How New York Comedian Michael Che Willed His Way to SNL and The Daily Show

Photo: Laura June Kirsch
"Why do you have to be so dirty?" a voice called from the darkness. "The show's called Cartoon Violence, but it's not about cartoons. There should've been a warning!"

Michael Che paused. He was onstage in August 2013 during his second show at Scotland's annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It's true, few would mistake Che for a clean comic. (Earlier he'd confessed to the audience what he loves most about Brits: "They say 'cunt' a lot. I don't know how saying it got such a bad rap; it's literally my favorite thing on the planet.") Yet within industry circles, he's a far cry from the world of shock comedy, where perfunctory filth often supplants punch lines of consequence.

He tried his best to answer the question posed by the heckler, a white-haired woman. "My favorite cartoon is Tom and Jerry, because it's violent," he explained. "But kids are watching it, so it's, like, ridiculous. You ever been slapped in the face with a rake? It's hard! It's like . . . I'm talking about some serious shit, but what I'm saying sounds ridiculous coming out of my mouth."

"Can you tell me one clean joke?" she pressed.

Che paused again. He looked at the floor, pushed back the bill of his navy baseball cap to rub his head. An idea took hold.

"How about this?" he finally asked. "I will comp you and a guest on — what's the second-to-last Sunday [of the month]? — Sunday the 18th, and I'll do an entirely clean show."

Later that night, Che tweeted, "Im at #edfringe doing 25 shows in 26 days for 1 reason, to challenge myself. Im not a comedian cause im dirty, im a comedian cause im funny." But he intended to keep his promise. "This lady thought my show was too dirty," Che posted on Facebook two days later. "So Im doing a clean show for her aug 18."

The challenge rested inside a much greater test. The celebrated arts festival runs the month of August and features roughly 1,000 different comedy shows alone. Any space that accommodates chairs and a microphone becomes a venue. In 2013, American heavyweights Greg Proops and Caroline Rhea played the Gilded Balloon Teviot's stifling Debating Hall and Dining Room, respectively. Shane Mauss took the stage in a parking garage; Al Lubel in a literal cave. Some shows were staged in 840-capacity castles, others in modified shipping containers. Che dropped his nuanced f-bombs in a 225-year-old proper drawing room, complete with a fireplace and two sparkling chandeliers.

Leading up to his promised clean show, he was committed to the painstaking rewriting process and worked to embed new filters between his brain and mouth.

But a few days after the confrontation with the heckler, the woman appeared at the venue bar before his nightly performance. He later recalled her urging him to nix the idea of changing his act. "The people deserve to see the show that you prepared for them," he remembered her saying.

"She said she heard me on the BBC, and she said the set was funny when she heard it; she forgot that I actually did so many clean jokes. It was just the fact that I was the first show like that that she saw, so it caught her off-guard."

She bought him a beer, wished him good luck, and asked if he'd pose for a photo with her. "It was actually the nicest thing I have experienced at this festival," he said while relaxing with a beer late one night during the festival. "So she asked me not to and I told her I wouldn't, so that's why I didn't. But if she would have come to see it, just for the spirit of comedy, I would have totally done it, and it would have been fun."

He was used to challenging himself.

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