How New York Comedian Michael Che Willed His Way to SNL and The Daily Show
The Lower East Side's Alfred E. Smith Houses, aka Smith Projects, comprise a dozen low-income high-rises accommodating 6,000 people in 2,000 apartments. One-third of a square mile, the community is flanked by the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, the FDR, and Chinatown.
By the time Michael Che Campbell arrived into an extended, close-knit family of Smith residents — the youngest of seven, and younger than his nearest sibling by seven years — his parents had separated. As older brother Lee recalls, there were nights when dinner consisted solely of rice. They certainly didn't need another mouth to feed.
Lee, 14 years Che's senior, says his frustrations soon gave way to a paternal pride. (Che's first word, both proclaim proudly, was "Yee," his earliest interpretation of the elder's first name.) With their mother, Rose, working three jobs to maintain a three-bedroom apartment, Lee assumed the role of his baby brother's caretaker.
Each morning, Lee walked Che to daycare at the nearby Hamilton-Madison House. But Che's real education began when he started sneaking into the rec room upstairs, where teenage boys from the neighborhood shot pool and told stories about women, "stuff that you only heard on Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy records," Che laughs. "Stuff we should not be listening to."
He also saw things no child should see, not all of it as edifying as an early fascination with dirty jokes. In an area where word of Chinese gang warfare and random street violence spread nearly every day, Che retained some experiences he'd rather forget.
Playing outside one day at four or five years old, he saw a Dominican man with an afro drop to the ground in front of him. Che could have reached out and touched the man's body. When the victim was turned over, a hole in the side of his head opened into a gaping space large enough to fit a grapefruit. Che doesn't remember hearing a sound, but says that the ground looked like somebody had dropped a jar of jelly. That gory image haunted him for months, preventing him from falling asleep without his mother soothing him. The experience had been so cloudy and surreal that for years Che wondered if he'd dreamed it, until his brother Willie confirmed having witnessed the death, too.
His family remained the one constant in his life. Once he began attending P.S. 42 on Hester Street, Che hit the Smith Recreation Center daily with his cousins Justin and Freddy. There was a pool, but rather than water, it held vials and broken bottles. They instead spent their afternoons hunched over a skelzies board, swinging on monkey bars, and playing sports. The trio also made fun of the kids living next door at the Catherine Street Family Respite homeless shelter. It wasn't until later that Che understood there were times his own family was a single paycheck away from joining them.
Always protective of his younger brother, Lee prohibited Che from venturing into Chinatown unaccompanied. But by age seven, Che was roaming freely between the neighborhood's kung fu movie theaters and Asian shops. The mustachioed firemen at Engine 9, Ladder 6, with muscles "bigger than Hulk Hogan's," let him play on the pole at the station. One memorable afternoon he joined onlookers watching Shaquille O'Neal and Fu-Schnickens shooting their "What's Up, Doc?" music video on the basketball court beneath the Manhattan Bridge.
His rebellious nature persisted into his teens. Che balked at attending church, came and went as he pleased, stayed out late, skipped school, and generally questioned everything his mother asked of him. While most of his siblings left home by 16, Che was gone by 14. He proclaimed himself an adult capable of making his own decisions, so Rose kicked him out. He briefly lived with his sister Laverna in Jersey City before moving in with his father, Nathaniel, in Hell's Kitchen. Nathaniel remarried and moved to Flatbush when Che was 17. He tried living again with his mother, but the arrangement lasted all of three months, and he rejoined his father and new stepmother for senior year.
Che enjoyed drawing for as long as he could remember, and after moving in with his father, attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. But he failed to take his art seriously in school, preferring to hang out in Times Square, whiling away hours at the Virgin Megastore and Sbarro. Each time he walked down Broadway, he'd pass the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of the Late Show, and Carolines comedy club, checking out the posters of Damon Wayans, Tracy Morgan, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock lining the outside wall. After graduation, Che finally began pursuing art in earnest. Working in a Toyota dealership's customer service department served as a turning point: He wanted to do something more with his life.
"[Art] was my therapy, it was my creative outlet," Che recalls. "Art takes so much practice. People will tell you you're good before you are. They want to encourage you. Luckily for me, I never really bought into any of my hype. I always knew it took a lot of work for me to be what I wanted to be."
At LaGuardia, Che's drawing had evolved into painting; his acrylic portraits now graced canvases and T-shirts. When friends bought his pieces and encouraged him to make more, he began selling them on the street.
Che left the dealership after two years and began commuting daily from his brother Kofi's place in Jersey City to Soho with a folding table and hand truck of merchandise. His favorite spot was the corner of Prince and Wooster streets, with its proximity to the best stores and generous sightlines, the better to spot police approaching. In every type of weather except heavy rain, he'd set up shop from around 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. At day's end, everything went at a discount. He didn't want to lug more home than he had to.
He sold a Sammy Davis Jr. shirt to Billy Crystal, a Jimi Hendrix shirt to Andre 3000, and numerous items to rapper and producer Kwamé. Once, while wearing a Spike Lee T-shirt of his own design in line to buy a pair of Spiz'ike sneakers at Niketown, the director himself took notice.
"He was like, 'Where'd you get that T-shirt from?'" Che recalls.
"I made it."
"You sell that?"
"I was like, 'Nooo . . .'"
Lee, then releasing his 40 Acres and a Mule line with Ecko, laughed and gave Che his number, promising the young entrepreneur, "We're going to talk."
For reasons he still can't explain, Che never called Lee.
A second chance to make his artistic mark arose when Richard Hilfiger, son of clothing designer Tommy Hilfilger, cast an approving eye on Che's sidewalk wares. After an initial conversation, Richard returned a few weeks later with his father in tow. The mogul bought a couple shirts and invited Che to participate in a photo shoot at his Connecticut home. After the shoot, he offered Che a job designing collaged logos.
The very next morning, Tommy Hilfiger showed his new hire around the company's chic Chelsea offices. He introduced Che to each employee in every department, set him up with a desk and computer, and encouraged him to come and go as he pleased. Hilfiger also proposed paying for Che to attend digital-design classes and extended cash from his own pocket to tide him over until his first payday.
"He said, 'Do you know why I'm doing this? Because somebody gave me a chance. So I'm giving you a chance,'" Che says of Hilfiger. "I'll never forget that."
Still in his early twenties, Che was eager to please, but a crippling anxiety took hold. He struggled with self-doubt under the pressure he placed on himself to succeed within the "really WASPy" environment at the Hilfiger offices. Eventually, Che received permission to work from home, away from the polished bricks, nautical themes, and giant American flags.
Yet as the weeks and deadlines passed, he couldn't surmount his creative block. Che feared his benefactor's patience and understanding had reached its limit. "He's going to be pissed, and they're just going to tell me not to come back," Che remembers thinking. "So I just didn't go back. And I couldn't go back on the street, because they would have seen me there. So it just completely fell apart. I have no idea what happened."
It was the last time Che touched brush to canvas. A Richard Pryor portrait he painted around age 20 is the only work he still owns.
"Now everything that I get to do, I take advantage of it," he vows. "Because that's a lot to just let go up in smoke."