"Canceling is relative": Michael Che on his comedy boundaries & why he's not leaving "SNL" just yet

The "SNL: Weekend Update" anchor shares the art of walking back a joke and why he still hates Twitter

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 18, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Michael Che performs on the Bill Graham Stage during Clusterfest at Civic Center Plaza and The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on June 2, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Getty Images/FilmMagic)
Michael Che performs on the Bill Graham Stage during Clusterfest at Civic Center Plaza and The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on June 2, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Getty Images/FilmMagic)

Are comedians ever really canceled for telling a bad joke? We know what happened to Kathy Griffin after her bloody Trump joke, but it seems like most of the funny people who cross the line have just moved onto different positions within the industry, conservative networks, or retired early and had the benefit of enjoying the millions they have accumulated over the course of their careers. Comics, many whose existence requires that they push the envelope, are some of the most vulnerable to the cancel-culture chopping block. Comedian Michael Che, who loves to play the cancel-me-if-you-can game, and has faced backlash for it, addresses the problems with cancel culture (and maybe some of his own fears about it) in Season 2 of his sketch comedy show "That Damn Michael Che," streaming now on HBO Max.

The show, which is created by and executive produced by Che, cleverly pokes fun at issues dealing with race, religion, reproductive rights and more. Many know Che from his brief time as a correspondent for "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, and of course "Saturday Night Live," where he made history as the first African-American co-anchor on "Weekend Update" and co-head writer, alongside Colin Jost.

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Coming from the streets of New York, excelling as a stand-up in some of the grittiest clubs across the country and developing a language that is both funny and suitable for network television, has made Che a uniquely necessary voice for exploring the issues through the lens of humor. I talked to Che on "Salon Talks" about the complexities of landing sensitive jokes today and why he decided to tackle these and other untouchable topics on his show. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Michael Che here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about his future at "SNL" and why he will never stop doing stand-up.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You are the first Black anchor of "Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update" and first Black head writer on the show. It's a lot of first Black on here, man. I feel like they should be bringing you up during Black History Month.

I don't like taking credit with being the first Black anything because it wasn't like there was a rule in place. It feels a little less sexy when there's no rules stopping Black people. I just happened to be the first one, but I appreciate it, thank you.

Season 2 of "That Damn Michael Che" is out now. There's more stand-up this season.

Season 2 was kind of what I wanted to do with Season 1. We wrote and produced Season 1 in the heart of the pandemic, like a lot of shows had to work. There was a lot of limitations to what we could do. We didn't have the writers team together as much. There was just a lot of different obstacles that stopped us from kind of making the show we wanted to make. And also, too, the show was developed without a pilot. A lot of the show was finding itself, I think, in Season 1. By Season 2, we knew exactly what we wanted to do with it, so it was a lot easier to execute.

You have one episode where you get all of your ex-girlfriends in the same room. I just want to say as a consumer, I was triggered. It was the first time in my life I ever felt triggered. I have never used that word. It's the first time. I thought about all the crazy women I dated popping up over my place.

That was a fun one. It was kind of just like a fantasy sequence of, what's a way to find out that a lot of my patterns are patterns, than having different people of different walks of life all tell me that I'm the same person. I wish that we could be a little bit more honest with ourselves and start to see those, recognize those, patterns a lot quicker.

Behind your comedy there are really important topics there. In the first episode, you create a subway incident where a man needs help, the kind of thing that everyone's quick to record on their phone, something or everybody's quick to put their two cents in. What are some of the other themes that viewers can look forward to?

We touch on reproductive rights. We touch on cancel culture as treaded territory as it is, we try to really kind of explore it a little bit differently. We touch on Black excellence and your place in the community. It's nothing done with the intention of being heavy-handed or pushing the narrative. It's just kind of exploring the things that people are already talking about and having fun with it.

That was kind of the bigger takeaway from this season than any other show I've ever worked on, is we wanted to have fun with it. We wanted to all feel like it was in jest, and if you get something from it, great, but we really just want you to laugh and have a good time.

I need to see that one. 

There's a fun wig in there. You'll love it.

I'm from Baltimore, and they didn't call it this, but I went to what felt like a Black excellence house party. It was f**king terrible. Everyone sat in a circle and they just was talking about all of the great s**t they do. And then everyone had to respond with how excellent it was. None of these people were even from Baltimore.

It's a strange thing. That's kind of what we are making fun of. Sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be such pillars, when I think the best example we could show is just kind of being a human being, you know what I mean? And treating people with respect and not putting that much pressure on ourselves to have to uphold some standard of excellence. It's a little daunting for most people. It ends up just being lip service a lot of times, when we just really need to rebuild families and just try to do the best we can.

"You snap on people that you love the most. ... It's kind of what make us the same is that we all got something wrong with us."

I feel like there's Michael Che, the person, when you're talking about these issues in interviews, and then there's you on "Saturday Night Live," and then there's you doing stand-up. And a lot of my friends, they don't interview, but they watch stand-up. And when your name comes up, it's like, "Oh my . . . cold-blooded. Michael Che don't give a f**k. He's going for the jugular." If it ever gets f**ked up for you out there and your New York work crumbles, you could find work in Baltimore. 

