of the things that's actually very different
between Mike and I, which is that I absolutely love it. And if I'm not
mistaken, you don't.

Mr. BLACK: Well, my feeling about musical theater is it’s tremendous fun
to perform and tremendous not fun to watch.

GROSS: I love musicals.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I love musicals and I'm not afraid to admit it.

GROSS: So Michael Showalter, you did a movie called "Wet Hot American
Summer" that's set in summer camp, and I know you went to summer camp.
Did you do camp musicals?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah.

GROSS: I think summer camp music productions are probably some of the
best musicals in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: We did - I did. I did "Bye Bye Birdie" my first year of
summer camp, and then I did "Oliver" my second year, and I played Fagin.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SHOWALTER: And I'm pretty sure I was the best 11-year-old Fagin…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …that has ever walked the Earth.

GROSS: Now, Michael Showalter, you were in a kind of comedy music band,
too?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Oh, sort of. My friends Zach Worth and I did a couple of
songs together for my comedy album, "Sandwiches and Cats," and we call
ourselves The Doilies. But I wouldn't so much say that we’re really an
active troop, if that's what you mean. Although I was in a rap group in
high school called The Disposable Rappers.

GROSS: And you did what in it?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I rapped.

GROSS: For example?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, we had a song called "Swiss Cheese Sandwich." I
could do some for you if you'd like.

GROSS: Please.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (Rapping) Swiss cheese sandwich. Swiss cheese sandwich.
First you take the Swiss cheese. The Swiss cheese is sure to please.
Then…

(Speaking) Do you really need me to continue?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No. It sounds more like a high school cheer…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah.

GROSS: …than hip hop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I see cheerleaders in the background.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: There's was one that went - my name's Mike Cool - my tag
name was Mike Cool.

(Rapping) My name's Mike Cool, don't wear it out and rap and fame is
what I'm all about. Born Michael (unintelligible) in the month of June.
Brain dead is my rap not "Brigadoon."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: So even got…

Mr. BLACK: "Brigadoon" in there.

Mr. SHOWALTER: …"Brigadoon" in there.

GROSS: Brilliant.

Mr. SHOWALTER: (Rapping) Fresh swell I'm kicking loud and hot. I got an
offer to rap at Julliard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Sort of went on from there.

GROSS: That's great. Michael Black, one of the things you’ve done is
commercials. And name some of the commercials you’ve done.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, dear. We go from his arty…

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. BLACK: …musical duos and alt-rapping to my whoring out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Precisely.

Mr. BLACK: I can…

Mr. SHOWALTER: But you have a much bigger house than I do and a nicer
car.

Mr. BLACK: That's true. But it's obvious who Terry favors, and I resent
it very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: I've done a bunch of commercials. I've done - I was the
Pets.com sock puppet. That was my sort of first big commercial campaign.
And Sierra Mist, and Allstate for a little while, and now I'm doing some
stuff for Klondike.

GROSS: Now, we have to talk about the Pets.com thing. You were the voice
of the Pets.com sock puppet.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: And Triumph, the insult comic dog, the sock puppet creation of
Robert Smigel, who is this kind of crude…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …insult comic dog, accused your sock puppet of stealing from him.

Mr. BLACK: Right.

GROSS: Actually accused Pets.com of stealing the whole idea of the dog
sock puppet from Triumph. And then Pets.com sued Triumph for…

Mr. BLACK: Defamation of character, essentially.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. So there were two sock puppets, Triumph and
your sock puppet basically suing each other more or less.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: What a bizarre situation to be in.

Mr. BLACK: And not, not and…

(Soundbite of sigh)

Mr. BLACK: …so sort of stupid from my point of view, because I was in
the camp of Triumph far more than us. I mean, you know, I'm never going
to, you know, side with the, you know, the corporate masters in any
creative dispute. I mean in fairness, I – no, I didn’t design the
character. I just sort of breathed life into it.

Mr. SHOWALTER: You put the sock on.

