Talking to Michael Che About Touring the World and Making Standup Glamorous
There are high expectations for Michael Che. In the past year, the New York standup has worked on Best Week Ever and SNL, and been hailed as one to watch by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the bookers of New York City, and many of his fellow comics. And he’s not resting anytime soon, bringing his show “Cartoon Violence” to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August. Recently, over coffee at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, I got to talk to him about his rapid rise, his brief time in the world of high-end fashion, and the good advice he got from Tracy Morgan.
You just got back from playing the Melbourne Comedy Festival. How was that?
That was fun as hell. I had so much fun. It was cool. It’s the second time I’ve left the country for comedy, I went to Egypt before, but this is the first time I went and saw international performers and got a feel of what it’s like. So it was cool.
How did people respond to you? How were the crowds?
The crowds responded well. I didn’t really have a problem. They tense up with race stuff a little bit, because there’s no black people there I guess, but they were really fun. They were like good listeners. You think that they’re bored but they’re just listening. It’s very weird, cause I’m used to a club or a bar atmosphere where everyone’s kind of interacting and they don’t really like to be interacted with. When I would talk to them, they would always kind of clam up. After awhile you loosen them up and then they understand that you’re playing with them, but they’re more of a sit and watch kind of thing. And I think the comedy that comes from there reflects that, because a lot of it is long-form stories and it’s not as punchy as New York’s scene is. But they were good. They were a festival audience, so they were there to see something funny. It’s a theater seating, so there’s nobody getting up and ordering drinks and checks being dropped. Everybody’s sitting in their seat and no one’s drinking. They’re just enjoying the show. It’s kind of cool.
What were you doing in Egypt?
I did a show with Ahmed Ahmed in November. He brought me on the road with him. And that was really exciting. That was the first time I ever left the country. I had to get a passport. It was nuts. I remember a lot of people were kind of afraid to go and I think that’s how I got on the list of people that would go. Because I was like, “Fuck, Egypt? Of course I’m going to Egypt, why not?” It didn’t even dawn on me that it could be dangerous, and when I got there it wasn’t dangerous at all, the people there couldn’t be sweeter. They were very pleasant and welcoming. Somebody later told me, an Egyptian person in America told me they don’t mess with tourists, that’s their money. But when I was there they were just very cool. Everybody was welcoming. They can’t drive for shit. I don’t think I’ve seen a cop there. I remember we got stuck in the square where they had the revolution. We were just stuck, because they were doing a demonstration. I looked to the left and these people are tearing down this building with their hands, like the gate and shit, ripping it apart. And I asked the driver, like, “What are they doing?” He goes, “Oh, that’s the police station. They’re tearing down the police station.” [Laughs] And I was like, “Oh, mmm.” Roll the window up, this is not cool.
And how was the comedy? How were the shows?
The shows were great. I mean, it’s weird because, before you get on stage they go, “Try not to say anything about sex or drugs or politics or religion, but you know, do your set.” And you’re like, “Have you heard my set? Cause I think you might have got the wrong guy.” So I talked about pyramids for 20 minutes. [Laughs] And it worked, they laughed. When I went on, I was the first guy to go on that was speaking English. I mean, Ahmed was speaking English but he was hosting and he’s Egyptian. He’s been to Egypt and the Middle East dozens of times, so he has a set and an act that he knows works there. And then the first three guys that come on are all Arabic-speaking comedians. Then it’s me, and I don’t know what the fuck, you know. I don’t even know what those guys were talking about, so I don’t know what’s killing, I don’t know the tone of the room. You get out there and it’s people in Muslim garb and children and old ladies and it’s just this insane mix of people. And they speak English because if you can afford tickets to shows and shit that like, chances are you speak English there.
And when you get out there—I was always feel like, on the road, the one thing I go to is honesty. Well, period. In any audience, the one thing you go to is honesty. How do you feel in that moment? You look out and if you feel nervous or out of place or uncomfortable, say it, because they see it too. And just put it out there. So the first thing I said was, “You know, I can’t believe…” [He laughs.] “I can’t believe I got all the way to Africa and I’m the only nigga here.” And they all would laugh at that, because it’s something that, you know, they were probably thinking it too. But it was cool. Once you say that, and you kind of let them know that you’re there to have fun. They’re there to see a show. They’re not fucking around, they really want to see something fun and it was beautiful, I had a lot of fun doing it. I’d do it again.
That sounds awesome. Now you famously have only been doing comedy for a few years. You started in 2009, right?
