How New York Comedian Michael Che Willed His Way to SNL and The Daily Show
"Those are all my boats down there," Che kids, pointing from his 32nd-floor window on a chilly afternoon in March. "Got a nice view of green water and white people jogging. I don't know what ya'll are training for."
The swank Battery Park high-rise overlooks the Hudson. A wooden shelf housing a rainbow of Superdry hoodies occupies the same wall as an easel, untouched since he moved in a few months ago. Plastic wrapping envelops the canvas atop the stand. A floor-to-ceiling tapestry of the Brooklyn Bridge frames three rows of his most prized sneakers.
The oldest pair are Spiz'ikes, reissues of the '06 originals Che bought autographed, then sold for cash without ever wearing. A few were gifts, like the Air Jordan 1s from former Saturday Night Live castmember Jason Sudeikis. Some he just likes to look at. They serve as a reminder, he says, of the wear and tear one must endure to stay in the game.
Growing up, the neighborhood kids wore dirty, hand-me-down clothes. But with a nice pair of sneakers and decent haircut, a guy could still get a girlfriend. It was possible to feel good about yourself. Che once read that Michael Jordan wore a brand-new pair of sneakers every time he played. "He remembered when he was a kid with a brand-new pair of sneakers, he felt like he could jump over the moon," he recalls. "He just felt new. And that's how I felt as a kid. I think that's how a lot of New York City kids feel. It's the one nice thing you get to have. I keep that still."
Compared to the sneakers, Che's few other prized possessions are more recently acquired, and he keeps them hidden away. Digging through a closet, he produces a hand-lettered cue card from his Letterman appearance and a photo of Zach Galifianakis in a red M&Ms costume onstage at 30 Rockefeller Center's studio 8H, the famed home of Saturday Night Live. The May 4 photo captures a scene from "Racist Jim," the first live sketch Che got on air. The premise: As a new M&M Store greeter apologizing for his first day's mistakes, Galifianakis recounts the awful things he said about gay, black, Mexican, and "the wrong kind of Indian" employees, occasionally struggling not to break character and laugh in astonishment over the words leaving his mouth.
"When Che first came in, you could tell it was his sketch just by hearing it," says SNL castmember Bobby Moynihan. "He has such a distinct point of view, and it really comes through with his writing."
Che's TV debut was a July 2012 episode of IFC faux-gameshow Bunk. From there it was on to John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show and Best Week Ever. That same year he wrote and starred in the Republican-satirizing, vodka-company-obsessed The Realest Candidate web series for online network Above Average, an offshoot of the Broadway Video production and distribution company. SNL creator, executive producer, and Broadway Video honcho Lorne Michaels took note, and Che's agent received a call inviting Che to temporarily join the writing team in February 2013.
Moynihan remembers Che's impressive first of two weeks as a SNL guest writer. Che assumed he'd serve as a sort of intern, shadowing a staffer and offering a few punch-ups, but quickly realized he was expected to hold his own, mirroring the hours and output required of full-timers. His pitch — a fake trailer for a romantic comedy called She's Got a D!#k —was silly, but the right kind of silly that crushed at the table read. Shooting the video with host Justin Timberlake, Moynihan noted Che's ease and professionalism. It seemed like he'd been working there for years.
When SNL called Che back for the last three weeks of the 2012–13 season, then-head writer Seth Meyers interrupted the Celtics playoff game the two were watching to ask, "Hey, you know you work here now, right?"
"No, I had no idea."
"Yeah, man. Congratulations!"
Remaining cautiously optimistic, Che knew the position was one of the most demanding writing jobs in comedy. Since the best SNL sketches are rooted in simple and specific concepts that also challenge the viewers' perspectives, the surest way to make himself indispensable was to cultivate a clear, unique voice.
One of the highlights of his first full season was "12 Days Not a Slave," a live sketch that provided both a timely spoof of the Oscar-winning drama and pointed commentary on how, in Che's words, "People think that racism was over when slavery was abolished. When you're talking about racism in America, someone will be like, 'Oh, that was 200 years ago!' Yeah, but it was still really rough until about now, so . . ."
Working with Meyers and castmember Jay Pharoah, the trio pounded the script out in fewer than two hours. Despite (or because of) viewers' conflicted reactions, the clip quickly went viral.
Similarly, January's "The Hit," in which a trio of distracted gang members contemplate a snowfall comparable to "two angels up in heaven having a pillow fight" rather than the task at hand, was instantly recognizable as Che's handiwork. Only his singular upbringing, framed by both gruesome violence and uplifting goofiness, could inform an SNL video short juxtaposing murderous intent with talk of oversize sweaters, cocoa and marshmallows, Carole King's Tapestry, and "running barefoot through the forest like a baby deer in a winter wonderland."
"You never hear anyone say, 'That's not funny; that's not gonna work; that's a dumb idea,'" Che enthuses of the SNL staff. "It's always super supportive. You always feel like you're part of a team where the common goal is a funny show. When you're in that kind of environment, it frees you up to be yourself and just try to contribute."
"It's an intimidating room and Che never looks nervous," Moynihan marvels of the Monday meetings where writers congregate in Michaels's office and pitch ideas to the week's celebrity host. "Even if he's got nothing, he always gets a laugh."
"At SNL, you always want a standup or two because they're great with premise," Meyers, now hosting Late Night with Seth Meyers on NBC, says via e-mail. "Che is a great example of this. You always know what his sketches are a few lines in, and when you're at the rewrite table he's great at helping others do the same."
When it came to considering guests to appear the first week of his new show, Meyers knew he wanted Che after he and producer Mike Shoemaker watched Che deliver a great performance in a terrible room with bad sound. "Our premiere was eight months off, but we agreed then he'd be a perfect first comic," says Meyers. "He has a loose, comfortable delivery style, but his material is tightly structured. It's rare you get such a great combination of gifted performer/gifted writer."