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Michael Che: American comedy's next big thing

The New Yorker is taking a break from working with Chris Rock and writing Saturday Night Live to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe. Nick Clark meets him
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Despite his laid back delivery on the stage, Michael Che is a stand-up in a hurry. The 30-year-old only started performing comedy in 2009, yet in January was named among the “50 funniest people” by Rolling Stone magazine and two months later became a writer on Saturday Night Live.

The pace is only picking up. He is planning a comedy special and an album, and is to be in a film written and directed by Chris Rock.

But first there is the small matter of 25 shows in 26 days at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It’s daunting,” when he met up with The Independent this weekend, “but I’m figuring it out. Give me a week”.

A one hour show in the intimate setting of the 100-seat Studio One at the venue is different to what the comedian has experienced before.

“In New York I normally play in bars and clubs. I like the theatre seating here. I prefer not having to compete with somebody’s cheeseburger.”

Che’s show Cartoon Violence is described as bringing “street culture to world issues,” and covers issues including politics, religion, race and sex.

His laid back manner allows for easy interaction with the crowd, and he is still getting to grips with British audiences. After a successful first night, he cannot have expected what was coming on Saturday

An older woman complained that the show’s title implied he would be talking about animation. She was also unhappy about the swearing, despite the show hardly touching some of the extremes of usual stand-up at 10pm on the Fringe. Che’s response was to institute a “clean” show specifically for her in two weeks and offer her free tickets.

It is only his third time touring abroad, previously visiting Melbourne International Comedy Festival as well as doing shows in Egypt, and his first time in Britain.

“I don’t know a lot,” he said, which during the conversation becomes his mantra for why he pushes himself to perform comedy where few of his peers would go. “I went to Egypt because I had no idea there was a revolution on.”

Despite touching on big issues, he freely admits he does not know much about politics. “I do jokes based off that. I’m honest about that. You can always agree with a guy that doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Yet, he believes that reflects a lot of people in America, “where we only get the news on the surface. You get an idea and run with it”. When dealing with religion, his issues are simple. A line in his show runs: “I would have converted if it wasn’t for their politics on titties and bacon. Some people won’t try bacon for religious reasons. I won’t try religion for bacon reasons.”

The show covers issues from his upbringing all delivered in a nonchalant, easy-going style. In his repertoire is his theory on why liking someone is better than loving them. "People kill their loved ones all the time. Nobody ever kills people they like.”

As for his meteoric rise, which has also included appearances on Late Show with David Letterman, he said: “I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and I’ve taken them all. I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s worked so far.”

Che grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the youngest of seven children. During his rebellious teenage years, arguments with his mother, at one stage, saw him kicked out of the house at 14.

The comic attended LaGuardia Music and Performing Arts High School and initially pursued painting, being commissioned for portraits, as well as setting up a t-shirt business.

“I was a bad painter,” he said. “I knew creatively what I wanted it to feel like and didn’t know how to do it.”

He took a chance in 2006, going into a comedy club for an open mike night and instantly felt at home. “Comedy made a lot of sense. I knew how to communicate and just had to figure out what I wanted to say,” he said, adding: “I haven’t painted since I did comedy. Stand up is a lot more personal.”

He built up a strong reputation through the major comedy clubs in Manhattan, opening for comics including Tracy Morgan, but has also continued to appear at alternative venues in New York’s comedy scene. As well as appearances on Letterman, he has featured in John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show and contributed weekly to VH1’s Best Week Ever.

After Edinburgh, he has a week off before he returns to the writers room at Saturday Night Live. He is always seeking to expand his range – the Edinburgh shows are the first sustained hour long shows he has done – and is planning the special and album. “It won’t be a traditional stand up album. I’ve got some fun plans,” he said.

Yet, Che feels he can push himself harder. “I can be 10 times more creative than I am now. I don’t take enough risks. I want to take it where it hasn’t been, but what can I say that Richard Prior hasn’t already said?” Projects like doing 25 shows at Edinburgh were partly designed to take Che out of his comfort zone, he said.

Influences growing up included Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and Damon Wayons, but came to appreciate Prior when he started stand-up. “Comedy now is extremely safe,” Che continued. “It has to be, there’s so much money in it. It’s very corporate, it’s a very different world.”

Then there is the movie written and directed by Chris Rock. It is so far untitled and still shooting, but Che has wrapped his scenes. Also in the film is his friend Tracy Morgan, the stand-up veteran of two decades and star of 30 Rock.

So can he see himself doing stand-up in 20 years? “I can see myself doing stand-up forever,” he said. “I can always talk. You don’t lose being funny. The stuff you put out might suck, but you don’t run out of being funny.”