Meeting Michael Che in his office on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza would be considered a “home turf” interview. Visiting that famous 17th floor is always intimidating. It’s lined with pictures of SNL cast members past and present, never letting you forget just where you are. The last time I was here, the show was off for winter break. It felt more like a museum. On this night, it was time for the famed Tuesday night writing sessions for the show Kristen Wiig will host four days later. There are real-life familiar faces everywhere. Kate McKinnon walks by and kind of gives me one of those, “Why is this stranger in my way?” kind of looks. New cast member Alex Moffat walks from one office to another. It kind of feels like a dormitory during the week of finals. Everyone has a “it’s going to be a long night” look on their faces as they dart in an out of their respective offices.
Michael Che’s office is tucked away in an area that I’d never be able to find if I wasn’t led there. For being an office building, there are a lot of surprising nooks and crannies to this floor. Che’s office is small, and it seems even smaller when the much-taller-than-expected Che stands up.
On November 25th, Netflix will release Che’s comedy special, Michael Che Matters. Filmed in August, it’s an hour of Che’s opinions on social matters from Black Lives Matters, to Donald Trump, to the many times people on social media have gotten mad at him for the things he’s said. As Che admits though, current events in our world change so fast and his opinions on Trump have changed drastically since this was filmed in early August. (Che jokes there should be a disclaimer that this was filmed in August.)
Not surprisingly, Che comes off a little guarded at first, as any normal human being would at the beginning of a long interview. Over the course of just under an hour, Che’s guard did seem to let down a bit and he became a very compelling interview. He’s honest and straightforward. He’s funny, he’s thoughtful, and he can be controversial. He still thinks Trump should have hosted SNL last season. I admit to him that I disagree with that. And that’s the thing, I may not always agree with him, but he’s always honest and he explains why he feels the way he does.
Michael Che is Michael Che. And in an era of constant fakery, there’s something to be said for someone who is real.
On the way from my apartment to 30 Rock, I read that my shoes have been declared the official shoe of neo-Nazis.
I just found out about that today.
I have to get new shoes.
The Neo-Nazi party, I don’t know that they are allowed to just say what businesses’ brand statement is. They can say that about anything. What if they said that about Coca-Cola? Then is Coca-Cola not delicious anymore?
Well, since I was also drinking Coca-Cola, I’d really be having a bad day.
Exactly. I think with something like New Balance sneakers, people will make New Balance sneakers the victim of that because it’s easy to cut New Balance sneakers out of your life.
These are kind of new. Do I have to get a new shoe right now?
Why is anyone listening to the Neo-Nazi party?
Because it’s fucked up right now.
Don’t listen to anybody! Let’s just pretend for four years these people don’t exist. Like, it’s not a thing. It only affects us if we let them. Like, I could care less what the Neo Nazi party truly believes. They also believe in Christianity. That doesn’t mean I can’t believe in it.
Maybe I should just get Nikes.
Wait until you find out how Nike makes their sneakers. It’s way worse than what the Neo Nazis say! What until you find out who makes these. Oh my lord. If you’re only looking to buy products from good people, good luck being buck-naked. Because I’ve got to tell you, you’re not going to find a lot of choices.
In your special, which was filmed before the election, you say you don’t want Trump to be president, but you do want to be friends with him. Do you still want to be friends with him?
I think that right now America is mad at him. And I think since the special, more outrageous things have come out about him. I didn’t know he had pending sexual assault charges. We shot it August 5th. So much has come out about him, which makes him seem like much worse of a dude.
There should be a disclaimer, “This was shot in August.”
“This was shot in August, what do you want?” That’s the weird thing about news, everything is just happening so fast. You can’t have an opinion about something because two months later you realize, wow, this seems out of date.
Do you worry about that when making a comedy special that deals with a lot of social issues that won’t air until three months later?
You worry about it, but that’s why you always have to couch everything towards honesty and honest reactions to “the thing.” I’m not a fortuneteller. All the bits I do are basically just honest, gut reactions to what I feel hearing this news. How do we get to that point? So when you hear it, you can tell, “Oh, he didn’t know this yet.” I think what happens to a lot of comedians, they get on such a high pedestal and soapbox, when it turns out they’re completely wrong and full of shit, it seems even crazier – because now they have to backpedal. It’s like Donald Trump. The stuff that he says about Obama? He didn’t know he’d be in this same exact position eight years later and now he has to face it. And now he’s like, “Well, I think everybody should just be fair and stop protesting the president. I’m the president of everybody.” And go back eight years ago and he’s like, “Everybody protest Obama.”
Do you think Trump wants to be president?