That's the best compliment I could ever get because stand-up is my favorite thing to do. I always feel like that's my first language. And it's the language that allows me to understand other languages in this business. I enjoy doing it. And I really appreciate when anybody gets a kick out of it.

Do you feel like we're living in this time where a comedian can actually be canceled? Like, is that even a real thing?

Just like success, canceling is relative. Somebody could be canceled and not know it. Somebody could feel canceled and not be canceled. There's a lot of people who are. You know what I mean? They're like, man, what's going on, something's up? They know something's in the air, but they can't figure it out. And also, too, there's a lot of people, I think, who are a little paranoid and they may think things are happening that's not actually happening because they maybe think a little bit higher of themselves than they should. 

I remember when we was kids, people used to be like, "I got so many haters," and it's like, you don't got no haters, whatever, but it makes you feel good to know that somebody's actively out to get you, or what you're doing is so important that someone feels like they need to stop it. I think that is a kind of an ego boost. I totally think there's certainly an instance where people can have their career put to a halt because of something they said or something they did. Whether rightly or not, it is definitely something that we've seen happen, for sure.

When I was coming up and we were cracking jokes and we making fun of our friends, the joke was like, "Your mother's a junkie b***h." That is the meanest s**t you could say to a kid who has a mom that's struggling with addiction. But what am I going to do? He made fun of my Nikes. I had no choice. Right? We had that rawness and it was hilarious to us. Now that I'm a writer and always putting my opinions out there, people say things like "How could he . . . he just said that? He just wrote that? He feels that way?" The good thing for me is, people don't read, but we hit the wall. We hit a wall because we're bringing elements of our culture to these main stages and people who consume at these higher levels or these Twitter police, they don't really necessarily understand that. Do you see that?

I think there's definitely a lot of instances where on a wider scope, just culturally, there's things that's acceptable in our culture that we grew up with, like a mentality or a way we talk or a way we behave, that's considered very aggressive or that's considered, you know what I mean, threatening, or that happens a lot in language. It also happens in the way we dress and the way we move, the way we brag, the way we party, the way we have fun, there's a lot of instances of that, but for sure on Twitter or even in an interview or even in stand-up, there's ways that we communicate that is actually, sometimes, even like a form of love. 

You snap on people that you love the most. And a lot of times it's because y'all came up in a certain condition that nothing's taboo. It's kind of what make us the same is that we all got something wrong with us. You know what I'm saying? 

"The way we interact today, it's very strange. People are excited to find out what's wrong and ruin it."


Or we got a problem. Or we all going through something and it's kind of like, don't ever forget where you come from. And don't ever pretend that you better than your community. I don't think that's necessarily the same for every community. I think sometimes people get offended on behalf of the optics and not necessarily understanding the communication that's happening.

Maybe I'm just old. I think about what the future going to be like. I hurt my knee playing ball and I made a joke about being an old man. And this young kid was really telling me, I'm being ageist. And I'm like, yo, but I'm saying it about myself. 

I think there's also that gotcha moment that has become a currency and a form of clout of, "I found the thing that was wrong. Everybody look at this wrong thing and celebrate me for calling it out." I think there's that, that we didn't grow up with that kind of desire. It's a very strange culture, the way this generation is. And I don't mean the generation, meaning people younger than us. I just mean the people alive today. And the way we interact today, it's very strange. People are excited to find out what's wrong and ruin it, even if they don't believe it. It's almost like they sue happy. It's like, have you been in the slip and fall? Like, if you think you could get some money, go get some money. But it's not money. It's like attention. It's weird. I'm with you.

You don't do social media?

I post a little bit on Instagram because I could control it a lot, but Twitter to me is just like . . . I always say Twitter is like giving everybody you hate your phone number. So many people just have such access to you. Anything you post, they could attach themselves to it. I don't like the way that the system is built, but with Instagram, you could post one thing, you could delete it and keep things a lot more professional, I feel.

It seems like with Twitter, especially being in your position, it would be more dangerous for you, business-wise, to be on there.

Well, the ends never justified a means. Like, there's nothing I'm going to write that's going to be worth the trouble. There's no reward that's worth the backlash. It's really not worth it. And plus, I have an outlet. I go on stage and I could tweet into a microphone.

And get a check.

Yeah, I got a better system.

"You need to know where that line is, so that when you cross it, it's significant and it's not just all porn."

When you sit down and you write the sketches out for your show, do you think about that backlash or pissing people off and what all that means?

Hindsight. Once it's developed, then we walk it back and see, all right, let's kind of go through this with a fine-tooth comb, but initially we just trying to make each other laugh. We in the room, we're like, oh man, what would be fun? What would we want to watch? I think comedy is a pure form of communication where I'm just trying to make you feel the way I feel when I think about this thing. I love it, I'm enjoying it, so I'm trying to say it in a way that you could understand. It's almost like getting directions in a foreign country. Like I'm trying to find that middle ground of what you understand and what I understand so that we could see where we going together.

