As a Weekend Update co-anchor, Michael Che helps tie Saturday Night Live to current events. Although the show has topical sketches, Update is its heart and gives the cast a way to shoot pointed barbs at even the unfunniest bits of the week’s news. Alongside Colin Jost, Che both delivers the news and acts as a foil for Update’s visiting characters, a skill he sharpened during his time as a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
Before Che was on either of those shows, he was a stand-up working New York’s club circuit. That’s something Che will return to this weekend when his one-hour special, Michael Che Matters, premieres on Netflix (read The A.V. Club’s review here). In it, Che riffs on everything from Donald Trump, who he thinks deserves a year to really fuck the presidency up, to religion. The A.V. Club talked to Che about his special as well as the aforementioned president-elect.
The A.V. Club: Your special was filmed before the election, and in it you joke about how crazy you think Donald Trump is, saying that his presidency will be funny. Do you still feel that way?
Michael Che: I guess he’s joke-worthy more than ever because he’s the president. I think Donald Trump being president is more about where the country is at as opposed to it actually being about Donald Trump. It feels like going to couples therapy and really finding out how your other half feels.
AVC: You have a joke in the special where you say you think it would be fun to watch him fuck around for a year. Are you looking forward to that?
MC: Well, maybe I’m naive, but I still have a little bit of faith in the structure of the United States government and thinking that one man can’t ruin everything. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m hopeful or cynical, but I just don’t think one man can change everything. It’s just like I didn’t think Obama could save the country by himself. I don’t think Trump can ruin the country all by himself. I don’t know. I hope I’m right.
AVC: There is some comic relief to be found in the sheer amount of flailing he’s been doing, just in the sense that you have to laugh or else you’ll cry.
MC: I don’t think he knew exactly what being a president was. Just like anybody, he’s not in government. He’s not a politician, so there’s no way he knew exactly what a president’s day-to-day was. So I think the more he’s finding out, the more he’s realizing. There’s a little bit of comedy in him thinking, “Holy shit, why am I doing this? I’m a 70-year-old billionaire. I could have just lived the next 10 to 20 years of my life happy and doing nothing.”
AVC: He’s going to take 10 to 20 years off of his life in the next four years.
MC: With a 70-year-old person’s life, it might not be four years. Of course, I’m not wishing death on our president, but…
AVC: What’s life like for you on the road?
MC: I don’t like to travel. I go out. When you do stand up, you travel a lot. Just working out. I don’t really enjoy it. I like New York. There’s nothing really like New York. Everything just becomes a worse version of New York.
I just don’t like to travel. I don’t like airports. I don’t like living out of a suitcase. I don’t like finding out where the CVS is and where the place is that’s good to eat and making friends for a week. I don’t like any of that stuff.
AVC: How often do you get out to work on material in New York?
MC: As often as possible. I like to go as soon as I have a bit. I just find a place to go. That’s the cool thing about working on [SNL] is that a lot of clubs will let you go up on a moment’s notice. That’s one of the perks. You can go anywhere in New York. There’s always something to do in New York. There’s always a place to eat no matter what time it is. There’s always a place to work, a place to drink. It’s conducive to my lifestyle. I don’t know how to drive a car, so I like to be able to walk places.
AVC: Do you think you’ll ever learn how to drive a car?
MC: I hope so, because I can afford one now so, it’d be nice to have a nice, obnoxious car. Right now, I can’t drive it, so it’s useless.
AVC: Taking driving classes as an adult is a weird construct.
MC: I would love to know how to drive. I just don’t feel like learning.
AVC: When you’re kid it’s like, “I’m going to take these classes. I’m going to learn how to do it. I’m going to sit in a car with a strange instructor for hours on end.” But now, as an adult, and especially for you, probably, because you’re on television, you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to make small talk with someone.
MC: It’s not so much the small talk. I have friends that tell me they’ll teach me, but once you get past about 25, 30, you’re just like, “Eh. I think I know everything I need to know right now. Even if I don’t, I’m just going to play this hand.” Your thirst for learning isn’t the same as when you’re 17.
AVC: Do you think you’re still learning things, even at 33?
MC: I’m absolutely learning. Culturally, things are different. I’ve learned a lot being on SNL. I’ve learned a lot just being around people who grew up so differently from me, which is cool. It teaches you how to be a lot more tolerant. The bigger your world is, the more tolerant and accepting you become, because you have friends from all walks of life. You learn to be a little bit less selfish.
AVC: Your stand-up special is a big production. You built a stage in a warehouse and have a live band. Why did you decide to go with that sort of set?
MC: As a guy comedian, your special is probably the closest thing to the excitement of a wedding day. It’s your first one, and you want it to be perfect, and you want it to mean something. You want it to look good.
When I watch a comedy special, I just don’t want to see a guy and a curtain or just a comedian and a stool. You want it to seem like something. You want to feel like, “Man I wish I was there that night.” Or, “Man, I don’t know where they shot this.” Just something more pleasing than just the jokes.
Working with Oz [Rodriguez], the director, we were looking for different places to shoot and thinking about what kind of venues could work. First he was thinking about doing a standing room, but we backed off the standing room and asked, “Why not think outside the box and do it in an empty warehouse?” We’d give people drinks, throw up the stage, and get some music going and make it fun. And that’s what we did.
AVC: You do a lot of crowd work, too, and that makes viewers feel like they want to be or that they are there.
MC: Yeah, that was exactly the point. We wanted it to look like, “Next time this guy comes to town, I want to go to that.” Every special is just a commercial for the live show, I think. It makes fans want to come see you when you come to town.
Everything comes down to that. Anything you do on TV—any special, any late-night appearance—everything comes down to seeing your show live when it comes to town.
AVC: I talked to Pete Davidson not too long ago, and I asked him, “What’s the biggest you want to be? Do you want to be playing stadiums? Do you want to be playing clubs forever?” How big do you want to be? Do you want to have Trump supporters at your shows who might not laugh at your jokes? What’s the dream?
MC: First of all, of course I want Trump supporters at my show. And of course I want them laughing. You want everybody to think it’s funny.
That’s one of the things about comedy that annoys me the most from a comedian perspective. Comedy has gotten so segregated. Now it’s like if you don’t agree with somebody, you probably aren’t going to like their jokes. I think comedians are starting to write for their audience and not towards the country. Go listen to Richard Pryor and George Carlin and guys like that, who were working when the country was less segregated. I know that’s weird to say because it was the ’60s, but everybody got the same news. Everybody got the same comedy. Everybody watched the same late-night show. It was way less segregated. Now everyone finds their own news channel and their own comedy and their own brand of humor. I want to get back to when everybody could listen to one thing, and you’ve got to write with everybody considered. I think the best way to do that is to really… It’s about you [the audience]. You’re like, “Man. That’s true.” Or, “Boy did they nail me.” It’s not about ridiculing someone. It’s more about looking at it in a fun way.
But to answer the question, I would love to be able to play anywhere, but to me the sweet spot is clubs and theaters, just because I feel like you lean in to tell a joke. You don’t back up. Comedy lives in that area. I’ve played amphitheaters, big clubs, and pool halls, and the most fun rooms hold anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people. That intimacy is where comedy really lives.