“There’s no budget for black hair in public radio,” Michelle Buteau laments as a woman with waist-length braids wraps sections of the comedian’s voluminous hair around a curling iron. Buteau sits with her feet propped up on a chair in a small green room at WNYC’s Greene Space, just south of the West Village, where she’ll soon be taping an episode of Late Night Whenever, her new talk show–style podcast. When I ask if it hurts, having her hair pulled and pinned like that, she lifts her shirt and points to her high-waisted jeans. “This is way more painful. I just saw Louie Anderson on Bill Maher, and I’m like, that’s what my tummy looks like. That’s my future.”
As a video editor at WNBC in her early twenties, Buteau used to sneak her friends into 30 Rock for “ten-cent tours” of the iconic skyscraper, ushering them onto soundstages and inviting them to sit behind Conan O’Brien’s desk. “I always felt like, I’m not good enough to get on SNL but I’m good enough to work in the building!” she quips. More than fifteen years later, Buteau is the one behind the proverbial desk. Late Night Whenever, which launched in early April, is taped before a live studio audience at the Greene Space every Tuesday night, on a small stage outfitted to look like a cozy living room (there’s no actual desk): bright-orange armchair; funky patterned throw pillows on a gray couch; a small cabinet holding knickknacks, including a framed photo of Oprah. In each episode, Buteau gets personal with her guests — so far, they’ve included The Detour’s Jason Jones, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., and cabaret star Bridget Everett — as well as her keyboard-bound sidekick, the prolific music director Rob Lewis (“My black Dr. Phil”).
At forty, Buteau has been doing stand-up for seventeen years. Alongside her pal Jordan Carlos, Buteau hosts a semi-regular show called #Adulting — in which the comics dispense advice and interview guests — which recently outgrew its Union Hall space and has moved to the Bell House. She appeared in the very first episode of 2 Dope Queens, the WNYC podcast–turned–HBO-special hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, and has since earned unofficial “third dope queen” status. A New Jersey native born to a Haitian father and a Jamaican mother, Buteau worked in broadcast journalism throughout college and into her early to mid twenties — until 9-11 hit, and the stress of editing gruesome video in sixteen-hour overnight shifts took its toll.
“I had no money,” she recalls, “so I would eat at Dojo’s all the time, because I could get crispy chicken and salad and green tea for, like, six dollars. And I would just read all the free magazines.” She saw an ad for the American Comedy Institute in one of those free publications, the Village Voice, and that was it. She took a course, started performing stand-up, and never stopped.
Buteau came up in the gay cabaret scene, honing her act at Manhattan bars like Marie’s Crisis, Don’t Tell Mama, Duplex, and Therapy. When a friend who was doing audience booking for Maury offered her a warm-up gig — talk shows often trot out a comedian to get the audience in the mood before taping — Buteau didn’t even ask how much it paid before saying yes. (It paid in pizza.) She started holding dance contests to get the crowd going, and quickly figured out that she fed off the energy of her audience. She landed her first TV gig in 2005, appearing on the now-defunct Comedy Central stand-up showcase Premium Blend.
Buteau met Robinson and, later, Williams, in 2012. “We all live in Brooklyn, and if you’re performing and have brown titties, you usually end up knowing each other,” she says. It was Robinson — whom Buteau calls a “hustler,” and who in addition to 2 Dope Queens has written a book, appeared in the TV series Search Party and I Love Dick, and launched a solo WNYC podcast called Sooo Many White Guys — who urged Buteau to get involved with the New York–based NPR affiliate. Buteau pulls out her phone and plays me a voicemail Robinson sent her almost two years ago to the day, after the first episode of 2 Dope Queens: “WNYC really likes you and they, like, loved your set,” the recording begins. “I think you should maybe try to pitch a show there.”
Buteau took Robinson’s advice and met with the fine people of WNYC. She pitched them her favorite kind of program: a late-night talk show. “SNL’s great, but I’m not into sketch or character or accents,” she says. “Watching Johnny Carson or Arsenio Hall, that just looks like so much fucking fun. Everyone’s having a blast — the band’s having a blast, the guy holding the cue cards behind the camera’s cracking up, and I’m like, what kind of party is this?”
Of course, Late Night Whatever is a party only for your ears. But its talk show format is simply a more structured version of the now-ubiquitous podcasts on which a roundtable of chatty nerds voice their opinions on various topics. And Buteau has found a receptive audience in the podcasting world. “When someone’s like, ‘What kind of show do you want to do,’ even if it’s a podcast, you better say what kind of show you want to do, otherwise it’s your fault if it doesn’t work out,” she says, recalling her meeting with the WNYC brass. “So I was like, ‘I want to do a late-night show with a lot of feelings, and I want to say fuck.’ And they were like, ‘Cool.’ ”
Buteau has reached the stage of her career, and her life, when she’s comfortable with who she is, and that sense of ease is apparent on Late Night Whenever. She jokes about her husband, who is Dutch and apparently laid-back enough to be cool with her mentioning that he’s European white, a/k/a uncircumcised. She calls people “honey,” and smoothly strikes up conversations with people in the audience. Buteau is funny even when she’s not telling jokes, which is a skill that’s harder than it looks: During a stand-up set at the Greene Space for the variety show 44 Charlton, she chuckles, “Did you guys pay for this? I should tell you some jokes.” When an audience member yells out, “No need!” she doesn’t miss a beat before shooting back, “No need? Perfect, I don’t have any. I just have a raging camel toe that I can’t pick.”
With Late Night Whenever set to run through the end of June — this week’s guests are Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks and High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair — and an April 23 instalment of #Adulting featuring SNL’s Leslie Jones, Buteau is feeling confident. “I want to be the Steve Harvey with titties, have, like, seventeen different shows!” she insists. She’s grateful that in the years since she started stand-up, there are more avenues to success than landing a multi-cam sitcom.
“I’m a size eighteen right now,” she says. “My mom used to straighten my hair and cover my freckles. I have done everything for society, and now I’m fucking done. I’m just really excited for people to hear my shit.”
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.