Michael Ian Black Wants You to Rethink Masculinity

We caught up with the actor/comedian about his book "A Better Man"

July 6, 2022 7:04 am
Michael Ian Black
Michael Ian Black
Martha Hagen-Black

Michael Ian Black’s book A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son begins and ends with mass shootings — the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and the 2018 Parkland shooting that inspired him try to figure out why the perpetrators of these horrific crimes are almost always boys, and the 2019 shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that took place as he was penning its closing chapters.

Since A Better Man, which was recently released in paperback, first came out, there has of course been a seemingly endless stream of similar shootings, in schools and grocery stores and nightclubs and hospitals and places of worship. When we caught up with Black to chat about the book, the nation was still reeling from the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead. Now, a few weeks later, we’re mourning another one, and it seems fair to assume that it won’t be long before the next young man with too-easy access to a military-grade weapon commits a horrific act of violence. There has been endless debate over the root causes of these shootings, but it’s painfully obvious that as Black pointed out in a 2018 New York Times op-ed, the boys are not all right.

If that all sounds bleak, that’s because it is. But despite being, as its title warns, “mostly serious,” A Better Man is written with the same charm we’ve come to expect from the comedian, writer and actor whose credits include The State, Wet Hot American Summer, Stella and VH1’s I Love the… series. Formatted as a letter to his college-bound son, it offers advice and raises questions about modern manhood, and it features some surprisingly personal revelations from Black about his own relationship with his late father and the ways “anger and withdrawal” informed his early work. It’s a must-read if you’re currently raising a son, but even if you’re not a parent, it’s an excellent jumping-off point for reevaluating what exactly it means to be a man.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

InsideHook: A Better Man is bookended by mass shootings, and as we’ve seen recently in Buffalo and Uvalde, it’s an issue that remains relevant as ever. [Ed note: This conversation took place several weeks before a gunman killed six people and injured 36 others at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, IL.] These tragedies keep happening. Is there any reason at all to feel hopeful that this is something that can one day be solved?

Michael Ian Black: No. [pause] Well, I’ll be a little bit less glib. In the short-term, no. In the medium-term, no. Long-term, maybe. It’s not going anywhere any time soon because there does not seem to be any political will to address the problem. And it’s not just mass shootings, it’s the day-to-day gun violence that plagues us. It is the toddler who shoots their parent. It is the person who is feeling upset and takes the gun and kills themselves. It is the domestic violence. These are the more sort of common day-to-day gun violence problems that we have. The mass shootings, while horrible, are still, statistically speaking, rare. And they will continue to happen along with the rest of it.

Your book is written as a letter to your son. What would your advice be to dads who want to start having conversations with their sons about the ways traditional masculinity can be harmful but maybe don’t know where to begin?

I would say the conversation itself is probably less important than modeling the behavior and attitudes that you want the conversation to accomplish because you can sit down and talk to your kid about an abstract notion like masculinity and it won’t mean that much to them. But if they’re seeing you behave in the way that you want them to behave day-to-day, week-to-week, year to year, that I think will be a lot more constructive.

I’m curious, what has the response to the book been like from women?

Yeah, for better or for worse, I feel like women have probably read this book more than men, and they are appreciative. There have been books about this topic before of course, but a lot of them are written by women. And it makes sense. Women have to deal with men in a way that is different than the way men have to deal with themselves. Because we still live in a male-dominated culture, women have had to learn how to navigate the world of men in a way that men haven’t had to learn to deal to navigate the world of women. That is actually changing somewhat, and part of the reason I think so many men are so angry is that they’re being forced out of their comfort zone culturally to accommodate not just the rising influence and power of women as a whole, but for white men, it has to deal with the rising influence and power of other cultures in our country. Just the changing demographics. And a lot of white dudes in particular don’t love that.

Speaking of that, one of the parts of the book that I thought was really interesting was when you talk about the push for more diversity in comedy and how that’s sort of angered a lot of white male comics or writers who feel like they’re being pushed out. But how do you think that relates to comics who embrace the idea of “cancel culture,” thinking that PC culture is running amok and people are out to get them or cancel them? Do you find that those two issues are related?

