comics talk to comics

Michael Che Talks to Dan Soder About How Stand-up Specials Are Like Weddings and Why It’s Easy for Comics to Handle Hecklers

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by NBC, Getty Images

Even though comedian Dan Soder could boast about any number of credits on his rapidly expanding resume — providing comic relief as a regular on Showtime drama Billions, co-hosting the biweekly Sirius show The Bonfire with Big Jay Oakerson, or starring in the Comedy Central digital series Used People alongside new Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolf — when he talked with SNL Weekend Update co-host Michael Che, they talked stand-up. There are good reasons for this: Soder and Che came up in the New York scene together, and Soder’s first hour-long special, Not Special, premieres on Comedy Central on May 21. During their conversation, the two old pals also figured out why planning a special is like planning a wedding and what Chris Rock’s recent output says about the work ethic of black comics.

Dan Soder: For this whole thing, I was like, “I hope Che doesn’t watch the special because that’s going to make the interview so much better.”

Michael Che: [Laughs] I absolutely did not.
See, I know my friends! That’s going to be perfect.

So, congratulations on the special. This has been a long time coming…
Yeah, I’ve been doing comedy 37 years, so it’s nice to finally have one.

Yeah, but you’re constantly working. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at a club and not heard at least 50 percent brand-new shit. So it’s good to purge, right?
Yeah. Oh, dude. You have a special coming up …

I’m working toward a special right now, nothing for sure.
Che, I’m telling you right now, there’s nothing that will make you happier as a comedian than the week after you tape your special, when you get to go onstage and say whatever you feel like saying, because none of this really matters.

Really? It doesn’t freak you out that like, “Oh, man, I’m going on with basically an empty gun and I’ve got to restock everything?”
Every good comic hates their jokes. When people laugh, I don’t know about you, but I always have that sarcastic voice in my head where I’m like, “Oh haw haw haw, you guys really think this is funny?”

Know what I hate? When people say, “You’re your worst critic,” and you’re like, “No, I just know this.”
Thank God we’re not magicians, or we’d be talking shit while we do the reveal. “Oh, you guys were really blown away that a rabbit came out of the hat? Well, you’re all dum-dums.”

“You’re clearly looking at the wrong hand.”
“It’s called sleight of hand, you assholes!” But yeah, you get to go onstage after you tape your special and you can even change up jokes. No bit is ever really done. I taped the special five months ago, even now in my head I’m like, “Eh, I could do this bit better, or this bit better.”

That’s the one thing that gives you anxiety when taping any bit, because you’re always like, “In five months I’m going to find a new part and I want to put that in there.”
I don’t know how you feel about this as a comedian, but especially with the new pace that everyone like Louis [C.K.] and [Bill] Burr set, when there’s that new hour once every one or two years, you almost feel guilty doing bits on the road that you’ve done on your special. Now fans are like, “Well, you should have a new hour.” And you’re like, “Do you know how hard that is?”

So, you’re saying, with guys like Louie and Bill Burr putting out an hour so often that black stand-ups are lazier?
[Laughs] Nice. Nice try, Che. You’re trying to give me the old blogger bear-trap. No way, buddy.

A lot of people waiting on Chris Rock’s hour, and you’re saying …
All I’m saying is, “Are black people’s specials on time?” I don’t know. Since you’re my black friend, maybe I should ask you.

Well, my special was supposed to be made two years ago.
I’m still waiting at the theater for your taping, that’s how late you are.

I’m supposed to be in Cleveland right now. This is your first hour special, do you think you’d be along those lines, like, “You know what? Let’s crank out another one!”
No way, man, no way.

Let’s be honest, you need the money, Dan.
I need the money bad, Che. I’m trying to burn one out in six months here. Going through this whole process, if anything, it’s made me amazed at comics that can do an hour and then another in two years or less. That’s just insane. I enjoy the fact that I get to do new jokes now, but it’s kind of cool to be like, “Yeah, I have a new album, that shit’s done.” Now I just hope people like it.

That’s pretty great, man. I feel like, as a comic, that’s the closest I’ll be to someone who is excited about a wedding.
[Laughs] You’re telling me you don’t sit around in the SNL offices and dream about your wedding day?

I have never planned it, it doesn’t have to be perfect but when you plan a special, you’re like, “When’s it going to be? What’s everybody going to wear?”
Dude, that is hilarious. That is exactly what it was. “I want to walk out to this music! And then after we’re all going to eat cheesesteaks and we’re all going to have fun!”

And everybody’s trying to ruin it and you’re like, “You’re ruining this for me!”
You’re becoming a Comiczilla! “This is my special day!”