I think he did, until he found out what presidents do. I bet you if you look at Donald Trump’s phone right now, in his Google searches there’s, “What does a president do?” I don’t think he knows the day-to-day of a president’s life. Like, I don’t! On surface level he thought, “Well, I could do that.” And he ran a brilliant campaign. And I think he’s going to change the way campaigns will be run forever. And I think he saw what Obama did and he saw how Obama connected with people in his campaign and he said, “I can do the same thing on the opposite side.” And he was absolutely correct. I think the days of kissing babies and, “I will see that the middle class…,” that type of campaigning is dead. I think they killed it. I think Hillary Clinton killed it. I think Donald Trump killed it.
So you don’t think it will ever go back to the way it was?
I think they’re just going to find a guy who did what Donald Trump did.
So if Cory Booker runs, he’d run a campaign like that?
I think Cory Booker would run a campaign the way Trump ran it. I do.
He will be a man of the people. He will be frank.
But Trump alienated people.
No, no. I’m not saying alienate. Trump alienated people because he was speaking to a specific demographic. He knew there were more of these people than not.
Not even “more,” just enough in the right states to win the Electoral College.
He’s out there though! He’s on the streets. He sees it. He’s out there more so than Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is in her office actually doing work. He’s out there. He’s talking to 20,000 or 30,000 people at a time. He knows what they want.
And we made fun of him for only listening to the people at his rallies.
We made fun of him because we forgot that America is America. If you connect with people, they will support you. And we forgot that this country is bigger than New York, L.A., and Chicago.
Since 1992, arguably the more “charismatic” candidate has won every time.
Every time. And this is the most alarming case. You look who Obama ran against, McCain and Romney. You think, well, why? Well, he was human. He looked like a human fucking being. He played basketball. He had a wife. They looked like they fucked. He was a real person; you could touch him.
There’s a big part in your special about the N-word. You’ve used it on “Weekend Update.” How does that work? Do you have to tell Lorne Michaels, “I think I might say this?”
I wrote what I think is funny and I let them tell me to come backwards. They will tell me when to rein it in. I wrote it thinking it’s funny. There are times I’ve said something and they are like, “Hey, you probably can’t get away with that.” If they don’t tell me to come back, I’m not coming back. So I don’t really think of it in a way of, “This is going to be a moment.” Because I don’t use the word in that way. I don’t use the word as this big message. I try to make comedy that reflects how it would be to talk to me in a living room. I want to be in your living room. This is the way I talk and that’s the way I’m going to write it and that’s how I’m going to perform it. And if they tell me we can’t use that, then I’ll rein it back. But I’m not going to do their job for them. That’s my approach to saying “The N Word,” as everyone calls it.
I’m going to call it that.
You don’t have to!
You address this in your special about white people using it. I’m not going to be one of the people who “try it out and see how it goes.”
It’s a very tricky thing. But even that word, it’s not me being for it or against it, it’s just me telling you the reality of what the word is. Some people freak out. Some people don’t freak out. Some people say it and they don’t mean it in a bad way and they still feel bad about it. Some people say it and they mean it in the worst way. We have to remember how to be people again. We have to remember how to be human beings with intentions and plans and desires. I feel like we forget. Everything is so black and white. You could almost write a manual of how to be a politically correct person. Being a person is way more sophisticated than that.
You address in your special about how you got in trouble for your comments on the catcall video.
Don’t say that. I didn’t get “in trouble.” See, that’s the thing…
You literally used that phrasing in your special. I’m quoting you.
You said that on stage!
Yeah, okay. I did. I did. Maybe I did.
You did. I just watched it.
But I didn’t get “in trouble.” Okay, I need to stop saying that.
People who didn’t like what you said were tweeting at you.
Right. But who are they? What does that mean? If someone doesn’t like it you’re in trouble? I’ll read a headline on the internet, “Twitter outraged.” Or, “Twitter is not having it.” And you’re like, “Who?” Is it 100 people? Is it 1000 people? There are 400 million people in this country! Who’s outraged? And when you say outraged, does that mean they said they didn’t like it? Or are they outside my apartment? What does that mean? It’s such a silly thing. And I think that’s the thing that Donald Trump has shown. It’s like, “everyone is outraged!” Oh yeah, then how come he won? How come it was that close? There’s no such thing as outrage. Some people didn’t like it and they were very vocal about it. And that’s fine! But that’s what entertainment is. You’re going to like parts of it and you’re not going to like other parts of it. There are times I saw movies I’ve paid $20 for and it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be and I was outraged! So what? Does that mean that director should stop making movies? No one should ever like that movie because I didn’t like it? Whatever. I said a joke about catcalling and a lot of people didn’t like it and thought it was insensitive. That’s fine. It’s one of the many, many things I’m sure those people would disagree with me about. And I’m okay with that.
On “Weekend Update,” you are very much you. Even if some people don’t like it, you are very much you.
