Comedians often say that stand-up is addictive. For New York native Michael Che that rings true; after his first open mic in 2010, he started hitting open mics almost daily, sometimes going to several in one night. Fastforward about three years and the 29-year-old is traveling the world (he just returned from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival), a regular on VH1’s Best Week Ever, guest writing for Saturday Night Live (the epic Justin Timberlake episode, no less), doing Letterman and gearing up for a month of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We chat with the comedian named one of Rolling Stone’s 50 Funniest People in January 2013 before he heads to Miami Beach to perform at the Lincoln Road Free Stage as part of the South Beach Comedy Festival.
Talk about what you will be doing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The show is called Cartoon Violence, basically it's my first real polished hour that will be taped sometime next year. The name comes from something that’s awful but made palatable for people to enjoy. That’s kind of what I do with the subject matter, take tough issues and make it fun for children. It’s cool, it’s like Tom & Jerry. I want that to be the launching point of my career. I want to make things that are awful seem funny. That’s why I am excited about the festival, it’s going to be like 25 shows.
One thing about playing to the international audiences I learned in Melbourne, you cut out a lot of references to New York and insider references or something that if you're on the other side of the world people won't get it. You got to see different kinds of audience to get that.
What did they find funny in Australia that surprised you?
They found everything funny but they were really uptight about racial stuff, which was weird, especially since they have no black people, which is also weird. They are more of the people that don’t know if they should be laughing at that. Which is good, it’s almost as good as a laugh. They would give a pass at the festival to everyone and I would wear mine all the time. I would even go on stage with it and every time I said a joke that people would tighten up about I said, “Don’t worry, I have a pass!” I would say that and they would loosen up.
You got to guest write for a few episodes of Saturday Night Live, including the infamous Justin Timberlake show. What was the experience like?
It was really fun. They really set the environment for us to be guest writers. Everyone was inclusive, Seth Meyers, Jay Pharoah. I ended up being lucky enough to get on the show [with his movie trailer short “She’s Got a D*&k”] which is a huge show. Even Justin was amazed. I call it Yankees Stadium for a comedic performer because you’re playing with a lot of retired jerseys at Saturday Night Live.
You’ve only been doing this since 2010, now you’re guest writing for SNL, doing comedy festivals, traveling the world – how has this happened so quickly for you?
The community. The comedy community is the most helpful thing. They’ve been the most supportive. At this level comedians kind of run the asylum. You get the opportunity to work on a bigger comedian’s show which raises your profile and the more of those shows you do, the more shows they ask you to do. Then those opportunities come out of nowhere and you realize you are on the radar. But to me it’s all I know so it doesn’t feel fast.
Talk about your appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
My showcase happened on the day the storm [Hurricane Sandy] was coming so they had to cancel the showcase but they wanted me to tape it that Thursday, but then the storm came and shut everything down so I had no phone, no Internet, no power, no anything and I was stuck in Jersey because I don’t drive, there was no public transportation. I had no idea that the show was on the air. Then I got a knock on my window Wednesday night and it’s my best friend and he’s like “They want you to tape David Letterman tomorrow.” So we had to go to the city. So it was two of us in the car and they had a rule that you had to have three people in the car if you want to get into the city so we drove by a bus stop and say “Anybody want to go to the city?” And this guy is like “I do,” so he jumps in the back seat and he’s got a toddler with him. We’re like “You get in a strange car with your baby.”
We got into the city and I was very nervous, like visibly shaking. But I would love to do a late night spot with less pressure. It’s nice to do a spot that my mother would watch. I don’t know if you noticed but the intro music they played was New York State of Mind and so I felt a lot more comfortable.
How did you get the nerve to do your first set?
I had a half of a pint of E & J. I went to an open mic, it cost five dollars for five minutes. I did five minutes and it was so much fun. Then another five minutes at another show further up the block and then I was doing it every single day, like two or three mics. Then you start working in the clubs, then they start paying you for shows. The next thing you know you are doing festivals and all types of cool stuff.
I started out with insane stage fright and what helped me get over that was to talk to like three people in key places and keep talking to them then eventually you are talking to everybody.
What is your best source of material?
My own confusion. I try to draw off of things that I should know as a 29-year-old guy that I don’t but that make sense to everyone else but me. It’s usually funny. That’s why I try not to read that much. People think I’m lazy but I’m it’s not, it’s for material. I try to find the layman version of simplifying anything and it usually sounds ridiculous.
Who are your comedic heroes?
Louis C.K. I like the way his career is going. I love Woody Allen and how he keeps total control over his projects. But content-wise, Carlin and Patrice and Dave Chappelle. Every character Louis C.K. plays is Louis C.K. and every character that Woody Allen plays is Woody Allen. I like how their projects showcase their personalities.
Is there anything you wouldn’t do?
I don’t like playing cool characters. I read for them all the time. And nobody wants to wear a dress. I know that’s a huge thing, but I won’t wear a dress. That’s it.
Talk to me about Best Week Ever? What are you making fun of this week?
We’re making fun of Jay-Z and Beyonce. Well, I’m not. I make fun of whatever I want. That’s the cool thing about this show is they give us license to say whatever we want.
What would you say about their trip to Cuba?
They’re rich, they get bored. Of course they are going to go to Cuba. There’s only so many times you can go to the South of France.
Have you ever been to Miami?
No, I can’t wait to go to Miami. I want to eat a Cuban sandwich and see Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union.
What can we expect on the Lincoln Road Stage?
You’re going to see a really honest guy telling you exactly what he finds funny whether they like it or not. They’re going to really enjoy it. Laughter is contagious and I’m going to be laughing.
What if it rains?
If it rains then I’m going to be like Diana Ross in Central Park just out there living it, man! Let it rain all over and I’ll take my shirt off and turn it to a Jodeci video. Bring on the rain.
You’ll definitely get a crowd like that.
I hope it rains now.
How will you put Spanish speaking hecklers in their place in Miami?
I’m from the Lower East side of Manhattan. There’s Spanish hecklers here. Spanish ain’t that foreign. We can get it going.
What is your go-to for the rude guy in the crowd.
There’s two guys that screw up a show: the guy that thinks they’re heckling and the guy that doesn’t realize he’s a heckler. The person that doesn’t realize he’s a heckler you have to go right at him really fast in his face and make him say “Oh man, I should shut up.” The guy that wants the attention you have to pull back because that’s what he wants so the more you yell at him the more he will mess up the show. For him you have to make him feel terrible. That’s a unique thing and I’m pretty good at it. That’s the cool thing about doing comedy in New York, there’s nothing you are not prepared for. I’ve been heckled by a man in a giant penis costume.
You were heckled by a man in a penis costume?
It was Santa Con. It was a giant penis wearing a Santa hat. He was black out drunk sitting in the front heckling everyone and we just destroyed him. Lit him up. I’ve had a woman standing on a chair in Newark, New Jersey two minutes into my set yelling in front of all her friends “Where are your jokes?” There’s nothing we haven't seen. So bring it on.