Don’t ask Michelle Buteau how she would describe her comedy. “The worst question people can ask me is, ‘How would I describe my brand of comedy?’ I just go, ‘Funny.’ I like to let other people describe me, because you never know what they see.” If you’re not familiar with Buteau’s standup, you’ll have a chance to see it this Saturday night at midnight with the premiere of her Comedy Central Half Hour. She’s becoming an increasingly familiar face, having appeared on Last Comic Standing, The Late Late Show, VH1’s Best Week Ever, and Key & Peele. I talked to Buteau about her family life, hyper-sensitivity in comedy, and what it’s like to start doing comedy three days after 9/11.
Happy belated birthday!
Oh, thank you! You’re better than my husband.
This poor guy. He gets so much abuse. I watched the special last night and it’s obvious that you two are very much in love. But he’s the subject of so much of your humor. How does he take it?
He’s fine. He has someone to cook his dinner and suck his dick for the rest of his life. He’s a good-natured type of person. He’s not even the type of guy who’s like, “Ooh, are you going to make this joke about me?” He just doesn’t want me to talk about his penis when he’s there. When we first started dating, I would have him come to a show, make him stand up, and have people clap for his foreskin. He let me know that we needed to set boundaries.
That’s fair. He must be good natured, because in addition to him, his family comes up a lot in your material. I know there is a slight language gap with his family in terms of how your English comedy would translate. Do they watch your standup?
They try to watch it. Fortunately, there’s a lot of restrictions in the Netherlands, so they can’t always watch it, which works in my favor. But they’re fine with it. The Netherlands is a really cool place where you could be a doctor or a DJ and they’re like, “It’s the same kind of job. You’re serving people.” They’re weirdly liberal and fine with things. Or maybe they’re dead inside and don’t have any feelings left. I can’t tell which.
That’s the beauty of European stoicism. You can’t always tell what’s going on.
Right. That’s what the wine is for.
Where did you get your start?
I started in New York. I actually started three days after September 11th. I was editing for the local news for a really long time, in college and right out of college. I was working the overnight shift. Then 9/11 happened and all of the sudden I was working 16-18 hour shifts editing very gruesome video. NBC offered us therapy. I was like, “No, I’m good. I’m going to do comedy.” It was great. I’ve been doing it ever since. For a really long time, I would support myself working the overnight shift at WNBC while doing comedy. I did both for a really long time and kind of paid my dues, but it was definitely worth it. Also, in hindsight, I should have done comedy and taken therapy. Live and learn.
Post-9/11 was a tough time for even established comics. What was it like getting started when you’re just trying to find out who you are as a comic?
It was really kind of a great time. Although a lot of established comedians had these really well crafted jokes about Al Qaeda and George Bush, I didn’t have any of that. When you first start comedy, you’re a guy who wants to talk about blowjobs, or a girl who’s self-deprecating, or a new comic who wants to curse a lot. My stuff was just very personal and about me and was a departure from anything 9/11 related. I lived it all night and day at work. I just wanted to talk about whatever my jokes were at the time. I think it was good for me and good for them.
With the assortment of different TV roles you’ve had – you’ve been on various talk shows, talking head shows on VH1, recently you were on The Jim Gaffigan Show and @Midnight – do you find yourself getting recognized more when you go out?
Yeah, I am. It’s really fun too. It’s always one of two things: People will either know exactly right away what they recognize me from and say, “Oh, I loved when you said this,” and I don’t really remember what I say half the time, or they’ll say, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” It’s really interesting. I feel like what I get recognized for the most are a couple of Key & Peele sketches I did. Those guys are so amazing. Everything they do is kind of timeless and people watch it over and over and over again. A lot of times when I go out, people will go, “Delete the picture, motherfucker,” or yell a phrase I said. I also did this thing for Best Week Ever called “Panties On, Panties Off,” where it was like a thumbs up/thumbs down thing, but for pop culture. Panties off would be a good thing, Isaac, heyyyy. Panties on would be like, “No, I don’t want it.” One time this officer came up to me and I was like, “What the fuck did I do?” She was like, “Yo, I love that panties shit,” and walked away. I was like, “Okay! I’ve made it.”
A lot of articles I read about you labeled you as “sassy.” I’ve talked to other comics who dislike that adjective, because they feel it’s just a nicer way of saying “bitchy.” How do you feel about that label?
Oh my God, I will gladly take “sassy bitch,” the whole phrase. I think people over-think things sometimes and give too much power to words. The worst question people can ask me is, “How would I describe my brand of comedy?” I just go, “Funny.” I like to let other people describe me, because you never know what they see. A lot of people say sassy, so, whatever. I must be fucking sassy then. I think it’s fine, fun, and kitschy.
That’s really balanced. That fits your standup style well. On stage you say to people – whether in your jokes or to someone in the crowd – “bitch.” But you do it in a fun, lovable, and not insulting at all.
I think you want to say sassy.
It’s fun. It just seems like, fun and confident.
Also, as a comic, you can’t be too sensitive. I’ve seen a lot of young, newer comics doing mics now who are so hyper-sensitive to every label, name, and social issue. It kind of stifles their comedy and makes it harder for other comics to go up and take risks for fear of being instantly critiqued when just introducing a word or premise. Before they can even get to the point it’s like, “Oh, they just said ____ so we’re shutting down.”
I know. It’s so sad. It’s like everybody having allergies now. Like, “Oh God, when did this happen?” If they really do love comedy and want to make a mark and find their voice, then they have to realize that they need to let that shit go, because no one is ever going to remember what you said. You’ll never strike a chord, for better or for worse, if you’re constantly worried about what people are thinking all the time. You just have to live your life. I feel bad for them sometimes. I’ve had a fully functioning adult life without the internet, so I don’t know what’s it’s like for 100 people to come down on me because I said this one word. I can actually go to sleep at night and not care, because it hasn’t been my world my whole life.
Let’s talk about the Half Hour. One thing I liked about yours was how you came out firing. It felt like a late night show set. You established your presence very quick… just joke, joke, joke.
Thanks boo. That’s kind of what I do. It’s funny that you noticed that. I feel like in order for the audience to trust me, to know that I’m funny, and to give me the license to fuck with them, I have to let them know, “No, no. I’m funny. This is going to be a good time. I’m making fun of everybody, including myself.” I try to do that in the first part of the set and then I… ooh, I love to fuck with people.
You’ve got a new album about ready to come out. Can you tell me about it?
It’s called Michelle Buteau: Shut Up! I’m really, really proud of this hour. It’s taken me about four years to put it all together. There’s obviously some stuff about my husband, but there’s also some stuff I do when I perform at storytelling shows that I can’t do at straight-up standup shows, because you only have 12-15 minutes. It was really nice to have the opportunity to do something else to show another layer and let the set breathe. It was super, super fun. I know that taping albums can become stressful, because you just want people to show up. A lot of times in New York it’s always the same fans and friends that come to support. But it’s also important to have a really big audience. I couldn’t have asked for a better night. I had more fun taping this hour than I did at my wedding – and it was a lot cheaper.