July 21, 2008

Comedy’s Favorite Jerk Might Be a Comic Genius

By Christopher Schobert

Michael Ian Black is a jerk. There's no getting around it. Watch him as a talking head on one of VH1's "I Love --s," or a Sprite commercial, or any of the sundry programs or films he has appeared on: NBC's "Ed;" the cult classic, '80s-parodying "Wet Hot American Summer;" or MTV's dearly departed sketch comedy show "The State," a comic creation that, when name-checked along the likes of "Upright Citizens Brigade" or the piercing genius that was "Mr. Show," proves one's hipster comic credentials.

Black is the weasel, the creep, the beanpole smart-guy with a deadpan gaze that cannot be beat. In others words, a jerk.

But this is no bad thing to be, especially in a culture that has embraced mockery and humiliation to such a degree as ours, and following the consummate jerk-dom of icons like Denis Leary, Richard Belzer, Andy Kaufman, Lester Bangs and even early Chevy Chase (very early -- "SNL" early). Black should be proud to be a consummate jerk, and I'm sure he is -- this spirit of superiority bleeds through every page of his easily digestible collection of essays, perfectly titled "My Custom Van." (Subtitle: "And 50 Other Mind- Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face.")

It's hard to categorize Michael Ian Black's comedy, except to say that it is certainly not for all tastes, and often does not strike one as funny until the second or third approach. To wit, an essay titled "This Is How I Party," in which the author slowly, carefully mocks, well, every chain restaurant in the country, their denizens, their staff, etc. "This was my weekend: After work on Friday, I put on my Axe body spray and headed out to begin my warm-up foray into the dark heart of party. I started at T.G.I.F's. 'Party of one?' the hostess asked. 'Not for long,' I responded. -- The night was still young when I finished, so I drove over to Applebee's to see what was cooking over there. Turns out A LOT!"

Mean? Yes, for sure. Clever, simple comic writing? I think so. (Other establishments mentioned in the piece include Houlihan's, the Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, Olive Garden, Hooter's, IHOP, Dave and Buster's, Perkins, the Hard Rock Cafe and Chuck E. Cheese. So he is an equal-opportunity mocker; there are very few chains that escape un-mocked.)

Another personal favorite is "Testing the Infinite Monkey Probability Theorem." Here, Black contemplates that age-old theorem, "if you take an infinite number of monkeys and give them an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one of them will type out a perfect facsimile of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet.' " The essay takes the form of a logbook, as the author keeps track of the monkeys' progress (I've only included a few examples here):

"2:17 p.m. Bored. Very little typing. Tiny wrote a couple of haikus, but they were terrible.

"9:02 p.m. Binky and Tiny are wrestling (adorable). I sneak a look at their work. Binky has written a dirty limerick and what appears to be a passable translation of Cicero's 'In Vaticinium.' While I am impressed with the quality of the translation, this gets us nowhere closer to having a completed copy of 'Hamlet.' "

Disappointingly, there are some essays here that are just a bit too dumb, and a little beneath Black's talents.

My only regret in writing this is that some of the best material in "My Custom Van" is simply too "blue" to be mentioned here. In fact, I can't even hint at what I'm thinking of here, except to say that several pieces -- involving, um, what some tight-collared types might call "peculiar" forms of foreplay and lovemaking -- had me literally laughing out loud. Kudos to Michael Ian Black for bringing his raised-middle-finger wit to the page, and making it work.

Viva la jerk.

Christopher Schobert is a Buffalo freelance reviewer.


My Custom Van

By Michael Ian Black

Simon Spotlight Entertainment

240 pages, $23.95

Originally published by NEWS BOOK REVIEWER.

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