Because I try to be honest. And being honest isn’t about being right or being 100 percent factual. I put out what I think is funny. To me, that’s honest comedy. Rodney Dangerfield is honest comedy. Not because he’s really got a doctor named Vinnie Boombatz, but you know when Rodney Dangerfield wrote that joke it made him laugh. And it was something he wants to share. It’s funny to him and he’s not just doing something because he thinks it works. He’s not just doing something because he thinks that’s what the audience wants to hear. He’s doing his brand of humor. And for me, I feel like as long as I have this job I have to be honest in putting out what I truly think is funny. People may like Tina Fey’s brand better. People may like Norm Macdonald’s brand better. Some people might like Jimmy Fallon’s brand better. Some people may like Seth Meyers. And that’s great! I like their stuff, too! But I’m not going to do what they did just to please them. You know that saying, “A camel is a horse built by committee”? Well, I’m the only one building this horse.
There’s been a constant tone and style to “Weekend Update” since Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey started hosting in 2000, which was very different than Colin Quin before them. You’re the first person to come along with a radically different style in 16 years and people haven’t seen that in a long time.
Oh, I agree. And that’s fine. The thing about SNL, a lot of the show is appreciated in hindsight.
I tell people to watch a full show from, say, 1976. It’s surprising how many sketches don’t land. We just don’t see those anymore.
It’s just a testament of how hard it is to do this show at a high level. No episode is completely perfect.
The Dave Chappelle show came close.
It was pretty up there. But it’s a very hard thing to do live comedy. No one else is trying live comedy for 90 minutes.
Scripted, that was written on the Tuesday before.
With a host that they’ve never worked for before, probably. Someone who maybe never even did comedy before. It’s a very, very tricky thing to do. And people will remember what they loved and they take that with them. And people remember what they hated and they take that with them. A lot of times the cast gets appreciated later on after years, because they remember those five or ten things they did – their “best of” – that makes them say, “Man, I remember when that guy did that and it made me laugh so hard. Or when Kristen Wiig was on or whoever else was on. It’s a very hard show to do and there’s a reason why so many talented people do other things after they were able to do this. I don’t mind it. I know I’ll hold up when it comes to honestly. When you take a step back, you’re going to be like, “But then he was doing some bullshit.”
In the special you ask how you’re supposed to get past any flaw if you’re not allowed to talk about it.
That bothers me so much. We’ve created this society where no one is allowed to have a flaw. If you go to therapy, you don’t tell the therapist about the person you want to be, you tell them who you are deep down. You tell them what you’re ashamed of. I think that’s what comedy is. I say it first and I say it to strangers and I say it on national television and I say it looking in the camera. So the other person who feels that way but never wanted to say it says, “Damn, that’s me.” And that’s were the connection is. And it might not be a lot of people. It might be a lot of people, you never know. But I have to jump out the window first for people to see it. And that’s what makes the job fun. I don’t want to say what everybody else thinks. I don’t want to get on stage and say, “Donald Trump is a racist.” Because who cares? Everyone knows that. But what’s interesting? Tell me something I didn’t think.
Since the election, I’ve seen a lot of calls to get out of our echo chambers. But then I see you do a joke about Hillary’s emails and people don’t like that.
Well, first of all, this kind of era is such a Mean Girls mentality. Mean Girls meaning the movie, I’m not saying that only girls are mean. But Mean Girls in that, if we don’t like this guy, anything you say in his favor even slightly, you can’t sit with us anymore. And it’s ridiculous! We’re not being honest. Also, this show is not on for liberals. This show is on for America. We play 50 states. And people who voted for Donald Trump love this show. He hosted this show! We have to do jokes about the whole thing. We are not on any side. If aliens landed and they wanted a crash course of what this year has been like, we want them to be able to watch this show and get a rounded view of everybody. It’s not for the left and it’s not for the right. You’ll read a review and one review says we were too left. Another review will say we were too right. That makes me happy because that means we went down the middle.
What websites are you reading that say the show is “too left”?
Maybe I’m in the echo chamber because I only see the “too right” complaints.
I see all the complaints.
Yes, the Breitbart recap probably thinks it’s “too left.”
[Laughs.] If after 42 seasons people still feel the need to write about it and talk about it and get angry? If we are in a position to let them down, that means we are doing our jobs. The show still matters to people. When they don’t give a fuck about what we’re saying, then we are in trouble. But when they are still, “I can’t believe they said that!,” then that means we are still doing good. The show matters. The show still matters and that’s important.
I’ll admit, I didn’t like that Trump hosted. I feel it sent a message that what he was saying…
It legitimizes it.
Yes. A lot of people feel hurt that happened.
