How New York Comedian Michael Che Willed His Way to SNL and The Daily Show
By the fall of 2010, Che felt like the oldest 26-year-old in the world. He shared a Jersey City studio with a girlfriend, and was growing desperate to get his creative juices flowing again.
His grandfather and mother had been funny. The entire family joked with each other constantly. He'd been a cut-up in school. And Che had admired Richard Pryor as far back as he could remember. Maybe he'd give standup a whirl. But what if he failed again?
The original plan was to save $400 to pay for a comedy class, figuring it would be the easiest way to conquer his fear. After falling short for months, he decided to go a different route.
Poring over listings on badslava.com, in late October, Che decided on a Tuesday night open mic at the Comedy Corner, a now-defunct basement bar near the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets. It cost $5 to perform, but whoever told the funniest joke got their $5 back. Che drank himself brave on E&J and Coke, and signed up.
Though he failed to win the $5 with a bit wondering why Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate Halloween ("Because that's when people would actually open the door for them . . . and give them candy!"), the experience was a revelation. "Immediately, onstage looking down at the microphone and watching them look up, I was hooked," says Che. Encouraged, he hit an 11 p.m. open mic at Chelsea's The Pit that same evening. "After that I went onstage every day, maybe two to three times a day, just open mics, open mics, open mics. Maybe four times a day. Maybe five times a day."
Aspiring comics traditionally use open mics to hone their persona and amass enough material to book bar shows. Once they're finally invited to showcase (audition) at a mainstream club, momentum leads to more showcases, and eventually performers book a few spots a night, most nights of the week, all around town and, hopefully, beyond. The path is generally the same for most stand-ups, though how long it takes can vary widely. In Che's case, he was working the city's top clubs in the time it can take others to clinch their first bar set.
"Michael is such a smart writer whose reflections are so authentic," Comedy Central's Grigioni says of Che's rapid ascent. "These observations are real and engaging. The way he delivers a joke on stage feels like how he must think about it in his head, and fortunately, that is just really funny."
Che's advice to newbies: "When people tell me, 'I want to try comedy, but I don't have jokes,' I'm like, 'It doesn't matter. You won't get the jokes until the next year or two. Then you start to understand your voice a little bit better and understand what kind of jokes you even want to tell.' Very seldom will somebody start comedy and end comedy the same way.
"The point is, it doesn't matter what your jokes are when you do comedy for the first time. The only thing that matters is getting onstage and being comfortable onstage. You have to be able to sell material. You have to be able to work a crowd. That takes a lot more than just jokes."