Mr. BLACK: I really put - I put the sock on in more ways than one. And I
never heard of Triumph when that - when the whole thing started. In
fact, I kept calling it Triumphs and they would say no it's Triumph,
it's Triumph, it's Triumph. So I sort of, I didn't feel at all guilty or
like I'd done anything wrong. And in fact I thought that it was actually
a very sort of smart and funny idea on his part to start, you know,
accusing the Pets.com sock puppet of ripping him off. It seemed like
exactly the right thing to do. And then when Pets.com started taking it
seriously, they literally had me hold a press conference as the sock
puppet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: It was one of the most like degrading things I've ever done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So were you visible or were you just like behind the puppet?

Mr. BLACK: No, I was like underneath a podium or something and my arm
would be up and I would be, you know, speaking to the press. And there
were press there about this ludicrous lawsuit that Pets.com had filed.

GROSS: So…

Mr. BLACK: And they went out of business probably about a week after
that.

GROSS: So what did you say to the press?

Mr. BLACK: Oh god. I don't even know. You know, they had me - you know,
it's hard when you're a corporate shill to go up against somebody who
can say what they want. You know, if you're Robert Smigel you can say
anything. But if you're a corporate shill like I was, then you have to
sort of tow the company line and say whatever they kind of want you to
say. So I don't know, I don’t know what I'd say. You know, are you
ripping off Triumph? And I'd be like - you know, and I’d say something
stupid like, you know, I think there's enough room in this world for all
kinds of puppets, insult puppets, commercial pitch puppets. You know,
that sort of thing.

GROSS: Oh, it's really amazing.

Mr. SHOWALTER: And was your soul still in your body when you did that or
was it - did you - where was your soul when that was going on?

Mr. BLACK: Well, what I do is, I just keep a locker at the Port
Authority bus station.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Oh, okay. Good.

Mr. BLACK: And I just put my soul in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Okay.

Mr. BLACK: And I just keep the key with me.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Okay. Oh, that's…

Mr. BLACK: So then I can just check it in and check it out whenever I
need to.

GROSS: Don't you think this is dying to be a sketch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: What it should probably be is an episode of our new show,
where I'm doing…

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. BLACK: …where I'm doing a sock puppet character.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I'm writing that down as we speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: What would be a very good episode of our show.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I'm writing that down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And Showalter can accuse you of selling out your soul.

Mr. BLACK: Of course. Well, he accuses me of doing that on a fairly
regular basis. But you know, I always get very resentful when people
talk about selling out because to me, as Showalter said, I have a house.
You know, I have a mortgage. I have kids, and the idea that, you know, I
would somehow remain above the fray of commerce and neglect to pay my
mortgage as a result of that to me it’s just ludicrous. I mean, you
know, doing commercials and doing things that generate income to me are
the reasons why I can go off and do Comedy Central, because you know,
Comedy Central isn’t paying us a fortune to do this, as evidenced by
Showalter's living conditions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guests are Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, the
creators and stars of the Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael
Have Issues," which premieres tonight.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, the co-
creators and stars of the Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael
Have Issues," which premieres tonight. They play the writers and stars

of a sketch-comedy show who are good friends and adversaries.

GROSS: Michael Black, can I ask you a kind of serious personal question?

Mr. BLACK: Sure.

GROSS: And if it's too personal, just tell me and I'll drop it. Michael,

I read that when you were young, that your father was like assaulted or
something and died after the attack?

Mr. BLACK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I think your parents were already separated by then?

Mr. BLACK: They were divorced. Yeah.

GROSS: That sounds really horrible. What happened?

Mr. BLACK: Well, he was taking graduate classes at Rutgers, and one
night, I'm still unclear what happened. But essentially the police found
him in his car suffering from a head wound. He was brought to the
hospital. He had surgery - brain surgery. He was recovering and then got
some sort of infection, was readmitted to the hospital, was given the
wrong medicine, and died. That is the, you know, sort of short story
version of it.

