Commentary: Michael Che says he knows funny. ‘SNL’ and his new sketch show suggest otherwise
The title of HBO Max’s new comedy sketch series, “That Damn Michael Che,” implies that we should already have an idea of what we’re about to receive: on-brand humor from “Saturday Night Live’s” co-head writer and “Weekend Update” co-anchor, marking an expansion of his trademark material into series streaming. But what, exactly, is Che’s comedy all about?
It’s hard to glean from his recent run on the flagging “SNL,” which Che has called home in multiple capacities, including guest writer and staff writer, since 2013. Eight years later, even he appears bored by the lack of innovation — and occasionally outright offense — in his and fellow anchor/co-writer Colin Jost’s approach to the venerable newscast parody. One example: When President Biden reversed predecessor Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military, Che sardonically joked: “It’s good news, except Biden is calling the policy, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tuck.’” The audience groaned. Che grinned. Jost shrugged. In short, it was Saturday.
With Che’s six-part, half-hour sketch show, which premiered Thursday, HBO Max is banking that he’s amassed a large (well, large enough) fan base that will buy into both the title of the show and its premise: “Each episode follows a theme or incident — racial profiling, unemployment, falling in love and more — and uses sketches and vignettes to illustrate what it feels like to experience them, from [Che’s] perspective.”
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Whether Che is in fact “irreverent” enough to pull off the intended trick remains unclear, both from his stint on “Saturday Night Live” and the new series. Che‘s material here overwhelmingly focuses on the anxious terrain of ongoing cultural shifts and reckonings, equally lampooning woke warriors, shallow white progressives, trigger-happy cops, police-hating Black folks, uneasy liberals who say “people of color,” paranoid anti-vaxxers and more.
That’s not to say there aren’t standout moments in “That Damn Michael Che,” which features his current and former “SNL” castmates such as Jost, Cecily Strong and Colin Quinn as well as guests like Method Man and Billy Porter in sketches by Che and a team of writers. The best of the lot includes an ad for the “Fitbit Protest”: Now you can track your heart rate as well as your contributions to social change! Outwalk all your heroes! “We just marched further than MLK,” proclaims a zealous white protester.
Another skit is fashioned like a public service announcement for the NYPD as they work to soften their image in Black communities. It features officers chatting with young Black men on a basketball court. See, they’re not the kind of officers who shoot Black people for no reason ... just as long as they can always see your hands. Although hands sometimes look like guns. And so do basketballs. You can guess where this is going.
But the rest of the episodes’ material is not all that funny or fresh, which is a problem considering that most late-night comedy, from Trevor Noah to John Oliver, is built upon tackling this kind of tough and topical news, and frequently go viral for their sharp, timely takes on police shootings, systemic racism, cancel culture and more. In the realm of sketch comedy, Robin Thede’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” also on HBO, is an explosion of racial justice commentary mixed with some of the most ambitiously insane humor out there. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s brilliant and mind-blowing. Che’s work cannot regularly say the same, which is ironic: Thede and her cast take the kind of risks Che chooses not to, even though he enjoys safe harbor at “SNL.” And just as he’s been upstaged on “Weekend Update” by titanic impressions from the likes of Bowen Yang this season, Che is absent from many of his own series’ high points, at least on screen — including the Fitbit Protest and PSA sketches.
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As a result, “That Damn Michael Che” gives a good idea of what disgusts or amuses its namesake, but rarely offers a sharper sense of who he is as a comedian and performer. He chats informally to folks off camera in between sketches, banter that should highlight his personality outside the “SNL” anchor shtick, and add a new dimension to his past as a stand-up and “Daily Show”correspondent. But Che is pretty much the same guy here we see on “Weekend Update” — nonchalant, flippant, unwilling to let his guard down. When the center of the show looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, it’s near impossible to stay invested. Humor with impunity is rarely funny.
It may be no surprise that Che prefers to hold his audience at arm’s length, given a series of controversial 2018 Instagram posts in which he decried “anti-comedy comedy” and “stand-up tragedy” — comments that were widely seen to be directed, at least in part, at Hannah Gadsby, who openly spoke about rape in deeply personal terms in her Netflix special “Nanette.” “Ya know some critics say rape jokes aren’t funny,” he wrote at the time. “But you know what’s definitely not funny? Rape stories.”
Whatever you think about rape as a subject for humor, his distinction between jokes and stories is telling, especially because so much of Che’s career has taken place in a form — sketch comedy — that’s analogous to short fiction. After years on “SNL,” “That Damn Michael Che” doesn’t bring us much closer to understanding Che’s own story, or what makes his sense of humor unique. And that’s a damn shame.
‘That Damn Michael Che’
Where: HBO Max
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)
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