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Michael Che on ‘Black Jeopardy,’ Political Correctness, and the Role of Comedy During a Trump Presidency

When I asked Michael Che, a Saturday Night Live cast member and writer who’s co-hosted Weekend Update since 2014, whether he regrets saying in his new Netflix special that Hillary Clinton would win the election, he said: “No, because it’s not a magic show, it’s a comedy special.” Michael Che Matters, which debuts on November 25, proves that Che doesn’t care if he’s right when he jokes about Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, or catcalling — only if he’s being honest and funny. And he is, whether you agree with him or not. In the wake of Clinton’s loss, Che spoke with Vulture about whether he thinks Trump is a racist, the best comedic advice Leslie Jones gave him, and if he’d ever want to host a late-night show.

In the intro to Matters, a voice over says, “Specials aren’t special anymore.” What did you mean by that?
It could just be that 20 years ago I was a little boy and I remember finding out that Chris Rock had a new special on HBO and finding out Katt Williams had a new special and finding out George Carlin had a new special and finding out Dave Chappelle had a new special. It felt like something. It felt like everybody watched it that night, like everybody talked about it at school on Monday. And it looked special. They dressed a certain way. It just felt like something, and I feel like comedy hasn’t had that in a while.

Why did you decide that now was the right time to do your first one?
Well, because there was just a lot to talk about. Also, as a comic, you just want to purge the material you’ve been working on and break through the wall. It’s hard to do that before you tape. So I wanted to just put it out just to put it out, as a, Let’s get this over with.

With the special recorded, has your material changed?
It’s harder to do comedy without that stuff in my back pocket. But also, the world’s just so different now. My material has changed in the way the country’s changed and shifted. The tone is completely different.

In the first part of Matters, you have jokes about homeless people. The idea of punching down in comedy gets talked a lot. I don’t think necessarily the bit does that, but you definitely walk a line. What do you think about that idea and how does your comedy reflect or not reflect it? 
It’s shitty to say I’m punching down [laughs]. There are homeless people that are far more sophisticated than I am, that have more education than I have. That’s not punching down. At some point, we’ve got to realize that we’re all people and this is what happens when these two people interact in an honest way. I don’t look at it as punching down. I’m not punching; I’m talking. Leslie [Jones] told me something that I always remember: “You can always bring up the elephant in the room as long as you can make the elephant laugh.” The joke you’re talking about is a real thing. People get on their high horse and they say that they care about the homeless and then one says, “Let me hug you,” and you’re like, “Hey, hey, hold on.” It’s not because you’re a bad person. Let’s not pretend we don’t live on Earth together. And that’s what gets the laugh. I can tell how honest a joke is or how true a joke is by how fast the laughs come. If you think about it, you might say, “Well actually, that isn’t funny.” But if you laugh as soon as I say it, then I know I hit something that’s close to home.

To be clear, I wasn’t saying that I thought you were punching down, but that any time anyone does anything around a sensitive subject there’s a worry about that.
You’re 100 percent correct. There is that fear that people have and there’s that responsibility that people put on comics to not be offensive and make sure everybody’s having a good time. But listen, I don’t have a cat, I don’t do 60 minutes about how weird my cat is. I’ve never seen Star Wars. I don’t do that kind of comedy. I live in the world and it’s funny to me. That’s why I called it Michael Che Matters. Because I live here too. I don’t understand this right-way, wrong-way thing. It bothers me, so it matters, and I matter too. I get a say-so because I’m a citizen of planet Earth. I get to talk shit too.

You talk about that in the special, how it’s not illegal to be wrong if you’re sharing an honest opinion about something. It’s a point of view that some comics come from: This may not be correct, but it’s what currently what I feel.
Yeah, I look at it like it’s therapy. You’ve gotta purge all that shit. When you go to therapy, you don’t just talk about the person you want to be, you talk about the person you are. You say your deepest, darkest shit. And that’s what comedy is for me. It’s therapy, it’s me saying that even if it’s wrong, it’s coming from a real place and I’m not the only one that feels that way. And we can laugh about it, we can figure it out, we can defang the monster.

