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07.14.09

TV's Funniest Frenemies

Jessi Klein writes for Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black’s new sketch show, Michael and Michael Have Issues—now, she talks to the Michaels about their petty quarrels, Kashi addiction, and delicious sandwiches.

I wish I was allowed to write a review for the new Comedy Central show premiering tonight at 10:30 ET, Michael and Michael Have Issues, but journalistic ethics prevent me from doing so. Full disclosure: For the last four months, I have been writing on this show, created by and starring longtime friends, collaborators, and comedy heroes Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter. I also have a small onscreen role as an uptight nerd, which for some mysterious reason the guys felt certain I could play. So obviously it would be inappropriate of me to write a straightforward review. Therefore, I’m gonna be honest and do the right thing: just tell you to watch the show anyway. Because (full disclosure again): I genuinely think it’s hilarious. Please understand, I promise you I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t mean it. I mean, over the years as a freelance writer I’ve worked on my share of stuff I wouldn’t breathe a word about to anyone. But this isn’t one of those shows. I want to breathe words about this to you.

Some brief history on the Michaels, if you’re not familiar: Black and Showalter have been working together for the better part of two decades, making their first big mark on the cult hit MTV sketch show The State, a show perceived by its rabid fans as a kind of comedic equivalent of The Clash. The projects they have worked on since then have only inspired more fervent devotion most notably with the summer-camp movie sendup Wet Hot American Summer, and the comedy trio Stella (co-starring former State member David Wain), which lived for years as a perpetually sold-out live show in NYC and for one season as an inspired, if somewhat abstract, television show (also on Comedy Central).  In the last few years, they’ve worked on a variety of endeavors apart, but once again, they’ve found themselves in cahoots on a TV show. And this is where we arrive at the “issues.”

When I asked Showalter to describe the show in the Hollywood parlance of “the show is blank meets blank,” he replied, only slightly kidding, “It’s Die Hard in a sketch-show office.” The show takes place behind the scenes of a sketch show starring two guys named Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, creative partners whose vanity and insecurity turn even the most petite of meaningless decisions into epic power grabs. The weapon of choice:  petty undermining. Black, when asked to describe the top three issues referenced in the show’s title, responded: “Pride. Jealousy. Gluttony.” The ongoing joke is that their volatile emotional tensions are detonated by such trivial minutiae as what to buy a coworker for his birthday or who will give an interview to an office intern writing for his college newspaper. Peppered throughout these escalating squabbles are sketches from the actual Michael and Michael show, among them a broadcast from a sport called Bunny Stomping and a documentary about a teen of precarious sexuality who’s amazingly successful at sticking to his abstinence pledge.

Black and Showalter confess to playing heightened versions of themselves. But the million-dollar question is, how much heightening—or how little lowering—is required to play these two backstabbing frenemies? I can report that the thoroughness of the yin-yang between their personalities is inherently amusing. Black is calm and quiet—more like a cat. Showalter is emotional and passionately verbal—more like a dog. Ironically, Black owns a dog. Ironically, Showalter owns several cats. Watching them brainstorm is like watching an intense tennis match: Jokes fly back and forth like long volleys, with the desire to top the other’s last laugh essentially becoming the match point.

The upshot: However you define it, the dynamic between these two is magnetically fun to watch, both onscreen and off. As to how they really feel about each other, I figured I’d let them speak themselves and asked them some probing questions. And then I threw in some other random queries that have been nagging me since we wrapped production.

JK: Sho, what quality do you most despise in Black?

MS: He’s a dick sometimes.

JK: What quality do you most love in Black?

MS: He’s got a good heart. [author’s note: aw…]

JK: Black, what quality do you most despise in Sho?

MIB: His stubborn refusal to believe that life originated by itself on Earth and was not transported via microbial life aboard a deep-space asteroid. To me, this smacks of provincialism.

JK: What quality do you most love in Sho?

MIB: His excellent taste in sneakers and child-like enthusiasm for his Kindle.

JK: Sho, how would you describe the issues between the two of you?

MS: He’s a family man; I’m a cat lover. He’s uptight; I’m a flake. He’s passive aggressive; I’ve got anger issues. He’s obsessed with his own celebrity; I do all the work.

JK: Black, do you possess any similarities other than your shared first name?

MIB: We’re both white, although his father is an Episcopalian so he’s more white than me. Also, we both like good gazpacho… He likes sandwiches far more than me, but it’s probably fair to say that we both enjoy a good sandwich… We both at times have shared an addiction to online poker.

[During production, Black’s morning mood seemed to change depending on the current amount of Kashi in his apartment. I asked him about this possible addiction.]

MIB: My love for and fascination with Kashi Go Lean Crunch actually began before production, but certainly escalated…when I needed something I could rely on to get me through those long desperate days. I knew that Kashi was always going to be there for me when I needed it most. Consistency is not something I normally crave, but fiber is.

[While Black was nibbling on Kashi to stay calm, Showalter, an admitted reality-show junkie, was unwinding with his weekly fix of Real Housewives of New Jersey.]

JK: Do you think Michael and Michael Have Issues has any chance at being as compelling as Real Housewives of New Jersey? I know it will be funnier, but can it possibly be more compelling?

MS: Real Housewives is compelling in the same way that watching a kid getting smacked on the street by his parents is compelling. Part of you wants to call the police; part of you just wants to stand there and watch; part of you wants to run away. Our show is compelling in the way that watching someone trip and fall on the sidewalk is compelling. Part of you wants to call an ambulance; part of you wants to run away; and part of you wants to crack up. Does that make any sense?

Readers, you decide. Watch the show tonight on Comedy Central at 10:30. For clips, blogs, behind the scenes photos and other musings from the Michaels, go here.

Jessi Klein is a writer and comedian who has frequently appeared on Comedy Central, CNN, VH1, and the Today show. She also likes to think she has value as a human being aside from her numerous credits in the entertainment industry.