You said it right, famously. Every thing I ever do, they say, “So you only been doing it…” You only. I wonder how much time I have to do it before no one says that ever again. I appreciate it. I take it as a compliment, but it’s just an interesting thing. I don’t know how people are still interested.
Because there are definitely people that started doing open mics when you did that are still doing open mics today.
How do you think you got so good so fast?
I think, um. [He pauses.] That’s a tough question. That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think a lot of things helped me. I started out older than a lot of people that started with me. I was 26, and a lot of people were like 20, 22, so I had a little bit better sense of myself than a lot of people that started out. I had been a fan of comedy since I was in diapers, so I kind of knew what standup sounded like, in a lot of ways. I’m from New York and I started n New York, which I think is a huge advantage because I wasn’t overwhelmed by the city. I understood the city. All of the distractions that could come with somebody that started comedy in New York didn’t really happen for me. I’ve been all over the city, this is just home to me.
And I loved it so much, that I just really wanted to be good at it. Like, I would write sets for open mics. I would work on five-minute sets. I wasn’t going up there to make the room laugh, I was going up there to work on a really good chunk of material. Like, immediately. I was trying to craft it like it was a five-minute HBO special. And then you get one, chuck that and you do another one. Chuck that and you do another. You start mixing them, you start tightening. I really went into it to get good as fast as I could. And I still do. I still go into writing and performing to get really good and to get to a point where I’m really excited about the material I’m doing. And I don’t know that a lot of comedians take that approach. It’s not even a bad thing, It’s just, I dunno, comedy’s a weird thing, you know? I think a lot of them are more concerned with what they’re getting and the politics of comedy as opposed to just working on the act. And anybody that asks me for advice, I always tell them, just work on the act. Just be obsessed with the act. I’m obsessed with the act, cause that’s the only thing I can control. I can’t control if I’m gonna be on SNL. I’m can’t control if I’m gonna be on the road, in Egypt or in a festival, or if they’re gonna like me, if they’re not gonna like me. All I can control is the material and how I feel about, if I’m proud of it. And that’s what I focus on, am I proud of this work? And you keep doing that and I think veteran comics and other people take notice of that ethic, because that’s what they’re doing. And you get opportunities and when you get an opportunity, it raises your profile, and all of a sudden, everybody likes you or knows you or whatever, because somebody vouched for you or you did this show and it raises eyebrows and everybody wants to see you, and then it kind of snowballs. But I never asked anybody for a spot. I didn’t know anybody in comedy, I didn’t know anybody in entertainment at all. The first time I got on stage to do comedy was the first time I got on stage with a microphone in my hand to do anything. So it was just literally from the ground up of just working on the act. I don’t know. If there’s anything else that helped, I really don’t know what it is.
Did you see a lot of comedy before you did it?
Yeah, I would go to a lot of comedy. I would go to the Cellar, and the Comic Strip, And then I remember Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn would come on, and you’d see Colin and Patrice [O’Neal] and Keith [Robinson] and Jim Norton and Bobby Kelly and all these guys. [It] showed them as people, not so much as comics, and you just wanted to be one of the guys. It was like this fraternity of brilliant fucking comedians. And that made me start going to the Cellar, just to get a glimpse of them, just to watch them sit outside and talk shit. I would go to the show and I’d see like Darrell Hammond and Ben Bailey and Dave Attell and Godfrey. I’d be like, Wow, I want to do that shit. I want to be that club guy.
Did you have mentors along the way when you were starting?
Comedy mentors? Well like I said, I didn’t know anybody before I started comedy, but while doing comedy, there was people that would give me advice. Jeffrey Joseph and Calise Hawkins helped me out with advice on a lot of things. Hannibal [Buress] helped me out, but Hannibal was different kind of help, cause Hannibal never really like gave me advice, but Hannibal will recommend you or do you a favor or some shit like that. And you’re like, Wow Hannibal did that shit? Hannibal said that? It was really cool, so he was like somebody too that helped me in that way. But you always get something from somebody. You always get like little nuggets from you never know where. A guy that’s still doing open mics could tell you just one little thing that makes you raise your eyebrows. I always pride myself on being a good listener. I always try to listen and observe and pay attention. And to see if there’s good in anything, not just listen to somebody super successful. Some of the worst advice I got was from people that are probably the most successful people.
