“You gotta say something that matters, Che, like what’s going on, man … Don’t hold back.”
This is what Michael Che says in the opening bit of his new Netflix special, Michael Che Matters, and he holds true to his word for the next hour. But anyone who knows Che from his time on Saturday Night Live, where he’s cohosted “Weekend Update” since 2014, shouldn’t be surprised — both onstage and on SNL, he’s unafraid to toe the line of controversy. (See: the brilliantly wave-making “Black Jeopardy” skit or the time he dropped an uncensored N-word live last month.) You might call it controversial, but Che says he can only be honest — about relationships, race, porn, and, yes, our current political climate.
On the occasion of his Netflix special, which began streaming Friday, The Ringer spoke to Che about his approach to jokes, the role of comedians in fraught times, and Donald Trump — even though he really doesn’t want to talk about him anymore. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Congratulations on the special. Has your approach to stand-up changed at all since you’ve been on SNL?
No. I think when you write sketches, maybe bits become a little bit more thoughtful and a little bit more rounded but for the most part, it’s the same. Just the audience changed. I have a lot of stand-up fans who don’t even know I’m on SNL and I have a lot of SNL fans that don’t even know I do stand-up.
Is there a difference in the sort of material you’ll address in an SNL skit versus stand-up?
Well, there’s language and content barriers on SNL, so there’s a lot of things that just don’t make sense in a clean way, but it’s never because I wouldn’t want to say it on SNL. I wish I took advantage of the LIVE button a little bit more, but I don’t because I want to keep my job.
If you were just gonna go rogue with the LIVE button on — like it’s your last episode, and you can go rogue for 13 minutes to do whatever you wanted, Kanye-style — what would you say?
Thirteen minutes? Wow. That’s a long time to go rogue.
Let’s go with three minutes.
Three minutes? I don’t know. I never really have that kind of fantasy. I think we do a decent job at just being honest about what we have, with the constraints that we have. On network TV, there’s only but so much you can really say, and we gotta talk about what’s in the news. A lot of people say, “Oh, why they always talk about race? Oh, why do they always talk about Trump?” And Trump will say, “Oh, why do they only talk about me? How come it’s not fair and balanced?” I don’t think people realize that when this is the top story every week, we can’t ignore it. When every week a video or audio leaks of something ridiculous Trump has said or every week a cop kills a kid, a black kid — like, what are we supposed to talk about? So I don’t know. I think we do the best we can with the kind of stories we get but it just turns out that it’s always a bummer.
Why can’t something joyous happen in the news?
I know! I wish we could do a “Weekend Update” on the day that it rained gold on the streets of America and everyone got along, a truce between black youth and cops, and Donald Trump said, “You know what, I found Jesus Christ, and my life’s changing forever.” I wish! I wish that was the story but it’s just not.
On “Weekend Update,” it’s your job to address this bleak stuff. Do you think what you’re doing is helping in some way?
I don’t know that it’s helping. I just know that it’s just funny. There’s people who will hear these kinds of stories and think of a sad song and there’s people that hear those stories and think of some kind of great inspirational speech and there’s some people who are sarcastically laughing about it to their friends, saying, “Can you believe this shit?” And I think that’s comedy. This is just our reaction to what’s crazy. We can’t take ourselves that seriously where we truly believe we’re doing something to help. If it should help then great, but that’s not what we’re doing. We’re trying to say something silly that helps the news be a little more palatable, to help things be a little more fun — I’m not trying to get anybody elected or get anybody out of office. I’m not trying to do anything but make people laugh a little. Just something. That’s all. I think comedians take themselves a little too seriously and I think comedy fans might put a little too much on us as far as being responsible. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you have that huge audience. With an audience like that, it’s your …” what’s the word I’m looking for?
Whaaat? My responsibility? I’m a dick-joke salesman. What are you talking about? I have no responsibility. I’m a dumb clown, that’s all. I’m a silly man. It’s not my responsibility.
OK, but for example, when you have Trump on SNL as a host, do you then feel bad about that in hindsight?
No. Of course I don’t feel bad about that. He’s a ridiculous, orange man. He should be on comedy shows. He should be the butt of jokes. He shouldn’t be a president. That scares me. But not what he’s doing on a TV show. Also, he’s not the first guy that’s hosted SNL that I’m like, “Ugh, why do we have him?” If you look at the show as being a very important institution, then yeah, maybe people should be annoyed by it. But for me, it’s just us being funny and what better way to poke fun at a ridiculous man than to invite him on and poke fun in front of him.
The way you answered, I feel like you must have gotten this question a lot.
Yeah, we get it a lot. The show is very special to people, you know, and it’s very special to me. I think that people feel — it’s almost like seeing your friend with somebody that you despise, you know? You feel a little betrayed, and I understand that. But I just wish people also understood that look, we’re just a TV show. We’re really writing jokes that we think are funny. We’re really listening to the facts and laughing at the funniest detail, and if it just so happens that an orange billionaire thinks he’s going to grab a woman by the vagina and load up on Tic Tacs, it’s funnier than an old lady’s hidden emails. I mean, that’s not on me. Which one do you think is funnier? Which detail do you want to hear more about? It’s not about coverage and equal and tit for tat. It’s more about what’s the story. I wish we had more to make fun of that wasn’t Trump. You think we like this? You think we like making fun of Trump every week for the past 18 months? It’s exhausting.
Well, you have four more years of this.
I hope not. I hope that this guy’s got another gear ’cause I can’t talk about this every week. This is exhausting. What else is there to say? I’ll give an example. The only time I ever had someone removed from a comedy show was maybe six years ago at a bar show. It was during SantaCon. And this guy dressed up in a giant penis costume — like a full-body penis costume with a Santa hat and a Santa coat — was blackout drunk. And he sat up front and heckled everybody. Everybody. He just wouldn’t shut up. He was so drunk. He couldn’t control himself and usually I don’t like throwing out hecklers — I like to handle it — but this guy was drunk past the point of being funny. And he’s in a penis costume. He was so ridiculous that it was boring. There’s nothing I’m going to say that everyone wasn’t already thinking. That’s how I feel about Donald Trump. He’s so ridiculous that it’s like, “What am I gonna say?” He’s a crazy guy. What else can you say about him? You did it. You maxed out on cuckoo. Comedy is a reveal. I’m supposed to show people things that they wouldn’t ordinarily see, but what else is there to see there?
How will your job on “Weekend Update” change once he’s in the White House? Will you do anything differently in terms of covering this stuff?
No. For me, I like to be comedically honest. I’ll cover him the same way. Let’s not make things up. Let’s not demonize him. Let’s let him demonize himself, and then we make the call. It’s not about — like I said, I don’t have any comedic agenda. I’m not tryna get him out of office. I’m not tryna make his presidency miserable. I’m just trying to make fun of the funny things that happened in the news or try to find light in the heavier things that happened. That’s really it. It doesn’t change.