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

Laura June Kirsch
Che at Carolines in March.
Several hours after our tour of his home, Che is at Carolines on Broadway, a 300-capacity midtown venue. It is considered the top touring room in the city, and once again, Che is proving himself as a headliner.

Kicking off strong, an extended version of his racism chunk coaxes laughs in all the inappropriately appropriate places. His practiced bewilderment seems a touch overplayed, however, and the trained ear might catch him rushing slightly. He pushes the bill of his cap back and rubs his head. He seems preoccupied.

"I was doing this interview thing today, going back to where I grew up and talking about how fucked up it was," Che finally confesses, bringing the audience in on his experience. "I hadn't seen that neighborhood in 10 years. The problem was, I'm from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and it ain't fucked up no more! They turned the basketball court into a tennis court! I'm like, Who in the hood is playing tennis?"

Che's also drunk. Though he doesn't smoke or do drugs, he'll nurse a Jameson prior to show time, following it up with an onstage beer. His father, stepmother, both sisters, two brothers, and their assorted spouses, dates, and friends have come out to cheer him on as he headlines his first Carolines weekend run. (His mother remained in Jersey City with Che's grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's.) He has met the pressure with a few more Jamesons than usual.

His train of thought clicks back on track and segues into material. "I had a friend that lived in the shelter named Homeless Dave. That's what happens if you grow up really poor and you have a common name: We pick the worst part of your life and make it your new nickname. Like, I had a friend we used to call 'Robocop' for years because he wore braces on his legs and he walked like Robocop. It's messed up. It wasn't his real name; his real name was Crippled Greg." An ebullient ripple confirms the momentary distraction didn't work against him.

Che goes with his gut, feeling out his own comfort levels, interspersing tested jokes with loose riffing.

"I live in Battery Park now," he says, transforming this morning's off-the-cuff remark into a brand-new premise. "All I see is white people jogging. What I want to know is, what are y'all training for?"

His family members laugh and elbow each other, occasionally glancing around to take in the scene. They remember what it took for him to get here; they've made similar journeys themselves. They're drummers, singers, authors, and police officers, and none live in Smith any longer. Smith, meanwhile, is a site where the New York Housing Authority proposes building 50-story luxury condos on a community athletic field.

"This is a very big weekend for me," Che tells the crowd. "You know Biggie Smalls? I've been listening to Biggie's 'Juicy' every day to prepare. My favorite line is 'Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis / When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this.' That's like $300 worth of merchandise! I've been broke my whole life, and I've had a Sega Genesis. I didn't have a Super Nintendo, too, but I could at least picture it!"

The rhythm smooths out. The atmosphere grows relaxed, even casual. Che is rising to the challenge, but he wants to bring the entire room into the performance. The milestone isn't just about basking in his own achievements, it's about everyone who had a stake in getting him here — from those who raised him to those who booked him to those who bought a ticket.

"He had that special something that sets certain comedians apart from the rest of the pack," says club owner Caroline Hirsch, who first noticed Che in early 2011, when he auditioned for the Carolines Comedy Madness competition. "You could just see that he had the makings of a great comedian... He's a prolific writer and a tireless performer who works very hard at honing his craft."

That November, a year after his fateful Comedy Corner open mic, Che won New York's Funniest Stand-Up, a competition Carolines hosts annually as part of the New York Comedy Festival. He next headlined a night of the venue's Breakout Artist Comedy Series. His evolution as a performer and ability to move tickets evident, Carolines offered Che this weekend's four-night, six-show run.

"I love Carolines!" Che exclaims onstage. "It's my first home club!" He's gotten a bit off course, but the attendees relish his honesty and excitement. It's clear they're seeing something more than a normal comedy show. Earlier, he'd explained how the developmental Carolines spots ensured quality stage time, compared to "15 shows that week of people just looking at their notebook, and drunks. It makes you feel you could actually do it. So being able to do a weekend makes me feel that I made good on the work that they gave me early on."

The shows don't merely cement his acceptance within the fiercely demanding New York scene; they're also preparation for his Comedy Central taping, his week headlining London's Soho Theatre in May, and his August return to Edinburgh, where this year's venue will seat closer to 200.

"I don't know what I would do if not for comedy," Che admits to the audience. The red light warning him to wrap the show up glows insistently. He's now just up there talking, but it's not typical crowd work. His questions are more personal. He asks audience members what drew them to his show or how they've made their relationships work. Rapt, they recognize a rare window of unmitigated openness. Comics will sweat over a set list, tell the same perfected jokes the same way each time, and risk running on autopilot. They lose the danger and the joy. Che is different.

His allotted time exceeded, Biggie Smalls interrupts from the sound system overhead — "Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers who told me I'd never amount to nothin'" — the club's sly yet urgent signal for him to take his leave. Che reluctantly returns the mic to the stand. He's proven his picture belongs in the glass case outside one of the best clubs not only in the city, but the country. A whole new set of challenges waits to confront him from here on out, and he'll embrace them, as always, head on.

"They're telling me to get the fuck off the stage!" Che grins. "But I've never been happier!"

All video by Jordan Fuller for the Village Voice. You can see more of his work here.

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