But sometimes there’s certain people that, they could just say something and it sticks with you. Like I remember…[laughs]. Oh shit, I don’t know if I should say this. Aw no, I’ll say it though. I remember I opened up for Tracy Morgan, and um, the show was okay. It was in this theater in this casino in Michigan or whatever, and I never met Tracy Morgan before this. And he’s really—like, he wouldn’t talk to me. He doesn’t really interact with people he don’t know. He interacts on his terms, I guess. This is what I observed. I don’t really know Tracy that well, but this is just what I observed at that point. And I do the show, I did okay. It wasn’t a great set, but I didn’t bomb. So I’m in the dressing room, listening to Tracy’s act and playing Temple Run, and after his show, he gets off, and he walks into the dressing room, he like passes by everybody. He closes the door, he looks at me and he goes, “We got to do something about your act.” And I was like, “Oh, shit.” [Laughs] Like, no one said that to me before. He goes, “No man. This,” like gesturing to the mic stand, because I was holding the mic stand as I’m doing the show, he’s like, “All of this, you got to put that mic stand behind you, you got to work that room. You gotta find the energy. Yo, it took me 10 minutes to warm them up after you. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. You hosting, you supposed to warm ’em up. They supposed to be warm when I get on stage. I had to work. You gotta work that stage. This is a stage, man. This ain’t no fucking club. This ain’t no dive.” Everything he was saying was probably a hundred and ten percent correct. And he was like, “Dude, all of this [leaning on the mic stand], this is a crutch. You don’t need this shit. You got jokes, you’re funny. You don’t need no crutch. Be funny, but work that stage. Perform, man. This is a theater.” And he’s like, “You wanna make money, or what?” And then he starts talking about how much money he made off the show, which seemed weird, but the point is, in his way, it was him telling me, this is how you get better. You gotta do this, there’s fundamentals to this. And he even told me, which meant a lot, he was like, “Your funny is between you and God. I’m not gonna tell you how to be funny. I’m just telling you the fundamentals of performing. This is what you should be doing. This is a theater.” Now, are there people that do theaters that sit still? Of course. I mean, Bill Cosby performs from a stool. But, what he was offering, I took. And the next show was different, and it went a lot better, cause I consciously made a point to do better. And so things like that is what I really appreciate. He probably don’t even remember that, but for me it was huge.
Wow. That’s one of the few sane, rational Tracy Morgan stories I’ve ever heard.
Well, yeah! Like I mean, I’ve heard him say some insane things, but I don’t think I was more shocked than when he said it that way. That was helpful. And this is Tracy Morgan. I don’t know that there’s 10 more successful standups in the country as Tracy Morgan is right now, so he’s not a guy that doesn’t know. And he’s a veteran, this is 25-year guy, tours all over the world. And you know, he didn’t have to do that. He could have just been like, “Yo, fire that kid.” So that meant a lot.
And now you’re on the road, headlining.
Yeah, I’m on the road a lot. I’ve been on the road headlining since last March. But this year’s been a much, much faster pace. Much busier pace, and it’s fun. You get to travel, you get to see aaaall the parts of Indiana.
[Laughs] What more could you want?
[Laughs] I mean, there’s no city in Indiana I haven’t been to.
I’ve only ever seen you in the city, but I feel like your act is so New York. Do people like you in Indiana?
Again, honesty. Like, you don’t have to get me to get me. Just know that I really believe what I’m saying, and you can enjoy me. I thought this in Australia. I was like man, these people aren’t gonna get me. And then I’m watching TV and the shows are like, they’re watching Get Smart and Gilligan’s Island and Cheers, and all this stuff. And I’m like, if you can get Cheers, if you can get a comedy from 1982 in Boston, you can relate to me. I’m not that unrelatable. We all kind of go through the same shit and you keep that in mind in writing jokes. We all have sex, we all get scared, we all have insecurities, we all are over-confident, we all don’t know shit, get confused, and that’s where the jokes come from, and that’s what people relate to. Even if that specific thing, even if you don’t know what it is to take a subway, you understand what it is to be in an uncomfortable place where people smell and you want to be somewhere else. Like you don’t need to have experienced it to know the gist of what you’re saying. And you have to keep that in mind in writing that joke. Don’t make it reference heavy, make it kind of idea heavy. So yeah, they get it, even if they’ve never done the things I’ve said, they get how I came to that conclusion, they get where I’m coming, what I’m bringing across. And it helps you write jokes from a different place, from more of a relatable place. Does that make sense?
Okay. If any of these answers are stupid, you just tell me.
Okay. I’m not gonna tell you, but none of them have been.
Heh. “Michael Che is a fucking idiot.”
[Laughs] I’ve been meaning to ask you, how do you pronounce your last name? Like Che [as in Guevara] or Shea [as in the stadium]? Because I’ve heard it both ways.
