Charting Michael Che's Fall From Endearing Comic to Embarrassing Bully

Michael Che in Washington, D.C, October 2019.  (ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The signs have been there for a while. For months now, Michael Che—one half of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" team and one of the show's head writers—has been increasingly punching down in his comedy.

It started slowly. He was a super-likable presence during his brief stint on The Daily Show in 2014, and a welcome addition to the on-screen talent of SNL that same year, after working behind the scenes as a writer.

By 2016's Michael Che Matters, the comedian had started to walk a fine line that wasn't quite as successful. In that Netflix special, brilliant material about Black Lives Matter, religion and gentrification rubbed uncomfortably up against jokes making light of street harassment and homelessness, and criticizing the sexual practices of both straight women and gay men. For the most part, though, Che was careful when stepping into offensive territory to first openly acknowledge that he was doing so, and second, to make a larger point in order to justify it.

In one particularly infamous bit, the comic used a transgender slur. "I just recently stopped using the word 'tranny' because a trans friend of mine told me how much it hurts," he said. "I was like ‘What? How the f--k is 'tranny' hurtful? I just added a Y!’ … She was like ‘How would you like it if I called you ‘blacky’? Well played, tranny. Well played...” Is it difficult to hear Che use this language? Of course. But at least he did so in the course of drawing connections between marginalized groups, and trying to help one understand the other.

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More recently, however, Che has descended straight into territory that punches down just for the hell of it.

In an October "Weekend Update" segment, Che plunged headfirst into transphobic misgendering, for no valid reason at all. While attempting to make a joke about Kanye West's music going "G-rated," he said: "At first, I thought Kanye was losing his mind, and now I feel like he’s ... just turning into an old white lady … It’s like, how long before this guy changes his name to Kathy? … Now, you might think I’m crazy, but about five years ago there was a fella named Bruce Jenner…"

A week later, he made sexist and ageist comments on the show after a 67-year-old woman gave birth in China. Che prompted a mix of laughter and groans when he said: "She can breastfeed just by standing over the crib," and "doctors described the birth as pulling a penny out of a wad of gum.”

Even more troubling than his recent descent into unfunny is Che's penchant for using his social media to call out specific individuals who happen to not share his views.

This week, The Outline published a story by ex-Jimmy Kimmel Live writer Jack Allison that detailed bullying behavior by Che. After Allison took to Twitter to criticize a (definitely shady) practice used by Saturday Night Live to acquire jokes, Che called out Allison directly on Instagram, listing his Twitter handle and using specific insults about Allison's appearance and social life. ("he’s one of those bearded white guys with glasses that hates snl, but talks a lot about snl.. not much about his personal life on there, but i’m sure its awesome.")

In the article, Allison describes in detail how Che repeatedly reignited their squabble online, criticizing Allison's career ("continue to submit your packet to shows that don’t know/like you! lol i heard thingssssss!") and personality, and even attempting to paint him as a disingenuous drug addict.

Allison notes: "Sometimes weeks or whole months would go by with nothing, before all of a sudden, I made another appearance on [Che's] Instagram Story."

In the same Outline article, an Uproxx critic named Steven Hayden describes coming under similar fire after writing an article about Che's "Weekend Update" co-anchor Colin Jost that described him as "the epitome of white-male mediocrity." Hayden explained that Che "decided to mock me on his Instagram. He called me a ‘mediocre ass white dude’ and then said I like to ‘suck off rescue dogs.’ ... Also, someone—can't say it was Che, though it happened immediately after he went into his tirade against me—went into my Wikipedia page and changed it to reflect my supposed preference for having sex with canines.”

Similarly, when Daily Beast writer Samantha Allen wrote an article about transphobia in comedy, Che—who wasn't even mentioned in the piece—responded by pointing his 440,000 Instagram followers squarely in her direction. The incident appeared to be less about defending controversial comedy and more about an attempt to dox a writer for having a different opinion to him.

Reports suggest that Che has been taking things this personally since before his TV career even took off. In 2013, after writing an article for Black Girl Nerds that criticized one of Che's SNL skits, writer Faye McCray claimed that he "made personal attacks on [her], the editor and the publication." (McCray's original article has since disappeared from the website.)

Che's social media bullying could now be considered a full-blown pattern. And, aside from obvious issues relating to pettiness, fragile masculinity and a flagrant imbalance of power, there is also some deep irony here. In Michael Che Matters, the comedian made a point of saying that he was open to hear criticism about his more controversial viewpoints, in order to learn from them. "Maybe you’ve got some f--ked up views about something," he said, "but unless you’re honest about it, how are you going to get better? You’ve gotta stop accusing people just for being honest. You can school me!”

Clearly not.

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If you are a public figure actively working in a profession that attracts critics, it goes without saying that having a much thicker skin than this is an essential part of the job. Not only is Che's laser-like focus on anyone who hurts his feelings exhausting to watch, it's deeply embarrassing—for SNL, for fans watching, and most of all, for him.