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As the co-head writer of Saturday Night Live and half of its “Weekend Update” team, Michael Che gets plenty of laughs — while also taking frequent heat for his provocative comedy. Raised on the Lower East Side, the 38-year-old Che (actually his middle name — his dad was a fan of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara) —stepped out from under the SNL umbrella with his own sketch show, That Damn Michael Che on HBO Max, where he gets a little more personal as he explores themes like race, police brutality and COVID-19 paranoia.
Covering the Trump administration on “Weekend Update,” you didn’t take the obvious route. You’re willing to maybe offend people — because you’re looking for material hidden in the nooks and crannies.
There are a lot of comedy moves that are available. A lot of times, [other comedians] start to trip over one another. It’s a rush to the rest of that morality punchline. My favorite comedians that did this job were Norm Macdonald and Colin Quinn. I liked guys that no matter what you believed, you knew that door is going to come swinging at you at some point. I can only make fun of you because I’m willing to make fun of what I believe, too. We all kind of have a little bit of dirt under our fingers.
On your new sketch show, That Damn Michael Che, you had a part about how Black people don’t really watch SNL. So you’re not that big a deal at a Black nightclub. Is that true?
That actually happened to me. I went up to a Black bouncer and I said, “I don’t know if you know me, I’m Michael Che.” And he was like, “I know.” I’m like, “OK, well … that’s all I got.” So, yeah, it’s true. What’s also true is it’s a lot cooler to say that you don’t care about SNL. A lot of people who do watch it love to say, “Well, I haven’t seen it since Norm.”
That’s got to be annoying.
No, it’s fun. That’s the business, the show. People care about it, they get mad at it. That’s good. That’s special. We work hard so that people could feel something.
One thing about SNL is for years, people complained it was too white and too straight. And it’s definitely less of that now.
I think that the diversity of the show is really cool, man. When I first got there, I was the only Black writer. And Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah were the only Black castmembers. Now it’s a completely different room to try to make laugh. When we have those table reads, there’s a lot more people of color, a lot more people with different orientations. Ego Nwodim had one of my favorite sketches of the year. She played a mother with Daniel Kaluuya, who played the father, and the kid wanted to be a creative writer and not a doctor. And they were disappointed. It was a sketch about how Black parents want more for their kids than to be a creative writer. That’s a culturally mood-specific experience. And you need color in that room to get that joke. It’s come a long way.
There’s an episode of That Damn Michael Che about how some Black people have a superstition that if you succeed, it’s at the cost of someone’s life in your family, like an aunt dies when you graduate from college. How does it work?
It doesn’t work. It’s not real, but it is something that people believe. There is a sort of skepticism and cynicism to any sort of success when you come from poverty. Because people are willing to believe anything about how you got your success. And it’s a fun thing to kind of joke about, to show how silly it really is once it’s said out loud.
You take people on, on a one-on-one basis — critics and Twitter trolls and stuff. What’s your philosophy about that?
I think it’s hilarious. I enjoy it in the moment. It’s funny to just talk shit with somebody. But I also do think that there is a culture of people who will write something, knowing that they have the whatever company they work for to hide behind. So it’s not, “Jim Johnson said this about the show.” It’s, “Vulture said this about the show.” Or Daily Beast or whatever publication. And they never want to be seen. They’re usually very private people. They don’t have pictures up. You don’t really know their name, you don’t see their life, but they want to say everything there is to say about everybody else. I like to go on a one-on-one level and talk to people and say, “Look, that’s not fair. You’re a failed comic, and this is why you hate comedians,” or whatever the case may be. Sometimes I’m wrong, but sometimes I’m not wrong. … I guess maybe it just looks a lot different if you’re watching me [on the internet] than if you’re in my own brain laughing.
I think the assumption is once you achieve a certain level of fame, you have to take whatever criticism is thrown at you.
I think it’s more, if you’re in a public space, we have free rein to take your humanity away. And we’re supposed to say things and you’re not supposed to feel a certain kind of way, and if you do feel a certain kind of way, you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut about it. And to me, I feel like that’s silly. That’s just unreasonable.
Have these spats ever come back to haunt you in any way?
I don’t know if it has or not. I mean, it’s probably come back to haunt me as far as people wanting to take chances with me. I think people probably have a different idea of who I am than who I actually am. I think people think that I’m an angry person, when I’m not. They’ll say I was “angry” or I’m “lashing out.” They know how to make it look like a headline when it’s absolutely nothing, and it gets clicks and people kind of believe that. So yeah. It probably has haunted me. I think it’s funny. I’m not for everybody.
So Lorne Michaels has never said, “Don’t engage with these trolls, Michael …”
No, I never talked to Lorne about this. God — that would be so funny.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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