GROSS: That's so horrible. How did you mother explain to you what
happened? You were how old?

Mr. BLACK: I was 12.

GROSS: You were 12. Okay.

Mr. BLACK: And there's no good way to tell somebody that their parent
just died. You know, it was totally unexpected. My brother and I were in
our bedroom, we shared a bedroom, and she came in that morning and
basically just said it. I mean, she, you know, she was distraught and
kind of, I don't know if this is just my memory or if this is true, but
sort of did it from the ground, meaning she was sort of sitting or on
her knees or something. And you know, what I remember feeling more than
anything was the feeling like, oh god, I should probably cry or cry
right now, which I did.

But it was this feeling of total numbness, and not knowing how to react
and feeling totally paralyzed in that moment. Because my father, and my
brother and my sister and I were - my dad was not good with younger
kids, but we were getting to an age where he was really sort of starting
to relate to us and be able to communicate with us. And to lose him then
was, you know, it's something that you never fully recover from, I don't
think.

GROSS: And also to have that fear that somebody who you love, someone in
your own family can be assaulted and then on top of that be administered
the wrong medicine and that that would be deadly. I mean that could
leave you with a fear of just like being out in the world and a fear of
even being healed.

Mr. BLACK: You know, I think about my dad all the time. You know, and he
died, you know, over 20 years ago. And you know, in a small way, I don't
know if, I mean it's nice to carry him with me in that way. And I
recognize certain gestures that I make as an adult that my dad made, and
I feel like, you know, even though he's no longer here, I understand him
much more than I did certainly, you know, as a kid. But you know, my
knowledge of him stopped at the age of 12, and yet I feel like I retain
a lot of him.

GROSS: So you know, as a comic and as somebody I presume had a sense of
humor and was interested in comedy from a young age, did your father's
death have a chilling effect on your ability to be funny or to even care
about funny for a while?

Mr. BLACK: Well, as a young – when I - at that age, I mean I think I was
funny the way kids are funny, but I never thought that I was going to
have a career in comedy. It was not part of my, it’s not what I was
thinking I was going to be doing. So I don’t know that I was really
consciously trying to be funny. To me - and I think to a lot of
comedians - humor at that age is more of a coping mechanism than
anything else.

Now, what I was coping with, you know, I'm sure his death was part of
it. My own sort of social awkwardness was part of it. My own sort of not
fitting in was part of it. Puberty was part of it. Like there were many
things that sort of led me to comedy and I think his death was, you
know, probably led me more towards it than away from it.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. BLACK: As I said, because I think comedy for many, many people is a
coping mechanism, and you know, as a kid I was incredibly prone to just
bursts of emotion and tears and, you know, hypersensitivity. And I
realized that I couldn't live my life like that and I sort of started
sublimating that to the point where, you know, now it's, you know, hard
for me to express emotion, and comedy is an outlet for that.

GROSS: That's really funny, you know, because you're saying that you’re
kind of hypersensitive, and your comic persona is the opposite.

Mr. BLACK: Yeah.

GROSS: Is it fun to be that person who you play on TV?

Mr. BLACK: Well, it can be. I mean I don’t, you know, I think the word
snarky has often been applied to me in a way that makes me very
uncomfortable. Because I don’t think of myself as snarky, even though I
guess, you know, I probably come off that way. Because I still see
myself as this hypersensitive kid who, you know, everything touches and
everything, you know, you - I feel like, you know, I feel too much.

GROSS: Michael Showalter, as Michael Black’s, like, really good friend
and writing partner, do you see both sides?

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah. He’s - Mike’s - Mike can definitely I think, I
think you can be snarky.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, I - there’s no question that I can be.

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think you can be snarky, you can be smug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You can be a jerk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You can be jerk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: You can be a huge jerk…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …with very little effort.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you.

Mr. SHOWALTER: But Mike is a very, you know, I think Mike is a really
good person. And I think that’s the highest compliment you can pay
somebody.

