When Michael Ian Black’s mother developed uterine cancer, the 44-year-old comedian was confronted with her mortality — and his own. In his new book, “Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (but also my mom’s, which I know sounds weird),” Black examines his complex relationship with his mother and with his own aging body.
Black spoke about the book by phone from his home in Connecticut. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q. “Navel Gazing” deals with your mother’s cancer. Did you ever have doubts about whether such a serious subject could be funny?
A. I couldn’t have done it if my mom hadn’t been so game. She has a good sense of humor, and I think she enjoyed speaking to me about all this stuff both because, like any ill person, she loves to talk about all her various maladies and because it was a nice way for her to connect with me in a different way than we had before.
Q. Before writing this book, had you ever cataloged the signs of your own physical decline: the hearing loss, the toenail fungus, etc.?
A. I never sat down and cataloged them, but my brain is constantly riffling through all the criticisms I have of myself, physically and otherwise. “Am I going bald?” “Am I getting fat?” It’s a mantra, almost. That combined with “Oh yeah, my hearing sucks and my feet are a disaster and I should get a colonoscopy.”
Q. Are human bodies inherently funny?
A. So much comedy is based on the body and shame and embarrassment. There might not be comedy without sex or flatulence. Where all comedy begins is with the body. All comedy begins with somebody falling down and somebody else pointing and laughing.
Q. Is writing a humorous book very different from writing a stand-up routine?
A. Stand-up has different demands. It requires a kind of pace and cadence, and there’s an expectation of a certain amount of jokes. . . . When I write prose, or at least a book like this, I don’t feel like my primary job is to be funny. The ultimate truth of this book isn’t that funny. It’s that my mom’s in terrible health and is likely to die in however many years — and then I’m next in line.
Q. Is it a myth that women worry more than men about aging?
A. I think women are far more expressive about it than men. For men it’s still present, but they don’t know how to discuss it, because discussing it makes you seem vain in a kind of “feminine” way. As a comedian, it’s my job to talk about the stuff that other guys may not be as willing to talk about.
Q. You have almost 2 million Twitter followers. Are you concerned that the 20-somethings among them will be put off by talk of baldness and hearing loss and colonoscopies?
A. The audience that you have to be true to, first and foremost, is yourself. All you can do is be true to yourself and hope that what you’re going through resonates with other people.
Q. This book explores some universal themes. It may speak to more people than you imagine.
A. Well, I imagine it will speak to two to three dozen. So if it exceeds that, I’ll be thrilled.
Black will be appearing at Brookline Booksmith on Jan. 20, at 6 p.m.; tickets are $5.