How New York Comedian Michael Che Willed His Way to SNL and The Daily Show
At the time of his Edinburgh run, Che was just two and a half years into his comedy career and enjoying an impressive run of accolades. He had performed on the Late Show with David Letterman in November 2012. In January 2013, Rolling Stone named him one of the "50 Funniest People Now"; that July, he made Variety's annual "10 Comics to Watch" list. And after getting his size-12 foot in the door as a Saturday Night Live guest writer that February, he'd joined the sketch-comedy institution full-time in May.
But the grueling month of shows in Scotland marked one of the first times Che had to prove himself as a headlining comedian — and Edinburgh hasn't always been kind to American performers. In previous years, veteran U.S. comics Lewis Black, Todd Barry, and Marc Maron faced scathing reviews and fickle ticket buyers. But while 2013 saw Mauss averaging just a dozen people a night and Yannis Pappas flying home halfway through because of poor sales, Che's stateside momentum had continued in the U.K. Effusive word of mouth ensured Che's 100-seater sold out nightly. The Observer, The Independent, and The Edinburgh Evening News clamored for interviews; he performed twice on BBC's Radio Scotland.
Onstage, Che serves as a sort of social-issues micro-economist whose deceptive meandering belies a deeply philosophical mind. He's conversational and laid-back, unforced in speech and movement. Eschewing the animated histrionics of some of his contemporaries, Che's six-foot-two-inch frame remains rooted, any onstage physicality minimized. His movements barely register, whether he touches on spirituality ("Some people won't try bacon for religious reasons. I won't try religion for bacon reasons") or racism ("You can't hate me, you need me. I'm black! We make shit cool! Just like we need white people, because you make shit safe. And we all need Asian people, because they make shit affordable"). He wants the material front and center; it's far more important that audiences focus on his words rather than his body.
Now, nearly a year after Edinburgh, Che regularly performs material about his festival experience. He returned as an SNL staffer from September 2013's opening episode through the season finale on May 17. On February 8, he performed the inaugural stand-up set the first week of Late Night with Seth Meyers. On June 2, Che began his newest TV gig, as on-air correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and his first special, an episode of Comedy Central's The Half Hour, airs June 6.
Despite his achievements, the 31-year-old chides himself for arriving late to comedy. Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock all began performing in their teens; he's determined to make up for lost time.
"It really felt like he came out of nowhere, and he was so refreshing," says Comedy Central vice president of talent JoAnn Grigioni, who first saw Che perform in November 2011. "He was new, but Michael never felt green. His delivery, the pauses, and emphasis on certain words has always has been purposeful. I almost said he's gotten more comfortable onstage since then, but that's not really true. Can one get more comfortable than that?"
Stand-up comedy is enjoying a boom period, yet it's never been more fragmented. Performers cultivate individualized audiences through social media and online clips. They can book their own shows at bars or black-box theaters or rock clubs, and produce and distribute their own albums. Yet comedy options catering to the narrowest personal preferences inevitably marginalizes commonality. The next Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, or George Carlin can no longer resonate across the entire cultural landscape; the era of standups becoming household names has effectively passed.
But there's a reason Che's seemingly overnight success hasn't been met with the backlash that plagued the likes of former "it" comics Dane Cook and Bo Burnham. The struggle to rise above, to achieve more than expectations nominally allow, remains universal. His material defies the illogicality and absurdity of barriers erected over race, religion, politics, gender and economic status. Rather than mock, rant or divide, Che's comedy strives to unite.