Mr. BLACK: As good as a smug jerk can be.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Exactly. I think…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …Again, I sort of admire the smug jerk. Because, again,
it’s like, I like people who are rude. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …and sort of, you know…

Mr. BLACK: Off-putting.

Mr. SHOWALTER: …off-putting

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: And smell bad.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Because I’m the same way. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: No, I don’t like people who don’t smell good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACK: But honestly like people, we’ve already said it, people that
are like too nice or too kind of friendly or like, I - they freak me
out.

GROSS: Michael Showalter, in your comedy record you have one observation
I just want to ask you about. You describe - and I think everybody has
been through this - you describe being in a bath, in a public bathroom
and somebody else - the door’s locked, somebody’s trying to get in and
they’re kind of like jiggling the handle really hard, as if they can’t
believe somebody is in there, or they’re going to get in anyways, and
you holler out, somebody is in here.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you say, like, why not say: I’m in here. Why is it like…

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right. Why…

GROSS: …who’s the narrator of a novel or something?

(Soundbite in laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right, right. It’s the omniprescient(ph)…

GROSS: Somebody is in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Somebody is in here. Yes, me, I’m in here. I’m - so why
are you saying somebody, as if you’re an omniprescient voice?

GROSS: I have done that – somebody’s in here. I’m sure everybody has
done it, somebody is in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: Right.

GROSS: And I thought, how did you realize that that was a thing, you
know?

Mr. SHOWALTER: I think because I did it, you know, because I found
myself doing it. And I think it’s also sort of like it’s a panic moment
too…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHOWALTER: …not just somebody’s in here. It’s sort of like the world
is falling, you know, you’re in this, you’re naked and exposed and
you’re true nature as an animal is at risk and you’re like freaking out,
you know. Someone’s in here. Yeah, you. You.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. It’s really
been fun and interesting. Thank you.

Mr. SHOWALTER: Well, thank you.

Mr. BLACK: Thank you Terry. This has been great for us.

Mr. SHOWALTER: It really has.

GROSS: Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are the co-creators and
stars of the new Comedy Central series, “Michael and Michael Have
Issues.” It premiers tonight. Their MTV sketch comedy series from the
‘90s, “The State,” has just come out on DVD. Coming up, Ed Ward profiles
blues musician Little Walter, a new box set collects his recordings for
the Chess label. This is FRESH AIR.
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A Treasure Trove From A Harmonica Master

TERRY GROSS, host:

The harmonica found its way into blues because it was cheap. You could
buy a good one in the 1930s for a quarter. But, although blues musicians
discovered all kinds of tricks with the instrument, it didn't become a
vehicle for virtuosity until Little Walter, one of Chicago's greatest
blues man, showed what you could do with it. In celebration of a five-
disc collection of his complete recordings for Chess newly released by
Hip-O Select, rock historian Ed Ward tells Little Walter’s story.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD: Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, Louisiana, sometime
between 1928 and 1930, and was raised by his music-loving father in
Alexandria. By the time he was eight, the boy was playing harmonica, and
he put his first band together when he was 11. In 1943, he went to live
in New Orleans, and after playing on the street there, he knew that this
what he wanted to do, and hit the road. He met a lot of blues musicians,
and many of them had the same goal, to go to Chicago, where the real
money was. Two years later, Walter got there, and by 1946 he was
headlining at the Purple Cat Lounge.

Like many of the freelance blues players, Walter hung out on Maxwell
Street, whose legendary flea market was a kind of musical employment
agency. He recorded for a tiny record label with Jimmy Rogers, a
guitarist he met there, and Rogers told his friend Muddy Waters that he
had met a great harmonica player. By 1950, Walter was in Muddy's band,
and recorded his first solo, "Evans Shuffle," that October at one of
Muddy's recording sessions.

