Meet Michael Che. If you don’t know him, get to know him because the 30-year-old writer and stand-up comedian from the Lower East Side is blowing up right in his own backyard.
In the past year, Che was named as one of Rolling Stone’s “50 Funniest People,” Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” and was hired as a writer at Saturday Night Live. His casual demeanor onstage screams natural, while his penchant for applying candid personal knowledge to turn political controversy into laughs screams special.
A former painting student at LaGuardia High School, Che is fresh off becoming the first comedian to perform stand-up on Seth Meyers’ new late night show (he took on Letterman last November). With his four-day weekend performance at Carolines kicking off tonight, we caught up with Che to chat about all that is happening in his world.
I was pretty drunk for the first year and a half, maybe. It’s a very superstitious thing, a ritual almost like baseball players who won’t shave when they’re on a hitting streak. That’s how comedy is – when you’re drunk, it’s really hard to do a set sober because you’re all like, “Well, I have to be drunk because when I’m drunk I’m funny.”
Now I like to be on the same page with the audience. If it’s a really drunken crowd then I’m going be drunk, and if everyone is having just a couple drinks then I want to just have a couple drinks. If it’s a corporate thing and everyone is a sober and stuffy, then I want to be sober and stuffy too. If I’m performing at a church I want communions.
Well, I just love doing comedy so the coolest thing is the quality of spots. I have the opportunity to perform in some really cool places now. I can go to the best clubs in the city, traveling for shows, being able to headline…things like that really help you grow as a comic.
I like the process and the process happens in small dark rooms. That’s where shit really happens. Theaters are just masturbation – that’s a treat, you know? To be able to go out and just own it for two thousand people, where you have their undivided attention and you have this huge spotlight that is perfectly lit and the acoustics are so perfect that I can mumble some shit and reach the back of the house and nobody is clinking drinks or reading menus…if you don’t do well then, you’re not even trying. The real work, the real comedy, lives in the dark pubs or dark bars where there is a live environment going on behind and around you.
It’s really weird. I’m like a novelty now because I’m from New York City. People are always like, “You’re from Manhattan, but where are you from originally?” They don’t get that I’m from the Lower East Side down the street. It’s the comedy mecca, and you pretty much have to go through here to make it…the opportunities for venues and the sheer volume of sets, you don’t have to drive anywhere, there are a lot of tourists and different cultures and diversity in all the neighborhood – It’s really the perfect place for comedy.
You’ve done some really funny stuff commenting on gentrification in your old neighborhood. What are your thoughts on how NYC continues to change?
I mean I see both sides of it. On one hand, I get that people from these gentrified neighborhoods get frustrated that they’re getting priced out and that the city is losing some of its charm. You know, that the local bodega and pizza shop is being replaced by 7-Eleven and cupcake stores. But on the other hand, that’s what happens when you make a place cool to live. And that’s just something you have to accept. We make it cool and people identify with it. And while we’re there, let’s make it safer too – I don’t want to get mugged while I’m there. How can you be upset when it’s less violent? When’s the last time you saw a pimp and prostitute in Times Square? It used to be all the time.
I don’t know, it’s hard because they always compare you to someone that is really hard to live up to. Nobody compares you to someone that is mediocre. They say stuff like, “Oh, he’s doing what [Dave] Chappelle is doing, he kind of reminds me of [Chris] Rock or Hannibal [Buress].” It feels weird to even hear that, though.
I wanted to ask you about Hannibal. He’s a Brooklyn resident, and you two are friends and have crossed paths a lot, including at his Sunday showcase at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg. Is that somebody who you look up to?
Yeah man, Hannibal is the shit. He’s a real dude. For me starting up, Hannibal would mention my name and was really cool and kind of gave me some exposure. I love where he comes from as far as his joke subject matter; he finds comedy in the most mundane places. When you can take stuff from just pickle juice in the refrigerator…you know when you can find comedy in places where people wouldn’t even look then you’re fucking good, and Hannibal is one of the best at being able to do that. I’m like, “Dammit there’s nothing else to talk about,” and then I watch Hannibal and he’s got like 15 minutes on something that’s happened to me 12 times and I didn’t even think it could be comedy.
My process is I go on Twitter and I go on Facebook and I see what everybody is ranting and raving about. I see what everyone is bothered by and then I try to figure out why it’s not so bad. That’s literally my process.
I try to come from a place where controversial topics don’t sound controversial. I never want to be one of those comedians where if you don’t agree with him, you’re not going to find him funny. I want to be able to take these really controversial issues and show a lighter side where no matter your stance, you can laugh…I feel like when you make people comfortable enough to laugh at something that they wouldn’t ordinarily talk about in public they like you a little bit for it.
I don’t like to mess with people’s religion. I feel like spirituality is a very personal thing. But that doesn’t mean I never will; shit I might next week. I also don’t like to touch people’s weight. I don’t like fat jokes. Actually, I hate fat jokes. And rape jokes.
It wasn’t even a dream because it just seemed so unattainable, like I didn’t even know how to fathom working there. It’s such an institution with so much history. It’s such a very well-oiled machine that there’s times where you’re literally asking yourself, “Why am I here? They don’t need me. They will be fine without me. I could just disappear and nobody would notice.” You feel that way just because of how much talent is around you. But it’s really cool to be a part of it and when I do get something on and it works, it’s really exciting.
I don’t know, man. I already get that performance itch scratched doing stand-up so it might be a bit much. I kind of like the balance I have right now. I mean it would be a great honor, but I really feel like they’re doing a great job without me.
I’m really excited about it. It’s my first time doing a weekend gig in New York. First time ever, so that’s a big deal for me. Four nights in a row, and I’m hoping to have some fun with it, and change it up a bit each night depending on the crowd.
This is exactly where I want to be right now. I’m having a great time, I really am. Hopefully this can continue because it’s what I love to do. If my career doesn’t go any further and I can just stay here for the rest of my life, I’ll be a happy guy.