Tonight is a big night for Michael and Michael. 20-plus years into their prolific careers in television and stand-up comedy, Comedy Central will give the first season of their series Michael and Michael Have Issues a second spin to see if they can gain new viewers for the show, which initially ran in the summer. After all the duo has done for the network, and for comedy in general, they have yet to break out as mainstream names. It is an interesting phenomenon of comedy how some fans, myself included, can be absolutely obsessed with an act that others have never heard of. Comedy Central is out to make sure the world knows Michael and Michael.
Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are two thirds of the troupe known as Stella, the third member being director David Wain. The three began in an NYU-based group called The State who had a three-season series on MTV. Most of the members are now familiar to viewers of their new show, Reno 911 and other various films. Michael, Michael and David went on to create the classic Wet Hot American Summer and then the TV series Stella. Michael Ian Black’s biggest role was becoming a regular on Vh1’s I love the…series, for which he constantly reminds people he is “very famous.”
Now, however, Michael and Michael are in a very different place. They are taking a break from their partner David Wain, who recently directed the smash hit Role Models with Paul Rudd. Instead, the two have created their own series MMHI. Michael Black describes MMHI as an attempt to do something more believable and relatable than previous efforts. “Stella is a very absurd, surreal and raw show,” Black said. “MMHI is more grounded and situational. With Stella a lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing, so we tried to identify for ourselves why people didn’t get it, and we took steps to make [MMHI] more accessible.” Showalter added that “not everyone found what we were doing to be that funny, which is problematic when you’re a comedian.”
By the end of season one of MMHI, there was a consensus amongst reviewers that the show was “good, not great,” or as the Los Angeles Times put it, “consistently amusing in a low-boil way while rarely breaking into brilliance.” I would say this is a little unfair — the show did in fact have moments of brilliance. However, only a handful of episodes stood out. The network likes the show enough to give it a full encore run, which could possibly determine the fate of the series. “[Comedy Central] is claiming that this has nothing to do with [picking the show up for a new season],” Showalter said. “They are re-airing it because they like it and want more people to see it, but obviously since we haven’t been picked up yet, you get the feeling that there may be a correlation.”
It would seem that Michael and Michael are stuck in the battle between art and ratings that is a sad part of the reality of television. They made the show they wanted to make, Stella, and found a small audience who loved it and a large audience that felt excluded. MMHI followed up with broader but less emphatic approval. Meanwhile, Comedy Central is creating new shows for comedians like Jeff Dunham with a tamer comedy style but greater (blue-collar) appeal. “They want to be a comedy network for everybody, and a lot of people like that stuff,” Black said.
There are networks out there that would accept shows for more narrow audiences. Adult Swim, for example, runs shows that earn only 10,000 or so viewers, and can afford to do so with shows like Family Guy to pad the bill. When I asked Michael and Michael if they would ever produce a show for Adult Swim, Showalter said “absolutely” while Black said “not really.” “Michael Black would if they paid him his fee,” Showalter joked.
It seems the next steps for Michael and Michael will be dependent on the renewal of this show, for which they are already writing scripts. When I asked if they were feeling positive at this point in time, Black said they were “optimistic, viridiscent and omniscent.”
“What do you want us to say, that we’re miserable?” Showalter said. Hard to say. While the two scoffed at the question, the evidence indicates otherwise. Black’s last posts on his personal blog share that their live tour, “is not going well. For the first time in our moderately illustrious careers, we’re having attendance problems.”
More recently, Black discussed his chronic depression, and how he feels “less like an artist and more like a hustler,” and that “ideally, [he] would like to just disappear for a while.” On the phone, Showalter told me (in an ambiguously serious tone) that he is entering his “recluse phase.”
“I’m trying to move to the countryside–like farm country,” he said.
While things are certainly up in the air for the Michaels, their past indicates that they have the resilience to pull through almost anything. Despite a long list of short-lived projects, the two have been performing together for most of their lives and have taken on more work across more media than any other comedians. Whether they find their new big hit or a home for their beloved cult-of-personality, I have faith that these two will continue keep us laughing.
The encore run of Michael and Michael Have Issues begins tonight at 8:30 central.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that The State ran on Comedy Central. It actual ran on MTV. Thanks to commenter Cecil Porter.