Michael Che on Censorship, Angry Commenters, and ‘SNL’
In the last few years America has come to know Michael Che as one half of Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update desk. But this Friday Che reminds us where he came from with the release of his Netflix standup special Michael Che Matters. As the title suggests, the comedian gets topical as he delivers his take on a bevy of hot-button issues including Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, police violence, and white girls dancing. I talked to Che about personal responsibility in comedy, censorship, and how the election was like couples’ therapy.
The last couple of weekends have been pretty big for SNL in the way that the show relates to what’s going on in the country. In the few years that you’ve been working the desk at Weekend Update and writing for the show, what observations have you made on how the show handles things politically and socially?
I don’t think it’s ever really changed in terms of the inner workings of the show. I think Lorne trusts the writers to get a sense of how the country is feeling without going too crazy. We have a lot of different kinds of writers on the show. They have a lot of different opinions. The weird thing is that the people that watch the show seem to think that we build the show as one cohesive thing. That’s not the case. We’re literally a variety show. That’s what makes it fun. It’s a mixed bag of thoughts. It works well for us.
There was a station in North Carolina that censored not only Dave Chappelle’s monologue, but also some of the other parts of the show that contained words related to race, as well as the word “pussy.” I thought that was odd considering that the FCC doesn’t regulate words related to race. If people remember SNL in the 70’s, that type of dialogue was woven into the tapestry of the show. The first thing I thought of was Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor’s word association sketch. Do you think people are being too sensitive now?
Of course they’re too sensitive. But if you’re a North Carolina affiliate and you’re going to censor Dave Chappelle’s comedy, that’s a disservice to your viewers. But that’s their right. If that’s your choice, if that’s where you want to draw the line and censor one of the more brilliant comedians we have, then that’s on you. But I think sometimes the networks need to give the audience a little bit more credit for being prepared to handle language. It’s weird, with everything that’s going on in this country we’re still hung up on the sounds of words.
I think free speech is especially important during a period of tension in the country. We should be asking, “What is the point of that censorship?” If we’re dealing with issues of race for instance, there are certain words that need to be heard and analyzed. Bleeping an n-word seems to me like salt in the wound. That type of censorship seems like another level of oppression.
I don’t know about that. I don’t look at things as complex as that. That might all be true, but for me it’s just a matter of…it’s okay if someone gets offended. I don’t understand what happens when someone gets offended. You hear a word, you’re offended, but what happens? Do you explode? We put too much stock in the word “offensive” and it really doesn’t mean anything. It just means you saw something that you didn’t like. It’s fine. It’s okay. We need to stop worrying about this imaginary disease and outcome. It’s not a big deal. I’m offended 10 times a day. It doesn’t matter.
If you censor certain words you’re not even giving people a chance to be offended. You’re taking a moral high ground and saying, “I’m deeming this word offensive for everyone.” That’s what bothers me. And I feel this way toward anything that Trump says, or anything that one of his idiotic KKK supporters say. Let them say what they want to say. Let people say terrible things. Get it all out in the open.
I agree. When you say something you’re saying that it’s important and you’re taking the responsibility by saying it on TV. If anybody is offended it should have nothing to do with the NBC affiliate or the network. It has to do with us as comedians and we’re willing to take that burden. But I also understand the other side. These people have to sell commercial time. There’s a lot of people with a lot of different jobs that have something to lose by people tuning out. I get that too. I just wish people didn’t freak out every time they hear something they don’t like. Maybe that’s for selfish reasons because of the kind of business I’m in and the kind of comedy that I do.
In your special you break down a lot of the hot-button issues that are going on right now: racism, police violence, homophobia, gender identity, stuff like that. The special is heady, but it never feels like a TED Talk. Sometimes when people address social and political issues it turns into a lecture. Do you feel a personal responsibility to discuss these issues?
I feel personal responsibility more because of the comedy I do, the comedy I like to do, and the kind of comedy that inspired me to do comedy. I feel like…boy I wish Patrice was alive right now. I wish Rock had a special, which he does, but it’s not out. I would love to hear what those guys would say at this time, what funny take they would have. I don’t feel like those voices are there as much for the comedy fans. As a comedy fan you want to do the work that you want to see. So I feel responsibility in that way.
The special is called Michael Che Matters. Your analysis of the word “matters” is very interesting. I saw an article about the special and made the mistake of scrolling down to the comments thread, which was inundated with All Lives Matter people arguing your explanation of the word “matters.” They still don’t understand Black Lives Matter even when a black person takes the time to break it down and explain it. Do you think there will be a point where the country gets it and then moves forward?
No, that’s ridiculous. This is such a rich, privileged country. It’s a privilege to live here. There are people willing to raft here in choppy waters just for a chance to be an American. With that comes a lot of arrogance and self-absorption. We’re all part of it. No one is above it. Just the fact that they have time to be on the computer to bust down something like Black Lives Matter, something that doesn’t even involve them, just having that kind of free time to comment on a comedy special…that’s how dope it is to be an American. I like it. That’s what you want. You want what you say to spark conversation. I want them to prove me wrong. Make a special debunking everything I say. Why not? It’s good. We are talking. Even if it’s wrong, even if it’s not true, it’s worth hearing. It’s honest in feeling, not honest in fact. It’s like being in couples’ therapy. This whole election felt like couples’ therapy. You listen to the other side and even if it’s bullshit your like, “Wow, I never knew you felt that way.” You’ve got to hear that sometimes. Also a lot of times people have fun debunking shit. It’s where they feel they have control. They don’t have control at their job, they don’t have control of their household, but they can get on the internet and be super great. I let them have that. I understand the sport.
I was reading a write-up on you that talked about how you used to do art and you turned that art into t-shirts and started selling your shirts on the street. You eventually quit designing and painting, but in speaking about standup you said that you have to sell your material on stage. I wondered if that mentality, that ethic, came from your days of selling your art and t-shirts on the street.
That’s a very interesting observation and a great question and damn, I wish it was true, but it’s really not. I think it’s more…listen, when you believe in something and you really want to be heard you’ll sell it. Selling material comes from giving a fuck about what you’re saying. If you don’t care about what you’re saying, if your jokes are all poop and pee, it’s going to be hard to sell it because you know no one really wants to hear it. But if you really have something to say and want people to hear it, if you’re worth anything, if you have any character, you’ll sell it. If your house is on fire you don’t go to the fire department and say, “This is going to sound crazy and I really don’t want to bother you guys…” That’s my approach to comedy. I’m arrogant enough to think that what I’m saying is important and I’m not leaving until you people listen.