How New York Comedian Michael Che Willed His Way to SNL and The Daily Show
Photo: Laura June Kirsch
"Why do you have to be so dirty?" a voice called from the darkness. "The show's called Cartoon Violence, but it's not about cartoons. There should've been a warning!"
Michael Che paused. He was onstage in August 2013 during his second show at Scotland's annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It's true, few would mistake Che for a clean comic. (Earlier he'd confessed to the audience what he loves most about Brits: "They say 'cunt' a lot. I don't know how saying it got such a bad rap; it's literally my favorite thing on the planet.") Yet within industry circles, he's a far cry from the world of shock comedy, where perfunctory filth often supplants punch lines of consequence.
He tried his best to answer the question posed by the heckler, a white-haired woman. "My favorite cartoon is Tom and Jerry, because it's violent," he explained. "But kids are watching it, so it's, like, ridiculous. You ever been slapped in the face with a rake? It's hard! It's like . . . I'm talking about some serious shit, but what I'm saying sounds ridiculous coming out of my mouth."
"Can you tell me one clean joke?" she pressed.
Che paused again. He looked at the floor, pushed back the bill of his navy baseball cap to rub his head. An idea took hold.
"How about this?" he finally asked. "I will comp you and a guest on — what's the second-to-last Sunday [of the month]? — Sunday the 18th, and I'll do an entirely clean show."
Later that night, Che tweeted, "Im at #edfringe doing 25 shows in 26 days for 1 reason, to challenge myself. Im not a comedian cause im dirty, im a comedian cause im funny." But he intended to keep his promise. "This lady thought my show was too dirty," Che posted on Facebook two days later. "So Im doing a clean show for her aug 18."
The challenge rested inside a much greater test. The celebrated arts festival runs the month of August and features roughly 1,000 different comedy shows alone. Any space that accommodates chairs and a microphone becomes a venue. In 2013, American heavyweights Greg Proops and Caroline Rhea played the Gilded Balloon Teviot's stifling Debating Hall and Dining Room, respectively. Shane Mauss took the stage in a parking garage; Al Lubel in a literal cave. Some shows were staged in 840-capacity castles, others in modified shipping containers. Che dropped his nuanced f-bombs in a 225-year-old proper drawing room, complete with a fireplace and two sparkling chandeliers.
Leading up to his promised clean show, he was committed to the painstaking rewriting process and worked to embed new filters between his brain and mouth.
But a few days after the confrontation with the heckler, the woman appeared at the venue bar before his nightly performance. He later recalled her urging him to nix the idea of changing his act. "The people deserve to see the show that you prepared for them," he remembered her saying.
"She said she heard me on the BBC, and she said the set was funny when she heard it; she forgot that I actually did so many clean jokes. It was just the fact that I was the first show like that that she saw, so it caught her off-guard."
She bought him a beer, wished him good luck, and asked if he'd pose for a photo with her. "It was actually the nicest thing I have experienced at this festival," he said while relaxing with a beer late one night during the festival. "So she asked me not to and I told her I wouldn't, so that's why I didn't. But if she would have come to see it, just for the spirit of comedy, I would have totally done it, and it would have been fun."
He was used to challenging himself.
At the time of his Edinburgh run, Che was just two and a half years into his comedy career and enjoying an impressive run of accolades. He had performed on the Late Show with David Letterman in November 2012. In January 2013, Rolling Stone named him one of the "50 Funniest People Now"; that July, he made Variety's annual "10 Comics to Watch" list. And after getting his size-12 foot in the door as a Saturday Night Live guest writer that February, he'd joined the sketch-comedy institution full-time in May.
But the grueling month of shows in Scotland marked one of the first times Che had to prove himself as a headlining comedian — and Edinburgh hasn't always been kind to American performers. In previous years, veteran U.S. comics Lewis Black, Todd Barry, and Marc Maron faced scathing reviews and fickle ticket buyers. But while 2013 saw Mauss averaging just a dozen people a night and Yannis Pappas flying home halfway through because of poor sales, Che's stateside momentum had continued in the U.K. Effusive word of mouth ensured Che's 100-seater sold out nightly. The Observer, The Independent, and The Edinburgh Evening News clamored for interviews; he performed twice on BBC's Radio Scotland.