I say Che. Some people say Shea, I say Che. I was named after Che Guevara. My name is Michael Che Campbell. My dad is a huge history buff, and he named me after Che Guevara cause he loved Che Guevera for whatever reason. Which is a very polarizing figure, because when I tell people I was named after Che, they’re either like, “Oh, wow that’s cool,” or they’re like, “You know, Che killed people.” I’m like, I didn’t pick my name.
Why did you drop your last name?
I used to paint, and I used to sign painting Michael Che, M. Che. So it just stuck with me, I was like, when I perform I’ll just be Michael Che. It just seemed less common than Michael Campbell. It’s just faster. But if I had to do it again, I probably would have been Michael Campbell cause I don’t have to tell people how to pronounce Campbell. But it’s cool. It works.
And you were a painter. That was your main job before you started comedy?
I used to paint and I started a t-shirt company with my friend. We didn’t make a lot of money. I got really depressed, so that’s when I started comedy. I really wanted to paint and to have a a clothing line. I was really excited about it. And it didn’t go the way I wanted it to, and it hurt cause I didn’t have—you know, it’s hard to start a business with no capital. You just really got to ride a wave and it didn’t work out. And that’s when I started comedy because I was like, “I dunno what I’m gonna do. I’m 26, I don’t have any college degrees, I just don’t feel like painting anymore.” Creatively, I was dead. I just wanted something to kind of get my creative juices going, something different. And I haven’t painted since.
That kind of makes sense, then, that you just dove straight into comedy. Like you said, you were a bit older and had some real life experience before you started.
Well, I used to sell t-shirts on the street, at first. I used to make t-shirts, print them up and then sell them on Greene and Wooster. And I met the Hilfigers and they really liked some of the stuff I was doing. They asked me to do some freelance work and I went to the office. Tommy’s like taking me all over the office, introducing me to everybody, like, “This is Michael Che. This guy is great, new stuff. He’s gonna be doing some design work for us, he’s really good, really cool. Look out for him.” I sat in his office and I remember he said, “You know why I’m doing this for you?” I was like, “No.” And he was like, “Because somebody gave me a chance, so I’m gonna give you a chance.” So he asked me to do some designs and I just couldn’t do them. Like, it went where, I just couldn’t work there. Now, in hindsight, I know what it was. I was scared. But then, I just didn’t understand. Nothing looked right, I just couldn’t. They set me up with like a whole work area, they gave me a computer and a desk and all that shit, and I could do whatever I wanted. I could come and go as I please, I had no boss. I was working for Tommy. And I just couldn’t do it. So I was like, well, I do everything from home, maybe I’ll get the designs done quicker if I work from home. So I went home, and I ended up being like a week late on the designs. And a week turned to two weeks, because I was too embarrassed. Like, man, two weeks. They’re gonna fucking be mad, he’s gonna be mad. Two weeks turned to three weeks. Long story short, I haven’t seen Tommy Hilfiger since. Soooo, I was really…[laughs] but it was because I was scared. I was honestly just terrified.
And it taught me a lot. It’s like, I had an opportunity that I thought was change my life. And I fucking blew it completely, just from being scared. So now, when I do comedy, I ain’t scared of shit. I’m like, just take advantage of every opportunity I get, because I don’t know. How you gonna get lucky twice? Like, what are the odds? So I feel really fortunate and I can’t fuck it up. And I don’t like telling that story cause it’s embarrassing but it’s the God’s honest truth and I haven’t seen him since. So when I did comedy, I was like anything that comes my way, I’m gonna take advantage of because you never know when you’re gonna get it again and I don’t want to be in that position. I came into comedy having lost something, and I was like, this has to work, because I don’t have much time. Which may better explain where I’m coming from, you know?
Yeah. And I remember I would tell people, I’d tell my parents and my brothers and shit and my friends, and they were like, “Dude, that’s fucking amazing. Congratulations, you gonna do it.” I was selling shirts on the street and met them, cause he had an apartment on Greene St. And I met his son, and I did some work for his son, cause his son liked the t-shirts, and then the son brought his dad down, and his dad liked it. Tommy’s an art collector and he loved it and I went to their house and did some custom stuff for them at their house. His son was doing a line and they wanted me to work on the line, but I was selling stuff, and they was like, “You can’t sell stuff on the streets if you gonna work with us.” And I was like, “Dude, that’s how I eat. That 300 or 400 dollars a week that I make on the street, that’s how I live.” And that’s when he was like, “Well, how about you work for me so that you don’t have to work on the street.” He didn’t have to do that at all. And at the time I’m 23, 24. I have no school. I’m on the street, I was bringing like a hand truck with a table and a bag of t-shirts, and I would take it from Jersey City to the Village in the freezing cold. It sucked, it’s one of those things where there’s no light at that tunnel. It’s not like, okay, you have to do this for two years and then you’ll move up. It could be ten years. It could be fifty years, you know. So I’m doing it two years, and now I have a job working for Tommy Hilfiger. It was like a whirlwind. And then I fucking blew it. Like, completely blew it. I didn’t know what else to do. I can’t go back to the street, cause he lives right there. So what am I gonna do? Comedy. [Laughs] That’s what I did.
