From its title on through, Michael Ian Black’s new stand-up special, Noted Expert, sees the prolific comic, actor, and author ply his signature trade as go-to practitioner of smarmy assholery. All the way back to his days on The State, Black has carefully crafted an image of himself as a self-important show-biz phony, whose unctuous, shark-grinned, twinkle-eyed condescension carries within it a visible core of sweaty terror at how insignificant he actually is. When, in the skit that opens the special, Black strides to the camera and announces, “Hi, I’m noted expert, Michael Ian Black,” only to fail miserably at his stated task of frolicking with adorable puppies to show how lovable he is (“Get this butter off my face!”), his self-aware schtick announces itself once again. Black is the bombastic ringmaster to the spectacle of his own humiliation.
That might be a tough act to sustain for an hour, but Black’s been playing variations on the same role for more than 20 years, both as an in-demand character actor and a stand-up. Poking fun at his show-business niche as sardonic sidekick, he imagines telling someone about his role on The Jim Gaffigan Show and immediately being asked, “Oh, which gay character do you play, Michael?” Noting that he’s been out of stand-up for more than a year, Black blames the hiatus on “my day job, which is getting television shows cancelled.” (“I need this,” he implores the crowd after later slipping in the sitcom’s broadcast information.) The theme of Black’s comedy is that Michael Ian Black’s persona is a tough sell, a fact no one knows better than Black himself.
Which isn’t to say that Black is sad about it. Indeed, a core element of his comedy is that, while he cops to his presumed awfulness, he’s also laying claim to being the smartest guy in the room. It’s an ever-shifting comic construct of artifice on top of earnestness (and vice versa) that is always in danger of tipping into off-putting smugness—but which Black keeps rescuing with self-awareness. If that doesn’t sound riotously funny, fair enough. Noted Expert will do nothing to win over anyone already tired of Black’s beaming, often booming, style. But it’s also prime Black, a confident, consistently amusing, and challenging hour-long battle of comedy and anti-comedy.
Black’s dug into his roles as husband and father at length in his genuinely thoughtful, often moving (and funny) memoirs, and here he covers the expected ground with a similarly shifty perspective. While there’s nothing especially promising about “my wife’s a nag” or “my kids are assholes” jokes in and of themselves, Black filters the material through his “I’m a self-involved dick” persona with enough expert snap to shake the dust off them: “I have two kids, and they’re whatever,” he begins one bit, the expected buildup petering out with evocative economy. After drinking in the applause that he knows he’ll get for announcing he’s been married for 17 years, Black, in full show-biz patter mode, rattles off, “How do you keep your marriage so strong in spite of all your personal and professional failings? It’s a great question…”
When he plays to the crowd, Black engages it in a two-handed game of self-aware showmanship. When he introduces the topic of abortion with the deliberately hacky defense that it’s “a very fertile topic for comedy,” he accepts the groans with a smirk, basks in the audience’s appreciation for his awareness that it’s a hacky joke, bows, then repeats the entire sequence a second time. That’s Black in a nutshell—he’s up there as the butt of his own joke, while acknowledging that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and reveling in audience response that’s ironic, then genuine, then ironic again. Anyone who follows Black’s Twitter feed knows he’s not shy about sincerely (if comedically) going all in on issues he cares about. Here, when he touches on political topics, he defuses them by reverting to his dickish persona while still managing to leave a trace of conviction. “I’m a proud feminist,” he begins, to audience applause, before following it up with, “that’s why I let my wife work.” It’s expertly cynical showmanship that’s divisive by design.
When Black does slow down for a few longer anecdotes (one about a disastrous trip to the amusement park with his son, another about being pulled over and arrested in New York), his storyteller vibe admits a bit more humanity without abandoning his anti-comic shell entirely. In a story about him and his wife building their house in Connecticut, Black starts of deliberately offensive (“Not us, we hired ethnics to build it”), doubles down by mocking the audience (“It’s not a fancy house—I mean it’s fancy compared to what you poors are used to”), then skirts right up to the edge of heartbreaking. Referring to the idea that the act of building a house is like building a dream of the future, he enumerates all the inevitable losses and disappointments that come with it. Like the off-the-cuff bit of able crowd work Black does at the start of the police story, he loosens up on the reins a little, a change of pace that looks good on him. Fielding audience members’ admissions of their own legal run-ins, Black is obviously tickled and weaves his usual teasing put-downs throughout with a sense of playful inventiveness. It’s about as human as Michael Ian Black allows himself to be, without abandoning “Michael Ian Black” entirely.