Onstage, Che serves as a sort of social-issues micro-economist whose deceptive meandering belies a deeply philosophical mind. He's conversational and laid-back, unforced in speech and movement. Eschewing the animated histrionics of some of his contemporaries, Che's six-foot-two-inch frame remains rooted, any onstage physicality minimized. His movements barely register, whether he touches on spirituality ("Some people won't try bacon for religious reasons. I won't try religion for bacon reasons") or racism ("You can't hate me, you need me. I'm black! We make shit cool! Just like we need white people, because you make shit safe. And we all need Asian people, because they make shit affordable"). He wants the material front and center; it's far more important that audiences focus on his words rather than his body.
Now, nearly a year after Edinburgh, Che regularly performs material about his festival experience. He returned as an SNL staffer from September 2013's opening episode through the season finale on May 17. On February 8, he performed the inaugural stand-up set the first week of Late Night with Seth Meyers. On June 2, Che began his newest TV gig, as on-air correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and his first special, an episode of Comedy Central's The Half Hour, airs June 6.
Despite his achievements, the 31-year-old chides himself for arriving late to comedy. Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock all began performing in their teens; he's determined to make up for lost time.
"It really felt like he came out of nowhere, and he was so refreshing," says Comedy Central vice president of talent JoAnn Grigioni, who first saw Che perform in November 2011. "He was new, but Michael never felt green. His delivery, the pauses, and emphasis on certain words has always has been purposeful. I almost said he's gotten more comfortable onstage since then, but that's not really true. Can one get more comfortable than that?"
Stand-up comedy is enjoying a boom period, yet it's never been more fragmented. Performers cultivate individualized audiences through social media and online clips. They can book their own shows at bars or black-box theaters or rock clubs, and produce and distribute their own albums. Yet comedy options catering to the narrowest personal preferences inevitably marginalizes commonality. The next Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, or George Carlin can no longer resonate across the entire cultural landscape; the era of standups becoming household names has effectively passed.
But there's a reason Che's seemingly overnight success hasn't been met with the backlash that plagued the likes of former "it" comics Dane Cook and Bo Burnham. The struggle to rise above, to achieve more than expectations nominally allow, remains universal. His material defies the illogicality and absurdity of barriers erected over race, religion, politics, gender and economic status. Rather than mock, rant or divide, Che's comedy strives to unite.
The Lower East Side's Alfred E. Smith Houses, aka Smith Projects, comprise a dozen low-income high-rises accommodating 6,000 people in 2,000 apartments. One-third of a square mile, the community is flanked by the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, the FDR, and Chinatown.
By the time Michael Che Campbell arrived into an extended, close-knit family of Smith residents — the youngest of seven, and younger than his nearest sibling by seven years — his parents had separated. As older brother Lee recalls, there were nights when dinner consisted solely of rice. They certainly didn't need another mouth to feed.
Lee, 14 years Che's senior, says his frustrations soon gave way to a paternal pride. (Che's first word, both proclaim proudly, was "Yee," his earliest interpretation of the elder's first name.) With their mother, Rose, working three jobs to maintain a three-bedroom apartment, Lee assumed the role of his baby brother's caretaker.
Each morning, Lee walked Che to daycare at the nearby Hamilton-Madison House. But Che's real education began when he started sneaking into the rec room upstairs, where teenage boys from the neighborhood shot pool and told stories about women, "stuff that you only heard on Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy records," Che laughs. "Stuff we should not be listening to."
He also saw things no child should see, not all of it as edifying as an early fascination with dirty jokes. In an area where word of Chinese gang warfare and random street violence spread nearly every day, Che retained some experiences he'd rather forget.
