September was a big month for New Jersey-born comedian Michelle Buteau. She graced the coveted stage of Comedy Central’s The Half Hour special at the end of August, and her hour-long stand-up album, Shut Up!, was released by Comedy Central Records that same week. Buteau’s been doing stand-up for more than ten years now, but she’s also made regular appearances on VH1’s Best Week Ever, I Love The 2000s and Comedy Central’s Key and Peele. Whether it’s stand-up or on-screen, Buteau brings an honest humor so refreshing that you never want to stop watching, even when the mascara is stinging your eyes because you’re laugh-crying so hard you can’t see.
This week I had the opportunity to catch up with Buteau about what got her into comedy (an illiterate, cheating ex-boyfriend and a terrorist attack), what her advice is to young comedians (“You want to be famous? Make a sex tape. You want to be a comedian? Make good jokes.”), and which comedians inspired her most (“the ones who are just painfully honest”). She called me “Boo” twice, promised me at one point that she wasn’t high, and by the end of the conversation, she was following me on Pinterest.
Michelle Buteau is the real fucking deal.
She came into stand-up comedy after working for a news team in New York City. “The writers and producers were like ‘You’re so funny, you should do comedy!’ and I was like ‘I need to make money because I don’t like being broke!’” But when she started going to comedy shows as a member of the audience, she realized there was something missing from the line-up: “I noticed it was all men. It was young men and old men and gay men and I was just like ‘Where are the women!?’ So I thought, ‘Maybe I should do comedy.’” And we’re so glad she did.
But it took more than that to get her on the stage. She had a disastrous break-up with her first long term boyfriend who had cheated on her (I promised I wouldn’t elaborate on the illiterate part, but you can hear more about this charmer on Shut Up!), and 9/11 happened shortly thereafter. Exhausting herself by working for a news network so shortly after the most devastating thing to ever happen to New York City, she found herself refusing the offer of therapy and, finally, opting for stand-up. “In hindsight I probably should have also gone to therapy, but that was sort of how it all started. Those really crazy months.”
We talked about her experience doing stand-up versus her experience on talk shows and television. “I really do like doing talk shows because it does feel like stand-up, but you get to have a longer conversation about it," she said. "When you do stand-up you have to be on stage in front of people who don’t know you and who you don’t know and they might not even be your fans, they’re just people who ended up there so in 2.4 seconds you have to be able to convince people. It’s great because you can prepare all you want but you still have no idea what’s going to happen.” I can’t imagine anyone taking that long to be convinced of anything about Buteau - she’s something of a force of nature, a composite of the trademark hair and freckles, with a face that can go from cheeky to repulsed to full grin in 2.4 seconds or less.
Most of the time, she looks like no one else on the stage. Not only is she a woman in a male dominated industry, but Buteau is also black, born to a Haitian father and a Jamaican mother. Much of her stand-up consists of her sharp observations from being a black American woman married to a white European (or “vintage white” – her words) man.
When I ask how her background has shaped her comedy, she tells me that “the stand-ups that I really love to watch are the ones who are just painfully honest, you know? I mean pandering on stage is something you do when you first start because you’re nervous and want people to like you and you’re just gaining your confidence on-stage and standing in front of these people, but I don’t have any room in my life to pander. So I just have to talk about what I know. Whether someone is a 25-year-old guy who’s single and never been in a relationship, or a 67-year-old woman...whether I have something in common with someone or not, I feel like if there’s truth in a joke then it’s even better.”
Buteau’s brutal honesty and keen perceptions of the world around her are what make her jokes so exceptionally funny and what makes her audience - regardless of gender or ethnicity or age or background - feel so connected to her as a performer.
And this brutal honesty is what landed her the highly acclaimed spot on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour this fall. She says, “I had been working with that material for four or five years so I’m glad it found a happy home. It wasn’t my first time submitting, so it was nice feeling super ready. Sometimes when you submit to something and you don’t get it you’re like ‘Why?! I’m so funny!’ but Comedy Central doesn’t set you up for failure, they’re going to choose you when it’s ready. And present you to America and the world and say, ‘Look at this, it’s amazing!’” And it was.
The special was a well-oiled routine, with a handful of her classic jokes that had been fine-tuned and strung together with seemingly blithe effort. “It was exciting because I had done late night stuff before which are like 2-4 minute sets so it’s really hard to get engaged with someone. People are like ‘Oh they’re either funny or they’re not funny’ but it’s really hard to know who they are in five minutes or less so it was so nice to just put it all together.”
She credits contemporary female comedians with inspiring her own brand of stand-up. When I asked her who her role models are, she gushed. “Oh god, so many, I mean I love Rosie O’Donnell and Wanda Sykes. And, you know, I love when comedians go through a life change and talk about it. That’s my favorite. When Wanda came out it was like, nobody saw that coming and she owned it and she’s just living her truth and that’s the biggest thing for me.”
For someone whose comedy is so successful and special because of her consistent, envelope-pushing truthiness, it’s no surprise that her stand-up heroes do the same. And it’s that same truth-telling that she encourages other young women who aspire to have their own careers in stand-up to do.
I asked if she has any advice - she was full of it: “I would say be careful with your questions and your words and what you ask people. A lot of younger comedians are like, How did you get this? How do I get paid and How do I get famous? and honestly those aren’t the questions you should be asking. The questions you should be asking yourself are What can I say that will be different from other people on stage? How can I get more shows every week? The only thing you can really do is get on stage and be funny and trust that process because the minute you’re funny, people will be talking, and people will be asking you to do stuff. That’s the only thing you have to worry about, not being famous. And don’t tell yourself no before others tell you no. My most talented friends are also the ones in the corner like It’s not good enough! It’s not good enough! and you know what? It’s good enough. Just put it out there. It’ll get better. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished.”
You can find Buteau performing in New York City, lighting up the stand-up scene at Gotham Comedy Club. You can also look for her in a new Comedy Central series where she’ll sit down to interview comedians and celebrities. I ask when we can look forward to it, and she tells me “I’ll let you know, I don’t know yet! I don’t even know if I can talk about it!” But hey, at least she’s honest.
Photos via Comedy Central, Giphy, Tumblr
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