Michael Ian Black revives podcast with celeb guests to support Redding library

Comedian, actor and author Michael Ian Black wasn’t the class clown growing up in suburban New Jersey.

“I always thought I was funny but I wouldn’t say my classmates agreed,” said Black, a Redding resident. “I did sort of funny and kind of offbeat things and felt I had something to contribute comedically, but I just didn’t know what the avenue would be.”

Black joined a student improv group while attending New York University and found his calling.

Three decades later he’s still at it, having appeared on television shows such as MTV’s “The State,” NBC’s “Ed” and TV Land’s “The Jim Gaffigan Show.” He’s been in movies, written film scripts, published 10 books, does stand-up comedy and been featured in TV advertisements.

Black also won $100,000 for charity in poker while playing on Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown.”

His career has been prolific in many fields. “I do have a fair amount of drive,” he said. “Some of it is creative, artistic drive and some of it is having a mortgage that I need to pay.”

Black, 48, is teaming up with the Mark Twain Library (MTL) in Redding to host four podcasts with well-known guests as a way to promote the library and help it raise money. The free podcasts are encore productions of his “How To Be Amazing” series that ran from 2015 to 2019 and are being made at the library.

The MTL serves as Redding’s public library but is owned by a nonprofit association, only receiving about half its operating costs from the town. The pandemic has impacted its regular fundraising activities.

The first guest on June 21 was Jane Lynch, the Emmy Award-winning actress and comedian known for her TV and film roles in “Glee,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Best in Show” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut’s interview was aired on June 28 with Grammy Award-winning director, producer and comedy writer Jeannie Gaffigan following on July 5 and author, doctor and alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra on July 12.

The podcasts will be available Sundays at 8 p.m. on YouTube through a link on the Mark Twain Library website. Later they will also be available as “How To Be Amazing” podcasts. Watchers are welcome to make MTL donations.

“We’ve got a good lineup of diverse people,” Black said.

Jen Wastrom, MTL development co-chair and trustee, said two of the library’s four main fundraisers already have been canceled due to the pandemic. Library officials reached out for assistance from Black, a longtime MTL booster.

Six years ago, he founded the library’s annual Pudd’nhead Festival as a way to tap into Twain’s humorist skills. He now emcees the event and helps attract high-profile honorees such as Ben Stiller, Seth Meyers, Paul Rudd and Jon Hamm.

“All are huge names and friends of Michael’s,” Wastrom said.

A fan of all libraries, Black said the MTL is particularly important because of its history — Twain helped start and fund the library in the early 1900s when living in Redding — and its role as a community hub in the small rural suburb.

During his career, Black has often been on the cutting edge in social media and podcasting. He had what’s been called the world’s first Twitter war with actor LeVar Burton in 2009, a friendly feud to attract followers, and did his first podcast back in 2010.

He does a lot of research before interviewing a guest on a show. “I drill down on things I find the most interesting or maybe haven’t been covered as well as other aspects of their lives,” he said.

In 2012, he co-wrote a book with Meghan McCain from “The View.” He’d met McCain, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, when she appeared on an E! Television pilot he hosted.

The two — political opposites in many ways — traveled across the country in a rented RV and chronicled what they observed.

“We found that Americans have more in common than you’d think,” he said. “Everyone pretty much wants the same thing — opportunity, security, to be left alone to raise a family. It’s just the way we choose to get there is so different.”

Black doesn’t think a similar book could be written today with the country’s current political divisiveness.

His ability to make a living has been upended by the pandemic. “Professionally, it’s been a disaster,” he said. “My industry has shut down.”

His income comes from doing stand-up, acting and writing; and writing has been the only option but it’s the least profitable.

While horrific to watch the pandemic’s impact, Black said, spending more time at home the past few months has actually been nice.

“My wife and I haven’t even contemplated filing for divorce, which wasn’t a given,” he said. “Our kids, for the most part, have been great because they don’t want to see us. We do see them at dinner time and the rest of the time they are following the quarantine.”

Black and his wife have two children, ages 19 and 17. They moved to Redding 17 years ago after a friend suggested looking at houses in the town. “We wanted more space and a better school system,” he said.

As for his high school hijinks, he and a buddy once started a club. It was called the Cheese-Its and Apple Jacks Club. They made posters and put them up around the school to attract members.

The club, of course, was fake. “To me, that was a good use of my time,” Black said. “And the rest of my life has basically been like that — doing slightly funny and weird things.”

For more information about Black’s fundraiser for the MTL, visit, marktwainlibrary.org.