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Despite his many complaints, comic doing something right

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TORONTO -- Comedian, actor and author Michael Ian Black's recent memoir You're Not Doing it Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations was notable in large part for its unblinking honesty.

So it's not necessarily surprising to hear the 41-year-old respond to a casual query -- "What have you been up to recently?" -- with unexpectedly blunt candour.

"I was working on a TV pilot for ABC that died an inglorious death," he responds in a recent telephone interview from his Connecticut home.

The show was to be based on his memoir, written by and starring Black and produced by Ben Stiller's production company.

He reports the news of the project's demise almost off-handedly, as if it were as inevitable as the weather.

"Look, that's been the story of my career: one inglorious death after another," he adds.

As is usually the case with Black, it's not entirely clear to what degree he might be joking.

Since getting his start as a founding member of the influential MTV sketch comedy series The State, Black has been a part of several TV and film projects that only found passionate audiences when it was too late.

He had a role in David Wain's uproarious 2001 camp-movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer alongside such future stars as Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (whose character shared a memorable sex scene with Black's). The film grossed a paltry $295,000 before becoming a beloved cult comedy years later.

A similar fate found his clever 2005 comedy series Stella, which he co-created with frequent collaborators Wain and Michael Showalter. The critically approved show was cancelled after 10 episodes, but the troupe's live performances remain a draw.

And his next show, Michael & Michael Have Issues -- in which he and Showalter played themselves as narcissistic, perpetually feuding man-children -- followed the same pattern: acclaim and a short shelf life. (It lasted seven episodes).

While Black finds gratification in the fact that dedicated fanbases have eventually gathered around these projects, it's typically been too late to keep them alive.

"It's obviously frustrating. Because when you make something, you want it to find an audience, and you want people to reward you with riches," he deadpans.

"But I guess it's better that they find it at some point than not at all."

The response to his memoir has been something totally different.

Although frequently hilarious, the book is also a clear-eyed examination of Black's life.

While his rocky childhood might provide the headline-grabbing bedrock to a lesser memoir -- his parents split when his mother came out as lesbian, his father died when Black was 12 from complications caused by a mysterious assault, and the gains from a lengthy malpractice suit that followed set up a trust fund for his sister, who has Down syndrome -- Black seems determined to wring as little sympathy as possible from his personal trials.

Most of the book finds him discussing the challenges of fatherhood and marriage with persistently disarming honesty, free of the typical hacky tropes often trotted out by comics.

He examines the darkest corners of his nearly 15-year marriage -- the resentment, fights and insecurity that led them to try counselling -- in stark terms.

"I think people who bought it were somewhat surprised at its tone. Because I wrote another book that was just a collection of stupid essays -- truly, truly stupid stuff," he said, referring to his essay compendium My Custom Van.

"While I think this book has its share of humour, it's also got a lot of -- I hesitate to use the word pathos, because that's a pretentious word, but I don't know another word for it."

For someone who has built a career on irony and irreverence, it was certainly a departure

Of course, despite Black's studious self-deprecation, things aren't really going that badly for him.

On the witty The Bachelor spoof Burning Love (airing in Canada on E!), Black portrays glib host Bill Trundle. The series is gaining fans in real time rather than in hindsight, and has reeled in an impressive array of A-list guest stars including Jennifer Aniston, Kristen Bell and Michael Cera.

He's a force on Twitter, where his more than 1.88 million followers hang on droll missives such as these:

"People who claim to be their own harshest critic have never been on the Internet."

"If you're making lemonade because life gave you lemons, it also implies life gave you sugar, which destroys the metaphor."

"My wife just made me put the fitted sheet on the bed by myself so I guess we are going back to couples counselling."

He's not sure how the large Twitter following has affected his career, although he says there must be some benefit in flexing his comedic muscles.

"It's like going to the gym and just doing reps," he said. "Not that I go to the gym or do reps. But if I did go to the gym, it would be like that."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 11, 2013 D5

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