Playing outside one day at four or five years old, he saw a Dominican man with an afro drop to the ground in front of him. Che could have reached out and touched the man's body. When the victim was turned over, a hole in the side of his head opened into a gaping space large enough to fit a grapefruit. Che doesn't remember hearing a sound, but says that the ground looked like somebody had dropped a jar of jelly. That gory image haunted him for months, preventing him from falling asleep without his mother soothing him. The experience had been so cloudy and surreal that for years Che wondered if he'd dreamed it, until his brother Willie confirmed having witnessed the death, too.
His family remained the one constant in his life. Once he began attending P.S. 42 on Hester Street, Che hit the Smith Recreation Center daily with his cousins Justin and Freddy. There was a pool, but rather than water, it held vials and broken bottles. They instead spent their afternoons hunched over a skelzies board, swinging on monkey bars, and playing sports. The trio also made fun of the kids living next door at the Catherine Street Family Respite homeless shelter. It wasn't until later that Che understood there were times his own family was a single paycheck away from joining them.
Always protective of his younger brother, Lee prohibited Che from venturing into Chinatown unaccompanied. But by age seven, Che was roaming freely between the neighborhood's kung fu movie theaters and Asian shops. The mustachioed firemen at Engine 9, Ladder 6, with muscles "bigger than Hulk Hogan's," let him play on the pole at the station. One memorable afternoon he joined onlookers watching Shaquille O'Neal and Fu-Schnickens shooting their "What's Up, Doc?" music video on the basketball court beneath the Manhattan Bridge.
His rebellious nature persisted into his teens. Che balked at attending church, came and went as he pleased, stayed out late, skipped school, and generally questioned everything his mother asked of him. While most of his siblings left home by 16, Che was gone by 14. He proclaimed himself an adult capable of making his own decisions, so Rose kicked him out. He briefly lived with his sister Laverna in Jersey City before moving in with his father, Nathaniel, in Hell's Kitchen. Nathaniel remarried and moved to Flatbush when Che was 17. He tried living again with his mother, but the arrangement lasted all of three months, and he rejoined his father and new stepmother for senior year.
Che enjoyed drawing for as long as he could remember, and after moving in with his father, attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. But he failed to take his art seriously in school, preferring to hang out in Times Square, whiling away hours at the Virgin Megastore and Sbarro. Each time he walked down Broadway, he'd pass the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of the Late Show, and Carolines comedy club, checking out the posters of Damon Wayans, Tracy Morgan, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock lining the outside wall. After graduation, Che finally began pursuing art in earnest. Working in a Toyota dealership's customer service department served as a turning point: He wanted to do something more with his life.
"[Art] was my therapy, it was my creative outlet," Che recalls. "Art takes so much practice. People will tell you you're good before you are. They want to encourage you. Luckily for me, I never really bought into any of my hype. I always knew it took a lot of work for me to be what I wanted to be."
At LaGuardia, Che's drawing had evolved into painting; his acrylic portraits now graced canvases and T-shirts. When friends bought his pieces and encouraged him to make more, he began selling them on the street.
Che left the dealership after two years and began commuting daily from his brother Kofi's place in Jersey City to Soho with a folding table and hand truck of merchandise. His favorite spot was the corner of Prince and Wooster streets, with its proximity to the best stores and generous sightlines, the better to spot police approaching. In every type of weather except heavy rain, he'd set up shop from around 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. At day's end, everything went at a discount. He didn't want to lug more home than he had to.
He sold a Sammy Davis Jr. shirt to Billy Crystal, a Jimi Hendrix shirt to Andre 3000, and numerous items to rapper and producer Kwamé. Once, while wearing a Spike Lee T-shirt of his own design in line to buy a pair of Spiz'ike sneakers at Niketown, the director himself took notice.
"He was like, 'Where'd you get that T-shirt from?'" Che recalls.
"I made it."
"You sell that?"
"I was like, 'Nooo . . .'"
Lee, then releasing his 40 Acres and a Mule line with Ecko, laughed and gave Che his number, promising the young entrepreneur, "We're going to talk."
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For reasons he still can't explain, Che never called Lee.