I think initially we tried very hard to just make it as funny as possible. And then once it gets to the stage of development, we start to figure out, all right, maybe this might be a little too far. Maybe this might be a little too niche. Maybe this might be a little too inside. And then we try to broaden the appeal a little bit later on. 

What's something you had to walk back?

We had a rough time with this sketch called Abortion Dojo. I'm sure you could deduce what it is.

Yes, I saw it on the show.

That was something that made us laugh immediately because we was all in on it. We all knew where the joke was coming from and the spirit of it. We thought it was so funny and the producers and the network was kind of tentative of, "I don't know if that's right." So we had to kind of put stuff in there to reinforce what side we were on and what we were actually making fun of. It wasn't just, oh, it's a good idea to kick pregnant women. It was more we had to make it where it was more about women not having options and going through unsafe extremes. And we had to be a little bit more heavy-handed than we thought we necessarily would because we are on the same page. 

We obviously know that's true, but somebody watching that don't know us may not get that. So we had to be a little more heavy-handed to tell that part of it. There's times where you don't have to dissect a joke or mutilate a joke or ruin the joke in order to make it clear. You could just add one or two lines that show what the intentions actually are.

I fear that people trying to put boundaries on comedy is not good for the craft.

In some ways it's not, but in some ways it is because when it hit, it hard. Like there's times where doing something with those boundaries makes it more impactful. You know what I mean? Like the fact that you are making this joke and betting this hard on it, and betting this much on it, and knowing that you could lose something behind it, I think makes it more special. 

I think the people that really want it, appreciate it more. That's why they champion the people that actually speak to them the way they do. So yeah, you need those boundaries though. You need to know where that line is, so that when you cross it, it's significant and it's not just all porn. You know what I mean?

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What's better for you, sketch or stand-up?

Nothing's better than stand-up, but I do like sketch as well. I do like building the world and fleshing out and also you get an opportunity to see people that you believe in, that you think is funny, and put them in position to really score. And everybody's scoring. It's not a contest. It's a community. I do love that sketch offers that in a way that stand-up may not because it's just me with a microphone. I love both, but stand-up's my first love.

In sketch, you get to get those fits off. You get the wardrobe.

You get to be silly. It's like you playing dress-up and really kind of launch in and you could wear the comedy.

I feel like you wear what you wear at work a lot though. You ain't wearing no crazy costumes.

That's a fact. There's like a few things where I'll play a little bit, but even if it's not me, it's just being on a set where you could kind of dress it up and see it through. It's like designing an apartment or something. There is kind of a rush and getting something in your head and seeing it through and realizing it to make it look as close as possible to the original vision, man, that's kind of cool to watch.

"Stand-up is my favorite thing to do. I feel like that's my first language. It's the language that allows me to understand other languages in this business."

It's like the history of comedy parallels with the history of hip-hop when it comes to the fashion evolution. Some of the first hip-hop artists wore like these wild-ass leotards and yellow leather biker jackets. And then you get Run-D.M.C coming out with the Adidas sweatsuits and the shell toes. Comedians back in the day, Eddie Murphy, had the leather suits on and all of that. And you just come out with a pair of butters, like, f**k it.

All right, it's a ill thing, man. That's absolutely correct because I remember I think it was my first or second week at "SNL," I met Steve Martin. He was the biggest comedian in the world at one point. He retired from stand-up. He was doing football stadiums and s**t. So he asked me, he was like, "When you go out, when you do stand-up, what do you wear?" Which is a strange question, because this is Steve Martin. I'm like, I don't know. I wear this. I wear a hoodie. He's like, "Really? I always wore a suit. I always felt like a performer was supposed to look better than the audience."

It's a whole different generation. You kind of geeking out over just that part of the process of how different s**t was. But I think you are right. I think like hip-hop and other pop culture, it's a pendulum that should swing from one extreme to the other. And that's kind of cool to watch the guard change.

Are you leaving "SNL"?

I'm going to stay. I wanted to leave initially. I felt like I was leaving initially, but the only reason I wanted to leave was to be able to do more things and take on more projects. I felt like at "SNL," I never had the time to focus. I didn't want to give up all my good years there. But we worked something out where I got an opportunity to produce a little bit more and do things outside of the show. And my workload's not the same. Hopefully that's a commitment that we all stick to and it works out for everybody because I do love being a part of the show. I do love everybody that I work with, but it was just something that I felt like I had to do. I had to leave if I was ever going to do something outside of there. Now it seems as though I don't have to. So I'm going to stay, stick it out and see if I can get the best of both worlds.

"That Damn Michael Che" is streaming right now.

On HBO Max, it's streaming right now, both seasons. They're different. This season, we had a lot of fun, man. Shout-out to Gary Richardson, Kevin Iso, Reggie Conquest and Alice Mathias, who directed, and everybody that worked on it. We really, really had a lot of fun with it and we think you'll like it.

Check out more "Salon Talks": 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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