They probably are. As more diverse voices enter the fray, what ends up happening is those voices are naturally gonna speak up and say, “Hey, wait a second, when you called me this word, this slur, that’s deeply offensive to me.” And when those people are in a position of power and authority, that is a lot different than when they’re on the outside looking in. And so, yeah, of course it’s gonna affect people feeling canceled or whatever. The whole notion of cancellation is so stupid anyway, because we’ve seen that it doesn’t happen. I mean at worst you might get put in timeout for a minute. You may have to work your way a bit back in and work to rebuild your reputation, or you could go the other way and just sort of embrace, “Hey, I’m the canceled guy.” And you’re gonna find that there’s an audience who wants to hear from you. It’s not to say there aren’t consequences for misbehavior — of course there are and there should continue to be — but the idea that people are like literally being like blackballed is just not true.

Michael Ian Black and his son Elijah
Courtesy of Michael Ian Black

You mention in the book that with your own work, you had to kind of break through the sarcastic persona that you had cultivated after you realized that it was connected to this sort of traditional masculinity. Was there a specific moment that made you realize that?

It was after the birth of my son, my first child. I just sort of felt like I was portraying myself publicly differently than the person that I wanted to be privately. I was increasingly portraying a character that no longer felt true, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. I wasn’t comfortable with presenting myself as one thing and being another, and more than that, I wasn’t comfortable because I wanted to be something different. I wanted to be somebody who was emotionally available for my children and my partner. I wanted to be somebody who was responsive and empathetic and compassionate and to do that, I had to jettison this character that I was playing. It’s not like that character was ever like really fully me — it wasn’t — but it was close enough that it was troubling me.

You explain in the book that you don’t like to use the term “toxic masculinity” because it implies that something that is inherent to you is toxic. Is there a term you prefer to use to refer to that sort of antiquated, problematic form of masculinity?

No, I mean, I don’t think there’s a better term at the moment. I think rather than replace the term toxic masculinity, I’d like to figure out what a healthy masculinity is and have terms that can contrast with that, and I don’t think we really have a good definition of a healthy masculinity right now. We have ideas about what it is, but your ideas might vary from mine, and that’s okay. But because the term is so amorphous, because we don’t really have a clear-eyed sense of what modern manhood is, it’s hard to know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about masculinity.

There’s one point in the book where you’re talking about how men are encouraged to pursue professions and/or crafts rather than a general state of happiness, and you talk about wanting to be an actor and a comedian. But I thought it was interesting that you didn’t include writer in there even though you’ve obviously since become a writer. When did you realize you wanted to start writing books? And was that something that was always sort of an interest of yours?

Well, writing makes me miserable. Of course I’m not going to include it. [laughs] I always wrote, but never really thought of it as something that I did professionally, it always served something else. So originally, like when I was writing sketches for my sketch comedy troupe it was so that I could be in sketches, or I was writing a TV show so I could be in the TV show. It wasn’t an end in and of itself. I sort of had a fantasy in my head that one day I would write a book but I thought, “Oh, I can’t do that because I’m not trained and I’m not smart enough, and writers are brilliant people and that will just never happen.” But I kind of held onto the idea, and then eventually an editor asked me if I would write a book for them and for their publishing company. I said okay, but the only thing I could write at that time was a collection of just funny essays ’cause it felt like that felt like an easy sort of first step, and so that’s what I did. And then the next book was a little bit more put-together, and the next book was a little more put-together than that, and now this book. And I still don’t feel particularly qualified as a writer. I mean I have only the most tenuous sense of grammar. I don’t know how to organize my thoughts. And I remain less brilliant than I feel like most of the writers that I know.

Speaking of writing, I recently put together a list of the best father-son movies for Father’s Day, and it kept reminding me of your book because I realized that so many of them are centered around father-son relationships that are extremely fraught, or where the father is this distant, standoff-ish figure. Why do you think father-son relationships have that stereotype attached to them rather than father-daughter relationships?