(Soundbite of song, “Evans Shuffle”)

WARD: For some reason, Chess didn't want to record the band Muddy used
in nightclubs, but in 1951, they relented, and Walter was able to record
with amplification. His ability to play hornlike lines, distorted by a
cheap microphone, intertwining with Muddy's slide guitar, was one of the
defining pieces of the Muddy Waters’ band's sound. And finally, in some
time left over at one of Muddy's sessions in May 1952, Walter, backed by
Muddy and Jimmy Rogers, got to record a tune, which he did in one take.

(Soundbite of song, “Juke”)

WARD: “Juke,” as it was titled, put Walter upfront and shot to the top
of the R&B charts, where it sat for weeks. It was the best-selling
record Chess had ever had - the only harmonica instrumental ever to top
the charts. Walter took the opportunity to walk out on Muddy mid-tour,
go back to Chicago and steal Junior Wells’s band. They headed into the
studio in October, recorded three instrumentals and one vocal in 20
minutes, and scored a double-sided top-10 hit with “Sad Hours,” the
instrumental going to number two, and a T-Bone Walker song, “Mean Old
World,” to number six.

(Soundbite of song, “Mean Old World”)

Mr. WALTER JACOBS (Musician): (Singing) This is a mean old world, try to
livin’ by yourself. This is a mean old world try livin’ by yourself.
Can’t get the one you love and have to use somebody else.

WARD: Walter was unstoppable. By the end of 1953, he’d became Chess’s
most successful artist, eclipsing even his old boss, Muddy Waters. When
his guitarist, Louis Meyers, quit because he felt Walter had treated him
badly and was cooking the books, Walter grabbed Robert Junior Lockwood,
who’d learned guitar from Robert Johnson. And when Meyers’ brother Dave
quit, Lockwood brought in the 18-year-old prodigy Luther Tucker. The new
band started 1955 off in the studio with a song Willie Dixon, fresh from
a gospel session, brought them. A few changes and it wasn’t the old
gospel number “This Train Anymore.”

(Soundbite of song, “My Babe”)

Mr. JACOBS: (Singing) My baby don’t stand no cheatin’, my babe. Oh yeah
she don’t stand no cheatin’, my babe. Oh yeah she don’t stand no
cheatin’. She don’t stand none of that midnight creepin’. My babe, true
little baby, my babe. My babe, I know she…

WARD: “My Babe” was Walter’s second number one hit, and the one that’s
been covered the most. Melodic and peppy, it was different from what
most Chicago blues artists were recording, and this helped Walter at the
beginning of the Rock N Roll era. Suddenly, Chess was selling loads of
records by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and Walter’s sound was slightly
old-fashioned. He did manage one more top 10 hit, “Who,” in 1956. That
was the end of the hits. Part of it was changing times, part of it was
that Walter’s personality was catching up to him. Lockwood left his band
and tales of drinking and fighting began to circulate. In 1958, a woman
shot Walter in the leg, which caused him to limp for the rest of his
life. He played on some Muddy Waters sessions. And in 1959, on a session
enlivened by Otis Spann’s piano playing, he recorded his last hit,
“Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.”

(Soundbite of song, “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right”)

Mr. JACOBS: (Singing) I say, ev’rything goin’ to be alright. I say yeah,
ev’rything goin’ to be alright. When we get together, baby, we can make
love, can’t we? Come on, baby…

WARD: It only got to 25, but that was pretty remarkable. Walter’s last
years were sad. In 1964, he attempted to crack England, but the local
blues fans were put off by his behavior. His voice deteriorated - on one
of the studio tapes, someone can be heard saying: Don’t sing, Walter,
because if you do, we’re ruined. Walter replies with a sad, all right.
He toured Europe in 1967 with the American Folk Blues Festival tour and
by some accounts had stopped drinking. But on the night of February
15th, 1968, he got into a fight in Chicago, during which he was hit in
the head. He went to bed with a headache and never woke up.

You can’t hear blues harmonica these days without hearing Little Walter,
and his records continue to amaze people. But like the old blues song
says, bad luck and trouble followed him all of his days.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. He reviewed “Little Walter:
The Complete Chess Masters, 1950-1967” released by Hip-O Select.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.

I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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