Michael Ian Black and the Art of Debate

As the 2016 presidential election quickly approaches, many people’s eyes are set on the debates. In timely fashion, Seeso is rolling out its own debate show, pitting two teams of comedians against each other to battle it out in front of a live audience over “the greatest arguments of all time.” You know, like Pie vs Cake. The six episode season of Debate Wars kicked off last week and features an A-list roster of debaters like Janeane Garofalo, Judah Friedlander, Gilbert Gottfried, Eugene Mirman, Aparna Nancherla, Todd Barry, Phoebe Robinson, and Dave Hill. Serving as moderator over Debate Wars is Michael Ian Black, who I talked to about the new show, the future of comedy consumption, and his early online content with Stella.

Other than being moderator, did you have any involvement in the inception and creation of the show?

Not really. The idea for it pre-existed. It was originally a show called Uptown Showdown, which they do live at Symphony Space in New York City. This is the television adaptation of that show. Uptown Showdown has been going on for several years. The essential concept is the same: funny people arguing seriously about humorous topics. This translation of it is a little more TV news-ish than Uptown Showdown.

Was the original format teams of two-on-two?

There were actually three comics per team in the live version, but the live version is over an hour long, so we had to get rid of something.

One of your roles as moderator is that you can interrupt, cut someone off, and use props and distractions, like bursting balloons, for instance.

Well, there are times when the debaters are either annoying me – maybe they haven’t gotten to their point quick enough, maybe they’re rambling – or maybe they say something that I find offensive. In those instances I have several means at my disposal to interrupt and disrupt their train of thought.

In the episode I watched I noticed that Jena Friedman, when starting off her speech, opened with a pun. She hardly got a word out when you stopped her with the equivalent of a hard no.

Right, I’m not interested in that. If that’s the game they’re bringing, that’s a game they’re going to lose, certainly.

There are elements of the show that obviously have to be prepared in advance: certain speeches, PowerPoint presentations, etc. For the performers on the show, how much advance notice do they have about their topics? Are they entrusted with the task of writing their arguments by themselves?

Oh yeah, it’s on them. They have to prepare the way any debater would need to prepare. They’re given their topic several days in advance and then it’s up to them to come up with the most compelling argument they can. Some debaters take their preparation more seriously than others and it shows. Isaac, it shows.

How much room is there for improvisation? I noticed that Judah Friedlander did something with a white board that seemed as if he was just making it up as he went.

In the second round they’re responding to what they heard in the first round in a rebuttal. Depending on how seriously they take the idea of rebuttal, they may or may not have a lot of stuff prepared. They don’t know what they’re going to hear, so a lot of it is improvised, particularly in that round. Also, in another round, I interrogate the debaters, which is largely improvised.

The show was picked up for six episodes. Are all of those shot and produced already?

All shot, all ready to go.

I watched the Pie vs Cake episode. What are some of the other topics you’ll be getting into in future episodes?

Old People vs Babies, Cats vs Dogs, and others. I don’t want to give away the whole season.

These debates are billed as “the greatest arguments of all time.” Has there been any consideration to choosing some subjects that might be a little more topical or buzzworthy?

These are timeless arguments.

What about social issues or politics?

We have an episode called “Nature vs Nurture,” which you could interpret any way you want. On the surface that could be a serious topic, but the comedians are very funny people and they make the debate funny.

This show will be on Seeso. A few years ago we published an article called “How Stella Kicked off the Internet Comedy Boom.” You’ve been doing comedy for so long, a lot of it very cutting-edge for its time. Do you feel that you and your peers, especially the people you worked with in Stella and The State, were trail blazers in terms of internet-based comedy content?

That’s not for me to say. I have no idea. We were just doing what we could. In the case of Stella, we were making things for a live show, then when it became possible to distribute them on the internet we did it. But there was certainly never the thought that we were doing anything particularly creative or innovative.

You were just being resourceful and pragmatic.

Yeah, it was more with an eye for touring. We made these things for the live show and we wanted to tour with Stella, but we didn’t know how to get the Stella sensibility out there. That’s basically what it was. And we are geniuses on top of that.

I talked to David Wain a couple of years ago as you guys were getting ready to do a reunion of The State at a comedy festival. He said that there’s never any reluctance on anyone’s part to work together, but that logistically it’s difficult with everyone’s schedules to get the entire cast together for a project. Is there any chance of the entire cast getting together for an upcoming project?

Not as a whole, but different permutations are always put together. We are always popping up in each other’s stuff, but to do something as The State remains very hard.

You’ve been around for the boom of new media outlets. You personally tread in several different areas of creative output. You write children’s books, you just had your own book come out earlier this year, you released a standup special recently, plus your ongoing work in film and television. Where do you see the future of comedy distribution and accessibility in the next 10 years?

I’m predicting an implant in the medulla oblongata. Which, by the way, Medulla Oblongata would make a really good name for a Paul Simon album.

So you’re predicting Singularity-based comedy.

Exactly. Singularity-based humor. The taste and intelligence of humor will be so great that only computers, specifically quantum computers, will understand it. Everything will be interconnected. We’ll be laughing, but we just won’t know why.

What else do you have coming up?

Another Period on Comedy Central is coming back for a third season. Wet Hot American Summer is coming back for a second season. In my immediate future I just ordered an ahi tuna Cobb salad with the dressing on the side.

Michael Ian Black and the Art of Debate