So how long of a gap was there?
Okay that happened, and then I didn’t want to go back on the street because I was like, I can’t go back on the street and have them see me, because they live around there. This was like a few months already, where I’m like, I can’t even go back there. It was just ridiculous. I wouldn’t answer my phone. I didn’t answer my answer from numbers I didn’t know. And so I took the designs I had and I printed up this little catalog and I would sell it to little stores. And there was a store on Spring St called Union and it was a really exclusive street wear store. And they had like a lot of really cool brands in there, before street wear became really mainstream. I talked to the buyer there and she liked the designs and she started buying them, and then that’s how I was making my money so I didn’t have to make it on the street. I was just wholesaling them. And then I found like a couple other stores and I was making some money to live. It wasn’t a lot of money but it was keeping me afloat. And then I got up some money to do a trade show, and I took all the money I had. I did this trade show, bought all this shit, and I didn’t get anything. I didn’t make money off of it and I took a big hit, which, for any business, that’s gonna happen, but when you have no capital, I just blew my whole, you know. And I was like, I don’t know what the fuck else to do. It was just exhausting. Emotionally exhausting too, cause you’re like, I don’t know if this is gonna work. I don’t know how long I can do this. They don’t like my stuff. You know, you’re an artist at the same time. You’re like, well if they don’t sell, that means they don’t like it, so you take that part with you. It’s not just business. So, I just couldn’t do it anymore. At that point, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was tired. And I was depressed. [Laughs] Yeah, I got depressed, and I was like, You know what I need to do? I need to make people laugh. But I always wanted to do comedy. I always thought I was funny and I always thought I could be funny for a living. I just didn’t know how because I’m not a performer so I didn’t know that I could do standup. I didn’t know what I could do.
And now I’ve heard rumors that you’re thinking about recording an hour?
Yeah, well I’m preparing an hour. I don’t know where it’s gonna go, if it goes anywhere. Like we haven’t talked to anybody about it or nothing. I wanted to submit for the Half Hour last year for Comedy Central, but I just wanted to wait. I still may submit for it this year. I’m not sure, but I really want to work on the hour and see what the hour looks like especially because I’ve got Edinburgh coming up, so I want to really iron it out by Edinburgh. Doing it every day will help, and doing it internationally will really help. I’ll know it’s ready if it works over there. That’s what I really want to do. And again, that’s me focusing on something that I can control, which is the material. I don’t know who’s gonna pick it up, I don’t know if it’ll be picked up. All I know is I can make it good, so that’s what I’m really focused on, making it really good and making it something that I’m proud of. I really want an hour that makes somebody want to try comedy, because that’s why I wanted to try comedy. You see Bring the Pain, you see George Carlin’s specials and shit like that, you’re like man, I want to be that. It made me want to do that shit. And that’s the kind of hour I want to build. I don’t want to just do it because they gonna pay me to, or because I can, cause I’m, you know, whatever the fuck. I want it to be really good.
I wanna make the back of the room laugh. Because I love comedy so much and I respect the performers so much that I want to do something that comedians are proud of. I honestly do. Because a lot of people don’t give a fuck what everybody else thinks, but I want to do something that the scene is proud of too. I want to make standup comedy glamorous.
Yeah! Like, Eddie Murphy, you know? It’s not glamorous, but it’s just as fucking cool as rock and roll. Even if you’re in a rock band and you’re playing bars every night, even that’s kind of sexy. And as a comedian, I want to put out work that makes it just as cool. And people to say, “Man, I want to fucking do that shit. I want to be talking shit in the bars and smoky rooms.” Well they don’t have no more smoky rooms, but like you want to be in that bar with the sticky floors. They still have sticky floors. And just bring that energy, to make comics better than us come and take it somewhere else, the way they made us want to take it somewhere. That’s what I want to do.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City.