After the election, you joked on Weekend Update that Donald Trump proves you can’t lose your job for saying some of the things you say. Do you feel like your perspective on political correctness or sensitivity towards speech has changed since Trump won?
Well, not mine in particular because I’ve always felt like, if you fire me for something that I thought was funny, then I shouldn’t have that job, clearly. I think it has changed for a lot of people. Listen, you couldn’t have a more negative campaign than Donald Trump’s. Yet half the people in the country went with him. It’s perfect poetry. Hillary Clinton wasn’t trusted because she hid emails that might have said things that she didn’t want us to know. Donald Trump was transparent with every fucking thing he said, terrible, worst-case scenarios. If Hillary’s emails said what Donald Trump actually said out loud, we’d be like, Yeah, no way can she be president. But it’s the way you present yourself. If you’re honest about things, people will trust you, even if you’re a bad guy. That says something about where we are and who we are as people.

In the special, you say you have to earn the right to be called a racist. It reminded me of when, on Weekend Update, you said that Donald Trump isn’t a racist, he just uses racism. Do you still think he’s not a racist?
I don’t know the man personally. Just because somebody thinks you’re a racist, I don’t know what that affects. He said some racist things; some of his policies are racist in spirit. Is he a racist? I really don’t know the guy, I don’t know his motivations for doing that. He could be held at ransom right now and just making decisions that he hates.

He might not understand. Sometimes people do a racist thing and they don’t even know it’s racist. Some people could be sexist or homophobic and they don’t even realize because they’re just doing what their circle does or they’re just doing what’s been accepted of them throughout their lives, so I really don’t know if he’s a racist or not. And it’s really not my job. I don’t really care if he’s a racist or not. I care if he’s a capable president. If you really think everything in your life, everything that you benefit from comes from socially aware, like-minded, good-hearted people, then you’re out of your mind. If you want only those people to have good jobs, we would have to learn how to adjust very quickly without those people. Maybe I’m cynical, but I truly believe that. 

You write the “Black Jeopardy” sketches with Brian Tucker and the last one with Tom Hanks was very popular. What inspired that take on the sketch? And in general, do you feel like America focuses too much on race and not enough on class similarities?
Yeah, we all find our clique and we stick to it. America’s a gangbanger country. We got our gang and everything else is irrelevant. But what inspired that sketch was Brian Tucker said, “Hey, I want to do one where a Trump voter gets things right.” And I’m like, “That’s hilarious.” Because Brian started as a country boy from North Carolina and I’m a city boy from New York. We just sat in a room and talked about the things we had in common. I always thought that growing up poor and black, I had way more in common with poor white people in rural America than I did with upper-class city people from Manhattan, the borough that I lived in. It was pretty easy to put those jokes together. We wrote that in like an hour.

With Trump winning, do you think that comedy will get more political? And would that be a good thing?
Of course. Any time there’s a Republican president, it’s a glory time for comedy. During Obama, it felt like a victory lap. But during Bush, everybody was angry and there was art and Rage Against the Machine was around. It was an exciting time. This is a time when artists get to work as Dave Chappelle told us. But let’s not forget, this isn’t 9/11. This isn’t an ISIS attack. This is a democratic, fair election. Half the people of the country picked Donald Trump. This isn’t a national tragedy; not everybody’s sad about this. And we gotta be honest to those people. These are our neighbors, this is our America, this is our family. We live here and we gotta figure out how one can get that far away from where we are and feel that isolated from where we are. That’s something that comedy can do. I hope it does. It can bring together the people again and not necessarily just trash this dude for four years and be excited to trash a guy. We gotta figure out what it is and we gotta figure out how to remedy it because apparently they felt neglected.

In your special, there’s a band to your side and you don’t really see them until the very end, so it kind of feels like a late-show monologue. Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers parlayed Weekend Update into late-night shows. Is that kind of something you aspire to?
Hell no. 

Why not?
Too much work, man. That show’s every day. Hell no. That’s a tough gig. What Seth does, he’s doing at a really, really high level right now. And what Jimmy does, he’s doing at an extremely high level. You gotta have guests on, people are mad at you because you got this guy on, people want you to have this one on. Ugh, I couldn’t take it. I like stand-up comedy, I like sketch comedy, I like writing, I like being behind the camera. Stuff like that is fun for me, but a late-night gig? That’s a tough sell, I gotta tell you. If you see me on late-night TV, they gave me a loooot of money.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Michael Che on Trump, Clinton, ‘Black Jeopardy’