At my special, I’m going to have my friends throw rice at me.
[Laughs] Oh my God. You’re going to forget that and I’m coming to your special and I’m dumping a handful of rice on you. You’ll be like, “What’s up with Soder, throwing rice at me?” I’ll be like, “You asked for it.” 

Where’d you tape it?
The Trocadero in Philadelphia.

How did you pick Philly? It’s notoriously judgmental.
Yeah, I like that! Listen, I like nice cities, like Madison and Bloomington, where they’re just super-polite and they listen and they just love the fact that you’re there. But a city like Philly or Boston, there’s a chance they can turn on you. And as a comic, that really made me excited to be like, “Alright, I need to have a really good show or these people might lock up on me.”

With apologies for sounding very gross right now, I always feel like there’s two shows happening for a comic. There’s the show the audience is watching and the show we’re watching. We’re scanning the audience to see who’s laughing, who’s not laughing, what their sensibility is. We’re learning about them, which is almost a show in itself.
People don’t realize that while we’re telling our jokes, we’re also thinking.

We’re two or three jokes ahead. We’re setting things up.
That’s why people are so amazed when comedians deal with hecklers. This isn’t all just happening now. You already saw the trouble coming. Especially times when there’s someone drunk and talking loud, and you’re going through a bit, and you’re saying the bit but at the same time in your head, you’re like, “I’m going to take this motherfucker out.” And then it happens and they go, “Oh wow, he turned.” And I’m like, “No, I was waiting for the right moment.”

It’s also like Groundhog Day, where you’re like, “Oh yeah, of course you say that because a guy three weeks ago said that, and a guy four weeks before him said that exact same thing and you’re all the same and I’ve done this so many times in a row. I have a stock answer for everything you can think of.”
[Laughs] Do you remember five years ago when you and I were drinking at Playwrights [Tavern] and we were being fucking vicious to each other, but hilarious? And that girl got upset and was like, “You guys are so mean to each other.” And we were like, “No no no no no, we’re being hilarious. It just so happens that we’re also being mean to each other.”

Yeah, man.
I was making fun of your eyes and you were making fun of the size of my head. And it really made this girl super-uncomfortable. People don’t understand that the reason comedians attack each other is because we like doing it, it’s fun, but in a certain way it’s training for hecklers. So some drunk Enterprise employee is not going to say anything that hurts me as much as you, or Nate [Bargatze] or Joe List can.

I felt that way as a comic, going somewhere with people who are not comedians, and they’re just doing so many bits and bits and bits, and you’re not laughing at anything and they’re like, “Come on, that’s not funny?”
You probably get it worse at SNL, but do you still get that, “You should use that in your act?”

Every day, are you kidding me?  There are a lot of specials this year. Do you watch new ones gearing up? Or are you like, “I got that guy.”
While I was getting ready, I stayed away. [John] Mulaney put out his hour right before I taped mine, and Mulaney is amazing, one of the best working comics. So I remember being like, “Yeah, don’t watch that until after you’ve taped.” If I watched that before I taped, I would have been like, “Motherfucker. This guy.”

I watched Big Jay’s and the whole time, I’m like, “I’ve got to do something about this now.” The same thing, when you’re at a club and you’re going on fourth, or whatever. You’re just watching everybody’s set and somebody’s murdering and you’re like, “Fuck. What do I start with now?”
You start saying stuff to them while you’re offstage, like, “Okay, come on, good job, but leave some meat on the bone.” People don’t realize that. Comics, we love each other more than anybody, but when someone’s doing well, and you’re on that show, you’re like, “This guy is really making my job hard tonight.”

It really is. You’re making me have to work. Don’t make me have to work.
Just let me show up and rattle off a half-cooked thought I had on the train ride in.

That’s gotta be weird, watching all these specials on Comedy Central as a kid, and now, you’re like, “I did a special.”
Yeah, they just sent me a couple of the promos they’re going to run, with my jokes and stuff, and I don’t think people understand the comedic psychology where you see it and you’re like, What? Why are you guys going to put me on? I just don’t think we have that innate confidence that athletes and musicians have. Where they’re like, “I deserve this.” You’re kinda like, “Are you sure?”

But you’re a joke writer, a guy that actually crafts bits. I feel like, with a lot of specials, when you’re there and you see it, you feel like you’re watching something amazing, but it doesn’t necessarily translate on TV. You’re not screaming and howling in your living room, you’re sitting quietly with yourself. And when somebody can really write one that makes you really think and makes you really feel something, that’s shit you take with you. That’s why I think your special will be special, because of the kind of comic you are.
Thanks, man. That means a lot.

Are you flying from the compliment I just gave you?
You can’t see me but I’m patting myself on the back while giving myself a thumbs up in the mirror. There’s a whole lot of positivity going on in Queens right now.

Michael Che Talks to Dan Soder About Stand-up