Though he only hit the stand-up stage for the first time in 2010, the comedian Michael Che has sped through the ranks thanks to his seriously funny routines and a break-neck schedule. The Lower East Side native performs at New York comedy clubs seven nights a week (often hitting multiple venues each night) and is a regular cast member on VH1’s Best Week Ever. He also just marked two major comedic milestones: performing on The Late Show with David Letterman and guest writing on Saturday Night Live. We recently caught up with Che to talk about pre-open mic night drinking and writing for one of the most talked-about episodes of SNL.
Last week on SNL, Justin Timberlake hosted and Jay Z, Martin Short, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Candice Bergen, Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin all made surprise guest appearances. What was it like writing for that show?
It was crazy! I had no idea what to expect but the whole experience was amazing. I figured I was just going to be like getting coffee for people or something, but everyone was so welcoming and supportive. The SNL staff didn’t make me feel like the new guy at all and to share a space with so many of these icons, to be doing the same thing they’re doing and competing for laughs with them, was bizarre.
Did you get to meet all the guest stars?
I saw Dan Aykroyd in the hall and I had to go up to him and say hello. I also got to talk with Steve Martin. I’m a huge Steven Martin fan. I asked him so many questions about stand-up and he gave me some great advice and insight from his career. But really, I couldn’t get past the fact that I was talking to Steve Martin.
So many famous comedians talk about how difficult it is to get a sketch on SNL. Sarah Silverman and Mindy Kaling noted in their memoirs that neither had a sketch air during their writing stints at 30 Rock. What was it like to have your sketch "Romantic Comedy", featuring Justin Timberlake and Nasim Pedrad in a fake movie trailer, air during your first week at the show?
I wanted to go on the floor to watch the show instead of watching it in the writer’s room so that I could see it live. I walked out to the little area and there was Tom Hanks, Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Lorne Michaels. I was sitting right next to them and they were laughing at my sketch. I didn’t even want to look at the stage, I just wanted to watch them laugh at it. It was such a crazy experience.
What’s next for you?
I would love to do more TV and do movies for the experience but my ultimate focus is stand-up. It’s the number one thing that I love most because there is nothing like being with a live audience. This has been a crazy, exciting year, and I am hoping that what comes out of it is really quality material. I am working on an hour-long performance right now, and I want it to be something really special that people will love.
How did you finally work up the courage to do your first open mic?
I was so nervous. I went the week before just to check it out and see what I was getting into and then I decided that I was just going to do it. I drank a good amount of E & J and then got on stage. I don’t even remember it that well, but I do know that something clicked in me, the perspective of being on stage and looking out at the audience, I wanted more of that.
What’s your writing process like?
If I think something’s funny, I try to mold it into a joke as soon as possible. Once I have a joke, I say it a million different ways on stage until I find a rhythm and it feels like its as good as it can be. You know how when you’re speaking to someone in a different language, like asking for directions or something, and you have to try and figure out a way to make them understand what you mean? That’s what a joke is like for me. I know why I think it’s funny. I just have to figure out a way to package it so that other people will see why it’s funny too.
What was it like to do Letterman? How nervous were you?
I actually have a crazy Letterman story. It was the week before Hurricane Sandy, I was living in Jersey City at the time and by Tuesday, I had lost power, cell phone service was out, and public transportation had stopped. I had no way to find out if the Letterman taping was still going to happen. On Wednesday night, I was in my room, and I hear a knock on my window. My manager had called a friend, who called another friend, who called another friend to come over and get me. We got in the car and started driving, but because of the rule that you couldn’t cross the bridge with just two people, we stopped at the bus stop to see if we could pick people up! We picked up this guy and a little toddler. I can’t believe this guy brought a toddler into a stranger’s car…luckily we were nice people! Anyway, long story short, I made it to the taping and it went well.
How has your rising notoriety changed your life?
The biggest change in my life is that all I have to do is comedy. I enjoy it so much that it almost feels like cheating, I can’t believe I get paid to do this. I get to do what I love for money. It’s weird to process that.
Photos: Mindy Tucker