Michael Che on Respecting the Craft of Standup, ‘SNL’ Haters, and His Comedy Central Half Hour
Michael Che‘s first half hour special premieres on Comedy Central this Friday, but that’s far from the only new gig for the New York-born standup who has also appeared on Bunk, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, Best Week Ever, and Splitsider’s own A Night at Whiplash and served as writer on Saturday Night Live for the past year. In addition to the premiere of his Half Hour, this month marks Che’s transition to his new job as correspondent for The Daily Show, and seeing as he’s the mind behind headline-grabbing SNL sketches like “White Christmas” and “12 Years Not a Slave” it’s safe to assume that Che will bring an experienced yet fresh voice to Comedy Central’s late night news coverage. Ahead of his Half Hour premiere this Friday, we chatted with Che about how he built his career as a writer and standup and why responding to SNL naysayers on Twitter is his favorite form of entertainment.
I noticed you just had your birthday, so first off, Happy Belated Birthday!
Thank you so much!
How was it?
It was pretty brutal.
How old are you now?
I’m 31. I’m on my way out.
When we interviewed you last year, you mentioned you wanted a half hour special but were going to wait until this year. Obviously that worked out pretty well — how’d you use the time to prep for it?
I really wanted to just wait for the hour. I didn’t want to do the half hour just because I was in a position to maybe be able to — I always feel like specials can come too early but they can’t come too late. So I wanted to wait, wait, wait until I was ready for the half hour or the hour, but this year the opportunity came, and for some reason it just felt like a good idea. I remember watching half hours — that really got me familiar with a lot of comedians who I still watch like Patrice O’Neal and Mitch Hedberg and Jim Norton; it was like the first time I had seen those guys, so I remember the impact they had. And it’s such a cool series, so to be able to do it was a peak moment.
How do you know when you’re ready for something like this?
Well I mean when the act is ready. The jokes I did on the special I’ve done a million times and it just feels like I’m ready to put this material out, let people see it, and then work on the next thing and push forward. I always feel like you don’t do comedy for the special — you do the specials so you can do comedy. That’s like a commercial for people to come out and support the new shows. When they come out they don’t want to see those jokes they’ve seen on TV, they want to see new stuff. So you have to have something else ready when you record something.
Do you like to set deadlines and specific goals for yourself, or are you more of a “whatever happens happens” kind of person?
I’ll set goals and I’ll never really follow through with them, so I guess I’m both. Like I set goals orally, but physically I’m more of a person who’s like “whatever happens happens.” [laughs] I’m more of a feel person — I’ll write a setlist but then I’ll get onstage and it’s really about adjusting to what feels right and what the temperature is. I can’t control if everything works out for like a TV show or something — all that stuff either happens or it doesn’t — but I can control whether I’m prepared to take advantage of an opportunity, you know? So my goal for next year is to be prepared to tape a really great hour.
Staying aware of what you can and can’t control is definitely easier said than done.
Yeah. I mean, this half hour could bomb or I could say something wrong and no one will ever want to record me again, but I still have to have that material. You know, we’re comedians — I’m one tweet away from being the biggest misogynist, homophobe, racist, whatever to the eyes of the world — I’m just one misunderstood comment away…or one understood comment away… [laughs] from being banished.
You’ve talked before about how you want to make standup glamorous again. I thought that was interesting watching your special, since your energy is focused more in your content than your actual delivery.
Yeah, exactly. When I mean “glamorous” I don’t mean like a rock star or like that — not style-wise, but moreso just in respect of the craft. I feel like people think comedians are clowns or people who are desperate for attention or people who just have to be funny cause it’s such a tragic thing. It’s like nah man — it’s an art form just like anything else and it’s just the medium that we use, so I want it to be glamorous in the way that people go and say “Oh you’re a comedian? Tell me a joke!” “Are you a comedian? Well then let me do my jokes for you.” I feel like comedy is only respected on the highest level and on every other level it’s like a joke, like “ugh, comedian” you know?
