Inside the Podcast Studio: How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black

On this month’s edition of Inside the Podcast Studio, we turn the tables on Michael Ian Black and his producers, Mary Shimkin and Jennie Brennan, to get the scoop behind their podcast, How to Be Amazing. Learn about how the show was conceived, memorable guest moments and, of course, Michael’s own Fav 5.

On the Podcast

Tell us how the podcast came to beHow to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black
Michael Ian Black: I wish I could take credit for this idea but I cannot. Although I had done some interviewing in the past, and had fantasized about having an interview show, I really didn’t take any steps towards that goal until Jennifer and Mary approached me with their idea of creating an NPR-type show, with me as host. We batted around some ideas about what the focus should be and ultimately decided to concentrate on process: why people do what they do. We don’t stick to that exclusively, because we also want to get to know our guests on a more personal level, but that remains the show’s central conceit.

Where do you find stories or guests for the show?
Michael Ian Black: I do almost nothing other than make occasional suggestions to Mary and Jen who rarely do the bulk of the booking.

Mary/Jennie: We try hard to mix things up- pop culture people, journalists, academics, athletes, etc. Once we have a hit list we just ask, and ask, and ask, and ask until we get a final “Never gonna happen so quit bugging us.” We’ve been very lucky to have our guests so far, and that is in no small part due to Michael’s name and reputation. We have too many favorite guests to pick one. I know, a cop out, but true.

We love the ‘Fav 5’ section at the end of each episode. How did you come up with that? What are the most memorable answers you’ve gotten?

Michael Ian Black with Tavi Gavinson
Michael with Tavi Gavinson

Michael: From the very first episode, I wanted to have a signature moment at the end that revealed something new about the guests, something they probably hadn’t discussed during the interview, and something they might not have answered in other interviews. Plus, I thought it would be a good way for listeners to connect in a more personal way with the guests: it might give them something to check out they hadn’t heard of before. As far as answers, Elizabeth Gilbert’s food recommendation of “bone broth” sticks out, as does Daniel Kahneman’s “not Mexican.” A lot of people recommend meditation and somebody—and I’m blanking on who—recommended getting a humidifier.

How do you think the podcast can complement other parts of Michael’s career, like acting gigs and books he writes?
Mary/Jennie: One of the things that was apparent from the get-go was what a great interviewer Michael is. He in genuinely interested in every person he talks to, wants to delve deep and isn’t afraid to ask “those” questions, but in a very respectful manner. We already knew he was a good writer, his introductions for each guest have been terrific. I think both of these show a side of him that surprised many people.

Michael Ian Black with David Sedaris
Michael with David Sedaris

How do you find a balance between humor and seriousness? How does Michael manage to pull such personal facts out of people, like David Sedaris’ income?
Mary/Jennie: So many big moments come around the half way point in the sessions, I think it’s because the guests feel relaxed and safe by that point. Michael isn’t a “gotcha” interviewer and because he is such a good listener and asks great questions, there is a level of intimacy that happens in the booth. It’s like a great first date, it just seems natural to reveal such personal info.

Michael: Right from the beginning, we discussed the tone of the show falling smack dab in between “Fresh Air” and Marc Maron’s “WTF,” an earnest show with moments of humor. I try to keep things light, but when I see opportunities to ask tough and serious questions, I try to do that. With Sedaris, it was a matter of turning the table on him. He’d just finished talking about how people are willing to tell him highly personal information during his signings—like how much money they make—and I wanted to see if he would answer such a personal question himself. I honestly didn’t expect him to.

Tell us about your show and what makes it unique? Why are you so passionate about your subject matter?
Michael: Look, there’s a lot of interview shows out there and we don’t pretend to do anything new. What we’re trying to do is draw from a large pool of professions and life experiences to give a much broader look into creativity, motivation, and persistence. It would be one thing for me to exclusively interview people in show business, and it would be easy, but I hope the listeners appreciate that we are as likely to have a statistician or astronomer on the show as a comedian or actor.

I’m trying to get at the common core that drives people to do the things they do in the hopes that listeners will recognize their own passions and set off on—or encourage them to continue on—their own creative path.

Michael Ian Black with Bob Odenkirk
Michael and Bob Odenkirk

What makes the show ideal for the podcast format?
Michael: Clearly, the ability to conduct long, probing interviews without much interruption makes podcasting so valuable. We can take all the time in the world with our guests. Although we tend to keep our shows around an hour, there’s nothing preventing us from doing a two or three-hour episode, or a half-hour episode. A podcast’s flexibility is the perfect venue for a conversation. When I watch TV interviews now, I get so frustrated as a viewer because they have to jump from topic to topic so quickly in order to make their commercial breaks. It makes for a very frenetic experience.

Michael, we want to turn the tables on you and find out your own ‘Fav 5’

Michael: Ok, my fav 5 of the moment (always subject to change):
Food: Baked potato with salsa
Music: Ingrid Michaelson “It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense”
Book: Michael Chabon “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”
Movie/TV: “Don’t Think Twice”
Misc: Hot tub. I bought a hot tub and I love the hot tub.

On the Space

Michael Ian Black with John Leguizamo
In studio with John Leguizamo

Where do you literally of your work? Can you walk us through that space 
Mary/Jennie: We record at Argot Studios in NYC.  It’s a great space, large but cozy. The booth is big enough that both producers can watch the interview.  Paul, who runs the studio, is great. He’s super friendly and easy to be around.  We’ve tried a couple other spaces and there’s nothing that has everything Argot offers. It’s a great fit for what we do. We were certain from the start that we wanted a high-quality recording, which is why we went to a studio. It’s not the kind of show that could be done out of one of our homes, or in a coffee shop.

On podcasting

What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot?
Michael: With a podcast, you can make, literally, tens of dollars.
Mary/Jennie: He’s not joking.

How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
Michael: This is a tough question. My guess is the quantity and quality of podcasts will continue to expand over the next several years. Because the barrier to entry is so low, the ability to experiment is so high so we’ll probably see some really fun and innovative work being done in this field. PREDICTION: The Grammys will add a podcasting category in the next few years.

Subscribe to How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black in iTunes here.

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