For Comic Michael Che, 'Comfortable' Comedy Won't Fly
Editor's Note: This is an interview with a comedian. Since comedy leans heavy on timing and delivery, this interview is best heard. (The audio will be available around 7 p.m. ET.)
Meet Michael Che, The Daily Show's newest correspondent. He's 30, and though he only began performing stand-up in 2009, his resume is impressive.
You might have seen Che's writing featured in Saturday Night Live skits like "Black Jeopardy" or "12 Days Not A Slave." He just wrapped up a year of working for SNL. He's also performed on shows like Late Show With David Letterman and Late Night With Seth Meyers. And on Friday, Che's own half-hour comedy special will air on Comedy Central.
He talked with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish about his career and work ethic, uncomfortable humor and walking that line between who's laughing — and at what or whom.
On the mixed reaction to the "Black Jeopardy" skit he wrote
Well, I didn't come up with it — it was Brian Tucker came up with the idea. He was like, I wanna do a "Black Jeopardy" thing. And he had one or two things, and we were like laughing and just pitching on it, and it was kind of just one of those sketches that took an hour to write, just really fast, funny jokes that made us laugh. And people loved it, and people hated it, so it was exactly where I want to be in comedy. ...
I love that. I love stuff that polarizes a little bit, because it feels like it's on the edge. It's like the same things that people love about you are going to be what they hate about you.
On whether people are laughing at the disconnect between black and white culture, or if they're laughing at black people
I feel like if that ["Black Jeopardy"] sketch was on [Chappelle's Show] or Key and Peele or on a black show it would have been received a lot differently. I feel like it would have been received a lot better, from black people. People kind of look at us like, "These are white guys making fun of black people," as opposed to, "This is a black writer's take on a thing." But as writers, we have to write about what's funny to us and put it out there.
This is a live show: We find out something's not good the same time you find out something's not good. You can hear the audience be separated — that ["Black Jeopardy"] sketch worked. But I mean, there's times when we can put something out and you hear the audience not like it. It's tough to do. It's not a real thing; we're not saying that black people are dumb. ... Black people have this thing — I have it, we all have it — we have this kind of embarrassment. We don't like white people to find out our little insecurities and our little quirks; we don't really like that that much. Like, "Don't let them know, that's ours, that's for us, don't let them know what we laugh about." That kind of thing, which is silly to me, but it's also, I get it, because I feel the same way sometimes, too.
That's why I'm OK with any backlash because I'm like, yeah, I know where it comes from; I just happen to be on the other side for this one.
On not wanting his comedy to be "comfortable"
Why would you want to be comfortable? This is comedy. ...
I surround myself with people that kind of get that. ... I'm like that with strangers. They don't know if they should be comfortable enough to laugh, but my friends get it, like they know where we come from. I come from projects. We laugh, we make fun of everything. I have six brothers and sisters — my mother has six kids from two different marriages — and we would just sit around making fun of each other's dads. And all our dads had real problems. My brothers and sisters, we love each other, and we'd just make fun of how our dads were addicts and how terrible they were, and that's how we had fun. You know, we still get together and make fun of each other, like that's how we show love because we go through all that same kind of pain. It's like showing your battle scars, like remember when we went through all that? And we're laughing about it.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED I'm Audie Cornish. Last night a new correspondent debuted on "The Daily Show." His name, Michael Che.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
MICHAEL CHE: You like that John?
CHE: First day.
JON STEWART: Yeah, I thought that was pretty good.
CHE: Nailed it. Boom. Murdered it. Murder that [bleep]...
CORNISH: Che may be a new face, but TV audiences are already familiar with his comedy. He spent the last year writing sketches for "Saturday Night Live." But growing up, Michael Che studied painting at a performing arts high school in New York. Back then he didn't really think he was funny until the day Jerry Seinfeld visited.
CHE: I remember he came to the school and he was, like, visiting all the departments and, like, walking around everywhere, like, the whole school is buzzing. So we were eating lunch and one of my friends, like, came up to our table and said, oh Jerry's, like, down the hall or whatever and one of my friends goes, so. And I was like, you don't want to go see him? And he goes, man you funnier than Jerry Seinfeld. Which is not true. Absolutely not true.
CORNISH: What a compliment.
CHE: I mean, to a 14-year-old kid, I was probably funnier than Jerry Seinfeld. You know, but it was, like, as a thing like I felt like, oh, people think I'm funny so I kind of always thought I could do comedy. And I think everybody starts comedy thinking, I can do comedy, you know.
CORNISH: Well, you've develop a style that is kind of laid-back. I want to play something from your upcoming special. And you're joking about, basically, trying to get a regular job.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL)
CHE: You ever lie so bad on your resume that you can't believe you didn't get the job.
CHE: You want to go back to footlocker like, really footlocker? Who the [bleep] do you hire? That has eight years mayoral experience.
CHE: And a degree in physics. Who is this amazing shoe salesman.
CORNISH: I don't know why that makes me laugh when I hear it - but I think it sounds like something somebody would say to you. Like at a bar or on a bad day. Like it's a character in a way.
CHE: Well no, yeah, I don't that's, like, a real joke to me.
CORNISH: Oh that really...
CHE: That's, like, something I really, really, really went through a lot, like, trying to get a job with no college history, not much work history. It' like impossible, you know, like. People would leave school to work and now it's like if you leave school you can't work.
CORNISH: And you think that's what people really respond to that joke?