One of the things I like about your background — especially being an SNL writer — is that you never took classes or were part of an improv team or things like that. Your career is very self-taught.
Well, I feel like most standup comedians do it the way I did it, where you just go to open mics and cut your teeth. Sketch and improv — they take a lot of classes. It’s not unusual the way I did it, it’s just that with standup, no one knows how to start because there’s no book for it, there’s no place you can really go. So I thought you needed to go to classes just because that’s “how you do it” — I didn’t know you can just show up and perform.
I feel like there’s definitely an advantage in starting that way, because it’s your rules. It’s like how they say the fastest way to learn a language is to live in that country; the fastest way to learn the language of standup is just to be there and have to learn it — just be in that environment every day and you’ll pick it up. Classes might get you more feedback and support and that can be good, because when you’re starting out as a standup it’s such a brutal thing to bomb. It hurts so badly to bomb and do bad at it that you naturally start doing what makes the people laugh. You just think “well as long as I’m making people laugh then I’m doing my job” as opposed to taking risks and doing what you really want to do and making people laugh — there’s a big difference. Even with someone like Louis C.K. or Kevin Hart or whatever, it’s tough for them to write jokes when the crowd’s just so happy to see them. They don’t even care if it’s funny — they’re just laughing. And they’re both great comedians so they know the difference, but you always wanna know what people are laughing at.
That reminds me of something I wanted to ask you about: During this past season of you writing for SNL, you’ve been quite responsive to some people on Twitter who have…
[laughs] That’s a nice way to say it!
Well, people have complained about SNL and you’ve engaged them a lot, which seems like a newer thing between SNL writers and fans. How do you not let that affect you writing the sketches you really want to write?
That stuff is funny to me. That’s my comedy, that’s my entertainment. I go to work to entertain them, then I come home and get on Twitter and they entertain me. That’s how I look at it. Sometimes it’s mind-blowing that people talk to performers as if they’re not people, as if this guy doesn’t have a family or husband or wife and kids or whatever and wants to follow him and just say “you suck” and “you should be fired” and “you’re the worst thing ever.” These people have stayed up thirty hours in a row working on content to make these people laugh and so that just seems so, I don’t know…evil? [laughs]
It’s like a heckler — I’m a standup and we have hecklers all the time. Somebody will come to your show and just yell at you, and they don’t even know how disruptive they’re being or that this is all prepared material; they think you’re making it all up in the moment. They don’t know, so you have to shut them down immediately. And also, it’s like what Keith Robinson, a funny comedian, says — it’s like “back of the bus” humor where someone says something about you and you say something about them. That’s just the way it is: If you go at me I’ll go at you, if you make fun of me I’ll make fun of your profile picture or whatever. It’s just fun. And then we go offline and I go back to work and you go back to work and we’re both citizens who pay our taxes, then maybe later we go back on our computers and we see you talking junk, and we talk junk back. I don’t know why some people are like “Dude, you can’t do that” and you’re like “What? Who cares?” It’s nothing, it’s just talk. Nobody’s threatening anyone with violence, no one’s butthurt over it, but to me it’s just the audacity of it — how could you not respond when they’re anonymously telling you that that whole week of work you did was terrible?
So you have thick enough skin to not take that stuff too seriously.
No! Also though, it is a selfish interest where as a comedian, when people get offended by something — not even just like “I hate this,” more like offended like a “this is bad” kind of thing — as a comedian I have a bias, like you have to let me do my job, you have to let me touch on things that might be a little scary or weird, you know? You can’t say that these subjects are off-limits; I have to be able to talk about this stuff, so I have to make light of it the full way through so that these subjects aren’t off-limits. How could I be a black writer at SNL and not make anything that has anything to do with race? It’s not even like that’s why they brought me in, it’s just how unlikely is it that I’m the black writer there and my comedy has nothing to do with race? And how unfair would it be if it was always in favor of one side? It’s a comedy show, we’re on your side. If no one’s laughing at the joke, we feel way worse than you do for watching it. We already know if something’s not working. We feel it — it’s brutal. We know how hard we work, and also the degree of difficulty to put on a show like Saturday Night Live is so high. The same time we find out that something’s not funny, you find out it’s not funny. It’s not like we get to go to a focus group or we get to edit and change it after people have seen it — it’s live, it’s up immediately. So there’s a reason why nobody else is doing 90 minutes of live comedy on TV every week. It’s fucking hard, so when people just shit on it as if it’s an easy thing to do you’re like “Fuck you, you’re dumb.” This is how I feel, I’m sorry.
