Comedian Michelle Buteau on Trump, #MeToo and How Stand-Up ‘Saved’ Her After 9/11
On this week’s episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, stand-up comedian Michelle Buteau talks about her explosive new Netflix special “Welcome to Buteaupia.”
Comedian Michelle Buteau wanted the taping for her new Netflix special Welcome to Buteaupia to feel like a fun night out in New York. She had no idea it would be her last night out in New York.
“We couldn’t have predicted anything because we weren’t privy to special briefings or some of the world’s top scientists,” Buteau tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “So we didn’t fucking know. Other people knew! They weren’t telling us!”
We’re talking just a few hours after Netflix dropped the trailer for the special, in which the comedian describes herself as an “achievable Beyoncé for government workers.”
“What I have to do is not read the motherfucking comments,” she says. “You just hope you’re connecting with people in the plus-size sequined suit.” Buteau has no problem brushing off the trolls who write things like “women aren’t funny.” And to those who said she “looks like a lion,” she replies, “That’s not a diss.”
But what really surprises her nearly 20 years into her stand-up career are the fans who only know her as an actor. “That’s so crazy!” Buteau, who stars in the First Wives Club reboot on BET+ and had a prominent role opposite Ali Wong in last year’s Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe, says. “Because I’m like, oh my God, how did I trick them into hiring this bitch? I didn’t even have to make a sex tape to do it.”
“I mean, I feel like I’ve been doing comedy for so long,” she adds. “I don’t mind slow burn, but you know, to start stand-up in 2001 and get your first half hour in 2015 is wild.”
Buteau got on stage to tell jokes for the very first time just four days after the September 11th attacks. She was working as a video editor for NBC News at the time, watching the horrific footage over and over again and feeling desperate for something to take her mind off of the tragedy.
The fact that she managed to tape her first hour-long special under the wire before New York City, along with most of the country, shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic has to be some kind of miracle.
“I felt like I’ve always been ripe and ready for an hour,” she says before apologizing for that cringe-worthy metaphor. “Ew, sorry, but you know, I take an hour very seriously. So I’m glad that it happened the way it happened.”
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Why she started performing stand-up comedy just after 9/11
“September 11th happened and we were working like the longest shifts [as a news video editor for NBC News], you know 14, 16-hour shifts. I would edit the video, which was horrible really. I mean, not as horrible as losing a loved one, but to watch it over and over... It's just like, this is fucking gross. I had a lot of nightmares for at least two years. My news director was like, we’re going to offer therapy for everybody if y'all want some. And I was like, you know what? I don’t need your therapy, I’m good. I’m going to try stand-up. Why not? And it was so great. I hate to be like, it saved me, but it kind of did. To have an outlet that wasn’t TV, that wasn’t drinking. Even though you start out doing three to five-minute sets, the work you do before the set and then the anxiety before you get on stage and then like the rush of someone actually laughing and then going home and listening to your set and reworking a joke. I was like, oh, this is fucking dope. Everything was so solemn that you needed to go somewhere where you could get away from it all. And so there were some comedians who definitely had jokes about 9/11. A lot of them were met with groans. A lot of them were really funny. Everybody was just trying to process.”
On comedy club bookers telling her not to get political
“I like to say that Trump is the straw that broke the camel toe. A lot of comedians were trying to figure out their voice on stage because the world was so fucked up with toxic energy from the government. And also you have to be respectful of your audience members. But some comedy club bookers were like, can you not do political stuff? And that's fucking wild, because this is the time for it and that is the place for it. Stand-up is like a speakeasy for fucking emotions. So it just felt like a really wild time. And I was like, you know what? I’m going to do these shows that are produced by comics. I don't need to go to the clubs to not only have them make more money off of my back, but then also censor what I can say.”
Why she wasn’t afraid to tell jokes about male comedian predators
“When I was working on this bit, ‘nobody wants to see yo dick,’ I was like, how do I talk about something that is really important, but also the way that I would talk about it with my friends at a boozy brunch? I’ve never been out here to be popular. I’m not that person. If I have one friend, if I have a hundred friends, I cannot be with people that take advantage of their power, who are predators and that’s just not who the fuck I am ever in any chapter of my life for anybody. Give me the loudest microphone, give me the smallest audience, I don’t give a fuck, I'm gonna yell that into a room. Because now that I’m raising a son and a daughter, it’s important for them to know that they have a voice, that they can speak up, that they can question authority and that nobody should take advantage of them. So fuck that, absolutely not. And I’m not even out here to get likes. I notice with this new wave of civil rights and this race revolution, people are definitely living in the likes and this is so much bigger than a fucking hashtag. This is a way of life. So if you're for it, then be about it.”
On the ‘mind fuck’ of playing pregnant in ‘Always Be My Maybe’
“I didn't even read the description fully when I auditioned. I was just like, Ali [Wong] wrote a movie with some friends, I’m in, how do I put myself on tape? So when I learned that [the character] was pregnant, you kind of say, well how pregnant can she be? I was like full-on pregnant. I experienced so much trauma trying to get pregnant. It felt really fun and exciting to have this belly on and have people treat me pregnant. But then I also felt like there was something dishonest about it, because I’m just like, am I enjoying this too much? And then there was something sad about it where I’m just like, I’ll never have this. Because so many kids want to look at their mom’s pictures while they were pregnant with them. And so my kids will look at me in this movie and then I will definitely show them pictures of our surrogate that was pregnant, because that is them at their beginning. So there's no other word to say besides ‘mind fuck.’”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Comedian and ‘Daily Show’ contributor Lewis Black.