For two reasons. The first is that men are just generally less emotionally available to other men, even their own sons. The second, is that a lot of fathers, I think, feel like their job, particularly with their sons, is to toughen them and prepare them for a hard world. And so if you show them that tender side, they may feel subconsciously that it’s doing them a disservice because they’re leaving them too exposed. There is a way, I think, to look at that kind of toughness, that male fatherly toughness, as a form of love. It may feel less kind than like traditionally maternal love, but I think for a lot of fathers, they express their love through those hard lessons that they’re teaching. Do you have Field of Dreams on there?

I do, yeah. I think that’s probably the classic example.

He literally built a whole baseball field so that he could see his dad.

You’ve had to deal with a lot of awful online trolls, especially whenever you tweet anything about gun control. I feel like that’s pretty closely related to toxic masculinity as well. Do you find that they’re mostly men?

It’s hard to know, but I would guess they’re entirely men.

What do you think it is about that sort of traditional masculinity that motivates people to become a troll?

It’s hard to know. I think this is something relatively new, or at least it’s expressing itself in a new way. The whole kind of “fuck your feelings” crowd where to admit caring about something, if you care about something, it’s almost like by definition, you’re on the wrong side of the issue because you are allowing a human reaction to affect your cognitive abilities when talking about something. And so if you say you’re outraged by the Uvalde shooting, you’re somehow a cuck because you’re letting this one-time event that may even be a false flag affect your logic that guns keep people safe. It’s a weird new phenomenon that seems to exist only online really. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who behaves in real life that way. Martin Shkreli might come close. He seems like that kind of dude.

It’s almost like because you’re behind a keyboard and not face-to-face with someone, you have that extra freedom to just be openly terrible to them.

I understand it gives people a sense of power. And I understand that a lot of times it’s a projection. A lot of times you’re expressing your own fears in an aggressive way. You can’t handle somebody else’s content. I don’t know, it’s a weird phenomenon that I don’t really understand.

Sort of a broad question, but —

We call them women now. I don’t like that at all.

[laughs] Obviously on a macro level, it’s fathers modeling better behavior. But specifically related to pop culture, how do we fix masculinity? Is it changing the way we depict men in movies and TV shows?

I don’t know. One of the central hypotheses in my book is that for the last half-century, we’ve been having cultural conversations about what it means to be a woman, and the result of that is we’ve seen incredible advancements in not only the way that the culture thinks of women, but the way women think of themselves and the way that they have just done incredibly well in the culture in that time and made enormous strides. And it’s time to have that same conversation about men. And in fact, it’s that conversation about women that has necessitated this conversation about men, because once we sort of redefine womanhood, expand it and make it more all-encompassing, then we have to do the same for men. And that’s my only prescriptive at the moment, just start the conversation. Start the conversation about what it means to be a man.

In the interest of keeping the conversation going, have you given any thought to writing a follow-up to A Better Man?

I haven’t. One of the reasons I was reluctant to write this book to begin with is because I’m much more comfortable in the observer role than in the activist role, and I don’t wanna be an activist. I don’t wanna lead anything. I don’t have that kind of courage; I don’t have that kind of energy, enthusiasm, discipline or diligence. So like I’m not prepared to be the spokesperson for anything or get on my soapbox any more than I already do. I just want to take naps.

That’s fair. I think we could all use a nap. Well, outside of the book, you’re gonna be in a movie coming up called Spinning Gold. What can you tell me about that?

It’s the story of Neil Bogart, who founded Casablanca Records in the ’70s. His son put the movie together, wrote it, directed it, it’s a real passion project of his, and Casablanca Records was the label that launched the careers of KISS and Donna Summer, and a bunch of other really great acts. And I’m in the movie, I play KISS’s manager. He was a pretty cool character on his own.

Beyond that, I know you’ve got standup dates coming up, but what’s next for you?

I’m unemployed, and it seems like I will always be unemployed. [laughs]

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.