As a big SNL fan that’s reassuring to hear, because with Twitter and the transparency SNL writers have with fans now, I wonder whether that ever affects the writers writing what they want versus what the fans want or are railing against.
And I’ll tell you something about the show — that’s what I love about it more than anything is no matter how edgy or crazy something was that we wrote, the show is behind it and they found a way to make it work, from the Leslie Jones thing to “12 Days Not a Slave” and “White Christmas” — all these sketches that are like “ooohh…I don’t know if you can put that on TV” — it made us laugh in the room, we tried to find a way to make it to work for TV, and nobody ever said it’s too edgy. Obviously for Standards reasons there’s certain things we can’t say, but for the most part we try to get the essence of what made us laugh about it on the show. So it’s exciting comedy, and even if you don’t like the end result you gotta like that you’re seeing this risk being taken on live TV, in a studio full of tourists, some racially charged stuff, you know? And you wanna watch their reaction — this is exciting comedy! What do you like comedy for then, what jokes can you take? Also, there’s nothing wrong with fart jokes, they’re good too! I mean how many Obama jokes can you take? It’s a variety show, there’s something for everybody — you gotta get some conscious stuff, you gotta get some political stuff, silly stuff, absurd stuff.
You’re also one of the comedians in Splitsider’s new film A Night at Whiplash. How long have you been involved with the show?
I started doing Whiplash a year or two ago. Jeremy [Levenbach] put me on a lot, like this past year I’ve been there like twice a month or something, or once a month at least. It’s such a great show. I don’t even like to do jokes there that much, I just like to go and play with the crowd cause the crowd’s so hot and they wanna have fun and wanna see shows, so you can kind of find things offstage and go free and they understand what they’re watching. They’re comedy fans, you know? They’re not people going to see the same old thing; they wanna see something new and exciting, so it’s a lot of fun to do that show.
In other news, you recently got hired to be a Daily Show correspondent. Can you talk about how that came to be and how you got hired?
I really can’t because I don’t know that much about it, to be honest with you. Like I know my agency was like “They’re looking for somebody, would you be interested in taping?” so we sent in an audition tape and then they said they wanted to give a test offer, and I auditioned on set with Jon and they told me I got it. It was really quick. Maybe things happened that they just didn’t tell me about — a lot of times they don’t tell me that stuff because they don’t want to overload me, I have a very small capacity for things like this… [laughs] …but yeah, it happened pretty quickly for me, it was like “Wait, what?” Like people ask me if I’m excited and I’m like “Agh…I guess?” It just feels like a title, it doesn’t feel like I even work there yet, because I don’t.
So at this point you’re just waiting for your first day there to see how it all plays out?
Yeah, I’m just waiting. I have no idea what it’s gonna be like. I talked to Wyatt [Cenac] about it, and he was saying that you get your nights, which is great cause I get to do standup, and for the most part I don’t know how much they’ll give to me, I have no idea. So it’s exciting in the sense that I just don’t know.
I’m sure it’ll work out.
I feel like it’ll be fun. Jon’s great, he’s hilarious. I don’t know a lot about politics or anything… [laughs] I really don’t know what I could do. It might be a terrible decision, but even if it doesn’t work out it’ll be one of those fun things that didn’t work out.
A brilliant trainwreck.
Yeaaahh…it’ll be a nice swing.
Michael Che’s Comedy Central Half Hour special premieres Friday night/Saturday morning at 12:30am.