“Michael & Michael Have Issues”
Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.
3.5 out of 5 stars
As two elevenths of the seminal MTV show “The State” and two thirds of the sketch group “Stella,” Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) and Michael Ian Black (“I Love The ’80s”) tend to lean toward the offbeat. In their past work, absurd bits such as apartment farming and declarations of love to giant mounds of pudding were common, which makes the pair’s shift to a more reasonable tone in their latest show “Michael & Michael Have Issues” especially noticeable.
“Michael & Michael” is centered around Showalter and Black, who play fictionalized versions of themselves starring in a fictional sketch comedy show. The show’s format borrows heavily from “The Larry Sanders Show,” interspersing clips and sketches from the show-within-a-show with a running behind-the-scenes narrative.
Tonally, “Michael & Michael” may rely less on absurdist humor than Showalter and Black’s past shows, but it works best when it lets the two work within a similar vein. For example, the pilot revolves around both Michaels fighting for the approval of a teenage intern who’s writing an article about the show.
It’s unabashedly farcical, with each Michael comically undermining the other to win the intern’s respect. The show escalates their one-upmanship to its logical conclusion — a shirtless kung-fu fight between the two Michaels on the lawn. Like Showalter and Black’s past work, it’s funny and ridiculously silly, but never dumb.
This sublimely sarcastic tone hangs over much of “Michael & Michael,” and it helps the show overcome a good portion of its faults. In any normal context, Showalter and Black would likely come off as raging, insufferable narcissists. The show’s willingness to make them the butt of the joke, though, helps the dynamics of their relationship. Whether it’s the two Michaels slap fighting each other to the ground or making farting noises to mock the other, neither Showalter nor Black is afraid to look stupid for the sake of a joke.
But “Michael & Michael” fumbles when it tries to weave this humor into its show-within-a-show. The meta-show is done in the mold of programs like “Chappelle’s Show” and “Important Things With Demetri Martin” — Showalter and Black present sketches and segments on stage, complete with a studio audience.
The chemistry between the two Michaels works best when the fictional sketch comedy show is being filmed — one segment has Showalter and Black hilariously trying to construct the most offensive word possible. But the scenes outside the fictional sketch comedy show have an intentionally hackneyed vibe to them — a joke from Black about how a platitude is “a platypus with an attitude” leads into an unnecessary one-note sketch about abstinence pledges.
Still, this unevenness doesn’t diminish the fact that “Michael & Michael” is an especially solid show. It might take some effort to find a balance between its disparate parts, but in spite of that, it’s unmistakably an entertaining product of Showalter and Black. Considering their pedigree, that’s hardly a bad thing.