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Michaels play well together

Michael Ian Black (left) and Michael Showalter are alumni of the comedy troupe The State. Michael Ian Black (left) and Michael Showalter are alumni of the comedy troupe The State. (Fernando Leon/Picturegroup)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / July 15, 2009
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Once, not so very long ago, there were sketch comedy shows. And there were sitcoms about life behind the scenes at sketch comedy shows.

But these days, it’s nearly impossible to make a comedy without meta-commentary. And so we have “Michael and Michael Have Issues,’’ the new Comedy Central show that stars Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter as two guys named Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, who star in a Comedy Central show called “Michael and Michael Have Issues.’’

This isn’t innovation, in itself; stars from Chris Isaak to Sarah Silverman to Tori Spelling have played absurdist versions of themselves for the purposes of TV. Still, it’s a conceit that curls in on itself so perfectly that it threatens to be annoying. But “Michael and Michael Have Issues’’ works because it’s funny, and it’s funny because of its chemistry.

Both Michaels are veterans of the longstanding comedy troupe The State, which had its own sketch comedy show on MTV, and the spinoff comedy troupe Stella, which had a surrealist, short-lived series on Comedy Central. They’ve played off each other for so long now that their timing is impeccable and their characters well-honed. Showalter has a perfect, nerdy deadpan, while Black, a frequent talking head on VH1’s “I Love The. . .’’ shows, carries himself with a know-it-all slickness.

Their new show imagines that the two men are rivals with the maturity level of fourth-graders. Tonight, they compete for the attention of an intern who is writing about their show for his high school paper. (They undercut each other at every turn; describing their working relationship, Showalter compares Black to Ringo Starr, while Black describes Showalter as his “Art Garfunkel.’’) In next week’s episode, they attempt to buy marijuana in a park and get disastrously hung up on the question of whether - given reverse psychology and all - the guy who looks like an undercover cop could possibly be an undercover cop.

But when they’re onstage on their fictional comedy show, Black and Showalter work together perfectly, especially in dual stand-up routines - sometimes they’re sitting on director’s chairs - that quickly spiral into ridiculousness. On next week’s show, they purport to warn the audience about the dangers of drugs:

Black: Don’t take drugs!

Showalter: No!

Black: Because they’re really, really bad for you!

Showalter: Unless you’re bored.

Black: Or you want to feel good.

It’s better on screen, believe me, and their comedy sketches are funny, too - such as a riff on a TV weatherman who talks too quietly to be heard, and a film about a faux teenage couple who have very different reasons for wanting to take an abstinence pledge.

If anything, “Michael and Michael’’ is closest in spirit to “Flight of the Conchords,’’ HBO’s absurdist deadpan series about two New Zealanders trying to make it in New York. In that case, each episode was part sitcom, part virtuosic music-video parody, and the two sides played off each other beautifully. The same feels true of “Michael and Michael:’’ It’s a lot to cram into a measly half-hour, but each part - and each person - makes the other one funnier.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion .net.

MICHAEL AND MICHAEL HAVE ISSUES On: Comedy Central

Time: Premieres tonight

at 10:30

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