As a comic and television personality — known to most as Saturday Night Live co-head writer since 2017 and, alongside Colin Jost, co-anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment since 2013 — Michael Che specializes in wryly deadpan punch lines, ironic distance, and weaponized liberalism. It’s tricky to get a deeper read on him than that; good “Update” anchors need only allow the disorienting weirdness of current events, and the rogues’ gallery of wacky regulars and guests trying to get “Update”’s hosts to break character every week, to do the heavy lifting. SNL is the late-night institution your normie friends periodically lurk in bemusement, while your leftist friends bristle at the infantilization of political terrors like Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence. There’s not much appeal for conservatives, who feel the show has become “too political” (which is to say they’re not taking to being the butt of many of the jokes lately), or who feel indifferent because it’s rare for SNL to take a shot demanding a serious reprisal, Patchgate notwithstanding. SNL is safe. It’s feel-good television, pure neoliberal pathos, not woke enough to incense right-wing outrage merchants desperate enough lately to pick fights over Dr. Seuss books, but too hungry for cultural cachet among moderates and internet edgelords to count as leftist comfort food. SNL stirs the pot but often ensures it never boils over.
It’s not possible to tell just how much of this state of affairs is directly attributable to Michael Che, but That Damn Michael Che, the new HBO Max sketch-comedy series created by and starring Che, carries some of the hallmarks of the writer, actor, and producer’s comedy alma mater. That Damn Michael Che blends topical sketches relating to current events with scenes where Che plays a version of himself, a Black man navigating the racial fallout from the pandemic and protests of New York City in 2020, as he seeks greater recognition beyond the prime-time gig to an audience that maybe thinks he’s a jerk. Not quite a Louie and not quite a Chappelle’s Show, Che splits its time between exploring the strange sensation of intermediate fame, of being on television every week but unable to use your visibility to skip lines in any local club, and examining the ways the upheavals of 2020 have and haven’t changed the plight of inner-city communities in New York.
Che’s humor seems pretty caustic on the surface, but its targets are fair and balanced to the extent that this fairness almost comes across as an insurance policy, the “But I hate everybody” response to criticism of a controversial joke. “Policin’,” the feisty series premiere, skewers the NYPD for gauche and tacky attempts to reform its image as a game of basketball is staged between cops and Black youth that concludes with an officer shooting the ball. Elsewhere in the episode, Che gets stuck in an elevator with a white woman, played by his “Weekend Update” predecessor Cecily Strong, who is eager to make amends for the injustice she’s learning about. Her activism is hollow, faddish. Like the chipper fair-weather activists in the mock “Fitbit Protest” ad elsewhere in the episode, she’s just doing what feels good. When the heart-to-heart ends, she hasn’t changed her ways. Che leaves her with a word: “Cops are just n- - - -s with jobs, okay? Some are good at it. Some are bad at it.” We’re all just struggling to get ahead, see?
What That Damn Michael Che seems to crave is the jarring honesty of a show like The Carmichael Show, a sitcom just as inclined to suck the oxygen out of a scene with heartbreaking realism to make viewers laugh until they sweat. But Che’s truths aren’t always lacerating, and its jokes aren’t always potent. An episode about the cost of health care in America, which tees up a discussion about the dilemma people in underprivileged communities face when a hospital visit is needed but the bill is just as much a danger to the patient’s well-being as the illness itself, devolves into a bit where Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man plays a smooth-talking, inexperienced doctor asking a man to perform his own colon-cancer screening. Although the surface idea that a “Black hospital is where you learn to take care of white people” pokes at real-world disparities in medical care in the neighborhoods affected, all it’s doing is getting its jollies off a legendary rapper using a soft inside voice. You think the guy who jerks off in the triage room when a beautiful nurse steps out to let him undress for a routine testicular exam is a sexist asshole unable to see past his desires to respect a trained professional looking out for his health, until you catch her later that night laughing with friends over screenshots of his nude body in a bar. We’re all assholes when no one else is looking, see?
That Damn Michael Che thinks big and hits low, but in its finest moments, it reckons intelligently with the absurdity of the social conditioning men in their late 30s got from growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, and the jarring contrasts between what was expected then and what’s acceptable now. Flashbacks to Che’s youth reveal sexism in everything, even in school; as an adult, he has trouble saying “I love you” to a significant other and knowing when a mate is not enjoying his dates and movie-night picks. A public breakup in the “Bourbon and Water” episode cuts away unexpectedly to a segment of Couples Feud, a game show not unlike Family Feud where friends of each contestant list reasons they should split, and where comic and actor Godfrey impresses with his note-perfect Steve Harvey impression. Che tackles coronavirus-vaccine skepticism with a deft touch, doling out its sympathies carefully according to how good a reason a person has to distrust the government. A video montage shown in a town-hall meeting memorializing all the shrill anti-maskers who’ve since died of COVID is the show’s funniest gag. A jump cut of Black men throughout history expressing distrust for the government and new tech defangs skeptics by showing how ultimately harmless social change is always met with suspicion at first, and how the language and lore of conspiracy theories stay the same even though the subject matter is always changing. The idea is revisited hilariously in another bit, where Che responds to accusations of clandestine Illuminati sex and sacrifices by staging a Bachelor-like competition to see which family member is sacrificed so he can secure a big movie role. Like the episodes about health care and policing, in “Sex Worker,” where Che reckons with fame, the pitch is more interesting than the gags are: Che wonders aloud if white celebrities get less flack from their own than Black ones, maybe because Black communities experience less upward mobility. The way this idea takes form in the episode is mostly just a bunch of people asking Che if he did “some gay shit” to blow up.
This show thinks on its toes but struggles to be funny and poignant in the same scene sometimes, and to be critical without minding who it offends. For every uncomfortable truth — like the ballers in “Sex Worker” happy to promote social justice until it comes to trans women, an interesting point coming from Che, who once deadnamed Caitlyn Jenner on national television — there’s a conciliatory “but.” Black New Yorkers have good reason to be afraid of the police, but it’s totally fine if you still want to be a cop. Straight men are terminally horny and often blinded by libido, but women aren’t angels, either. People sharing lies about the COVID vaccine are ultimately only hurting themselves and their neighbors, but there are fantastic reasons to be suspicious of government initiatives. (It all feels like the old Che joke: Homophobia sucks, but maybe you grew up haunted by a gay ghost.) None of this is false, but neither is it all that profound. That Damn Michael Che has a good heart, good ideas, and good guests, with memorable appearances from comics and actors including Sam Jay, Conner O’Malley, Alex English, Geoffrey Owens, Gregory Porter, and Chris Distefano. Like Saturday Night Live, it’s pretty fun when it’s not second-guessing and overthinking itself into a liberal fog.