A lot of people felt that way. And in the cast and on the writing staff there were a lot of people who felt that way. I’ll speak for myself, I thought it was kind of cool he was on the show, personally. Here’s why I thought it was cool: This show, to me, feels like a time capsule of pop culture in America. I love being able to watch a 1994 SNL and watching a shitty band that’s completely irrelevant and you’re like, “Oh, remember this?” And hearing jokes, “Oh, people gave a fuck about that?” That, to me, is what makes the show fun and what makes the show special. And we’re the ones who can do that. And a lot of America watched it. And I don’t get paid if the show gets a bigger number, but it’s cool to me our show can do that and take risks. What makes SNL SNL is that we’re the bad boys. We’re the back of the classroom. We’re doing things we’re told you’re not allowed to do and that’s what makes it exciting.
But you had protestors right outside your window.
It’s exciting! I’d rather have that than some have some host of some teen movie I could care less about that will go away in a month.
At dress rehearsal the night Trump hosted, you and Colin Jost had some very pointed jokes about Trump that were cut for the live show. I heard the studio audience didn’t know what to think.
It was tense and awkward. For selfish reasons, I wish it had gone out on air. Leslie Jones has a great line, “You can address the elephant in the room as long as you make the elephant laugh, too.” I love that and I think that’s true because we are a comedy show. Do I think he should be in the White House? Absolutely not. Do I think he should be on our show? One hundred percent. I thought it was cool. A lot of people didn’t like it and that’s okay. But this show is supposed to bring out strong opinions. I mean, we put Dave Chappelle on TV and Donald Trump on TV within a year. That’s just shows you how dope this show is. Who else is doing that? That’s why I like it. I think it’s exciting. I don’t subscribe to that theory that we are just supposed to shun people we don’t like. I just don’t. I think if you’re telling the truth and being honest, it doesn’t matter who is on the show.
But Trump’s not honest.
I’m talking about us. I’m saying, if we are doing honest comedy and being true to ourselves, it doesn’t matter who walks though those doors. We should be able to do our show.
Your “Weekend Update” style has changed since you first started. You’re much looser now.
I started writing more. The first season, I was just trying to do the job I saw and keep the job, not realizing I can’t do that job. I had no interest in doing that job. I wasn’t good at doing that job. It wasn’t fun to do that job. Have you ever watched Trading Places with Eddie Murphy?
You know when Eddie Murphy first gets there and it’s like, “This is your house,” and he’s still stealing stuff? “No, you don’t understand, you’re stealing from yourself. This is your stuff!” That’s my first year at SNL. “No, you have the job, just do what we want you to do.” And I’m still trying to do what Seth did and Seth is so good at it. And I don’t know what I’m doing because I can’t be Seth. He’s so amazing how he did the job.
And he did it for so long, it became, “This is how it’s done.”
“That’s just how it is. Oh, this is the job.” No, it’s not the job. Tina and Jimmy were not doing Colin Quinn’s “Update.” Colin was not doing Norm’s “Update.” Norm was not doing Dennis Miller’s “Update.”
We forgot Kevin Nealon.
Oh yeah, Kevin Nealon, excuse me. But you know what I mean. I had to figure out the “Update” I wanted to do and that me and Colin would shine in. And once we figured out we were secure in having the job, we were like, “Oh, why are we doing it this way?” And that’s been the change.
On the Dave Chappelle show, you messed up a punchline. Instead of ignoring it, you kept referring to it.
Yeah! Before it would have been silence and discombobulated and it would have felt wrong. I forgot I was doing comedy when I was doing “Update” in the beginning. It didn’t feel like comedy, it felt like work. It felt like I was playing a role. In comedy you mess up all the time. But it’s comedy, so it’s the best place to mess up. You can get a bigger laugh messing up! People watch Conan to see him bomb. They don’t wan to see a good joke from Conan. They want to see Conan bomb then make fun of himself and do dance. That’s what makes Conan special and good.
Letterman was good at that.
Letterman was good at it. That’s what you want. Fun is contagious and I wasn’t having fun and that’s why people weren’t having fun watching I don’t think early on – at least I wasn’t having fun. But I feel like later on, in the second half of last year until this point, we’re having fun. We are excited to tell these jokes and the show has been more fun and the audience is picking that up. It’s funny how long that takes you to figure out.
I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to be a stepdad. Seth sees it and feels it. I bet Jimmy feels it in some certain aspects. I bet Trevor Noah feels that way. It’s hard to come in after. It takes time to be a stepdad because all people are going to say is, “Dad would have never done it that way,” or, “Mom would have never done it that way.” So, it’s very difficult. But once they settle in and they realize you’re not going anywhere and that you love them just as much as the person before, then you can start to have fun with them. And it took us longer than I would have liked it to figure that out, but now that it’s been figured out, it’s been a lot of fun.
Michael Che Matters premieres November 25 on Netflix.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.