CHE: That's why I responded to joke. You know, you don't to be an A student to do everything. This country ran with non-A students running it for a long time. It might just - this is very strange because, I'm just, it feels like I'm talking on an island - I have no idea -
CORNISH: I know, well welcome to my world, right. You think you're having a private conversation, my friend, you're not. But let's take it deeper.
CORNISH: The thing is, once you got into comedy, you went hard, right? I read one profile where you talked about doing five shows in two hours. What was behind that? Did you feel like I've got to play catch up? Or...
CHE: It was I got to play catch-up. And also, like, just to make it clear - it's not just me. Like, I'm not the only one with that ethic. It's kind of the scene, you know. It's so competitive. Your brain has to be sharp in order to do it. So the more you're on stage - the faster things come out. Doing one show a day or one show a week, hurts. It's hard to do comedy that way.
CORNISH: What hurts about having too much downtime?
CHE: It fills foreign a little bit. You're just slower. You know, like, when you're doing comedy constantly your organized, you know where everything is, you know how to get out of it, you know how to stretch it. But, like, doing "SNL," I stopped doing spots and then I would finally do some sets - it take me so long to, kind of, get in the rhythm of it. And then by the time I'm in the rhythm of it, I've got to go back to work and then I'm not doing stand-up anymore. So it's really weird.
CORNISH: And as you mentioned you've been a writer for "Saturday Night Live." You've done a lot of great sketches this past season,
CHE: Thank you.
CORNISH: There's like the Zach Galifianakis, dress, basically he's like a bigoted man in an M&M suit.
CHE: Yeah, racist Jim, yeah.
CORNISH: And we have this one. "Black Jeopardy".
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
KEENAN THOMPSON: (As Alex Treblack) Mark, the board is yours.
LOUIS C.K.: (As Mark): OK, good, let's go over to white people for 200.
THOMPSON: (As Alex Treblack) White people are always lying about this...
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)
THOMPSON: (As Alex Treblack) Mark.
C.K.: (As Mark): What is we don't have any money?
THOMPSON: (As Alex Treblack) Yes. The truth is we would have accepted any answer.
CORNISH: That was Louis C.K. playing a professor in an alternate world black version of Jeopardy.
CHE: Yes, black jeopardy.
CORNISH: Tells us a little bit about the idea behind,
CHE: Alex Treblack.
CORNISH: Right, Keenan playing Alex Treblack. Michael Che, how did you come up with this?
CHE: Well, actually I didn't come up with it, it was Brian Tucker came up with the idea. He was like, I want to like do a black jeopardy thing. and, then we were laughing, and we would just pitching on it. And it was kind of one of those sketches that took it like an hour to write, just really fast funny jokes that made us laugh. And people loved it and people hated it.
CORNISH: Yes, yeah.
CHE: So it was (Laughing) exactly where I want to be in comedy.
CORNISH: Oh really?
CHE: Yeah I love that. I love stuff that polarizes a little bit, because it feels like it's on the edge. It's like the same things that people love about you, or going to be what they hate about you, you know.
CORNISH: Well some of the criticism came from this idea that when you do this kind of comedy, is it clear when people are kind of laughing at that disconnect between kind of black and white culture. Or are they laughing at us quote unquote as black people, right, like in the past like Dave Chapelle has talked about that tension.
CORNISH: When he had his show. Talk a little bit about walking that line.
CHE: I feel like if that sketch was on a "Chappelle's Show," if it was on "Key and Peele" or if it was on a black show it would have been received a lot differently. I feel like it would have been received a lot better from black people. People kind of look at us and are like these are white guys making fun of black people, as opposed to this is a black writers take on a thing. But as writers we have the write what's funny to us and put it out there. You know this is a live show. We find out something's not good the same time you find out it's not good.
CORNISH: When we're not laughing on our couch.
CHE: Yeah like that sketch worked. But there's times where we can put something out and you can hear the audience not like it. So it's tough to do. And it's not a real thing, we're not saying that black people are dumb. Black people have, like this thing, and I have it, we all have it, we have this kind of embarrassment.
Where we don't like white people to find out our little insecurities and out little quirks. We don't really like that, that much. It's kind of, we're like, don't let them know, that ours, that's for us. Don't let them know what we laugh about kind of thing. Which is silly to me but it's also, I get it because I feel the same way sometimes too. That's why I'm OK with any backlash because I'm like, I know where it comes from. I just happen to be on the other side for this one.
CORNISH: But it sounds like some of the humor also comes from it being a little uncomfortable and you don't mind that.
CHE: I love that. It's great, that's the best. Why would you want to be comfortable?
CHE: This is comedy.
CORNISH: Are you that guy, you know with your friends as well? Like you say something that's that dry and everyone's like, are we supposed to laugh at that?
CHE: I surround myself with people that kind of get that. I'm like that with strangers, they don't know if they should be comfortable enough to laugh. But my friends get it. Like, they know where we come from. Like, I come from a projects and we laugh, we make fun everything. I have six brothers and sisters. My mother has six kids from two different marriages.
And we would just sit around making fun of each other's dad and all our dads had real problems. (Laughing) My brothers and sisters, we love each other and we would just make fun of how our dads were addicts and how terrible they were. And that's how we had fun, you know. We still get together and make fun of each other. Like that's how we show love because we all go through that same kind of pain. It's like showing your battle scars. Like, man remember when we went through that? And were laughing about it.
CORNISH: Well Michael Che we wish you the best of luck. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
CHE: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: That's Michael Che. You can catch his stand up special on Comedy Central Tomorrow night. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.