Ingredient One:
Several cups of attention craving
Black grew up in Hermosa Beach, California, as an upper-middle-class kid, the son of two satellite engineers who worked at TRW. He himself had no interest in science, nor in school, for that matter. But he did want -- need -- to garner laughs and attention. He discovered this at the age of nine, when after dinner at a family friend’s house, everyone played the freeze game, an improvisational comedy game in which the audience can “freeze” the action in any given skit and the characters then have to change positions. Black found himself the star of the game. “That was probably the first time
 
“I wanted to be the fascinating person on the inside of the crowd --there probably was some kind of insecurity driving that -- so I tried to figure out ways to get people to laugh.”

 
I was exposed to that kind of fun,” Black says. “I wanted it to go on and on. I definitely knew I had to play that some more at some point. I didn’t know that was going to be my life, though.”

Still, he did plenty of TV commercials at a young age, including one for Smurfberry Crunch and another for Activision’s Pitfall! video game. That gig, which he got at age 13, came thanks to a higher power: Black had made a deal with the Almighty that if he got the Pitfall! commercial, he’d never ask to act or be on TV again. “I thought that I would be happy if the kids could just see me on TV once, that that would be enough,” Black says. “But I had to renegotiate. I was really hungry for the laughs and the attention. I wanted to stick out from the crowd. I wanted to be the fascinating person on the inside of the crowd -- there probably was some kind of insecurity that was driving that -- so I tried to figure out ways to get people to laugh.”

He still does. Mainly, Black relies on the element of surprise to get a laugh. On a movie set, he hopes to surprise the director and the other actors by playing a scene just a little differently than how they might expect him to, or, for that matter, than how he might expect himself to do it.

“I don’t like to go to the director, or whoever, and say, ‘You know what will be funny? If I do blah, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Black says. “Because as you’re saying that, the funny thing is losing all its power. So instead, you just think of a funny approach and you hold that in your brain pan and you say, ‘Let’s do another take. Let me try another one.’ Don’t even say you have an idea. Then they roll the camera, and you do it for the first time. That has a good chance of surprising you, because even though you’ve thought about it, that’s the first time you’ve heard yourself say it out loud.”

Suddenly, he stops talking. I assume he’s about to yawn -- again. Instead, he’s just realizing that it’s awfully hard to explain funny. “This is sounding very convoluted,” he says, finally. “But that’s that. That’s funny.”