A second chance to make his artistic mark arose when Richard Hilfiger, son of clothing designer Tommy Hilfilger, cast an approving eye on Che's sidewalk wares. After an initial conversation, Richard returned a few weeks later with his father in tow. The mogul bought a couple shirts and invited Che to participate in a photo shoot at his Connecticut home. After the shoot, he offered Che a job designing collaged logos.
The very next morning, Tommy Hilfiger showed his new hire around the company's chic Chelsea offices. He introduced Che to each employee in every department, set him up with a desk and computer, and encouraged him to come and go as he pleased. Hilfiger also proposed paying for Che to attend digital-design classes and extended cash from his own pocket to tide him over until his first payday.
"He said, 'Do you know why I'm doing this? Because somebody gave me a chance. So I'm giving you a chance,'" Che says of Hilfiger. "I'll never forget that."
Still in his early twenties, Che was eager to please, but a crippling anxiety took hold. He struggled with self-doubt under the pressure he placed on himself to succeed within the "really WASPy" environment at the Hilfiger offices. Eventually, Che received permission to work from home, away from the polished bricks, nautical themes, and giant American flags.
Yet as the weeks and deadlines passed, he couldn't surmount his creative block. Che feared his benefactor's patience and understanding had reached its limit. "He's going to be pissed, and they're just going to tell me not to come back," Che remembers thinking. "So I just didn't go back. And I couldn't go back on the street, because they would have seen me there. So it just completely fell apart. I have no idea what happened."
It was the last time Che touched brush to canvas. A Richard Pryor portrait he painted around age 20 is the only work he still owns.
"Now everything that I get to do, I take advantage of it," he vows. "Because that's a lot to just let go up in smoke."
By the fall of 2010, Che felt like the oldest 26-year-old in the world. He shared a Jersey City studio with a girlfriend, and was growing desperate to get his creative juices flowing again.
His grandfather and mother had been funny. The entire family joked with each other constantly. He'd been a cut-up in school. And Che had admired Richard Pryor as far back as he could remember. Maybe he'd give standup a whirl. But what if he failed again?
The original plan was to save $400 to pay for a comedy class, figuring it would be the easiest way to conquer his fear. After falling short for months, he decided to go a different route.
Poring over listings on badslava.com, in late October, Che decided on a Tuesday night open mic at the Comedy Corner, a now-defunct basement bar near the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets. It cost $5 to perform, but whoever told the funniest joke got their $5 back. Che drank himself brave on E&J and Coke, and signed up.
Though he failed to win the $5 with a bit wondering why Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate Halloween ("Because that's when people would actually open the door for them . . . and give them candy!"), the experience was a revelation. "Immediately, onstage looking down at the microphone and watching them look up, I was hooked," says Che. Encouraged, he hit an 11 p.m. open mic at Chelsea's The Pit that same evening. "After that I went onstage every day, maybe two to three times a day, just open mics, open mics, open mics. Maybe four times a day. Maybe five times a day."
Aspiring comics traditionally use open mics to hone their persona and amass enough material to book bar shows. Once they're finally invited to showcase (audition) at a mainstream club, momentum leads to more showcases, and eventually performers book a few spots a night, most nights of the week, all around town and, hopefully, beyond. The path is generally the same for most stand-ups, though how long it takes can vary widely. In Che's case, he was working the city's top clubs in the time it can take others to clinch their first bar set.
"Michael is such a smart writer whose reflections are so authentic," Comedy Central's Grigioni says of Che's rapid ascent. "These observations are real and engaging. The way he delivers a joke on stage feels like how he must think about it in his head, and fortunately, that is just really funny."
Che's advice to newbies: "When people tell me, 'I want to try comedy, but I don't have jokes,' I'm like, 'It doesn't matter. You won't get the jokes until the next year or two. Then you start to understand your voice a little bit better and understand what kind of jokes you even want to tell.' Very seldom will somebody start comedy and end comedy the same way.
"The point is, it doesn't matter what your jokes are when you do comedy for the first time. The only thing that matters is getting onstage and being comfortable onstage. You have to be able to sell material. You have to be able to work a crowd. That takes a lot more than just jokes."
"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."
Che at Carolines in March.
Laura June Kirsch
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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