Remembering Michael Che's too-brief 'Daily Show' run
When word broke late Thursday that Saturday Night Live will shake up the Weekend Update desk once again this season, fan reaction was swift and decisive. The consensus: Lorne Michaels was replacing the wrong anchor.
Specifically: Cecily Strong, who took her seat at the Update desk last fall—and earned generally positive reviews for her work there—is out. SNL head writer Colin Jost, who joined Update in March after Seth Meyers’ departure—and has received, er, slightly less encouraging feedback—is staying put.
It’s easy to understand the outrage stoked by this reshuffling. Thanks to well-received characters like The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, “Girlfriends Talk Show” cohost Kyra, and Starlet the Saboski Crystals Girl, Strong had a built-in following when she started doing Update. Jost, meanwhile, hadn’t had a speaking role on the show before he took the anchor’s chair—and it showed. Strong was noticeably more comfortable on camera than her coanchor, who didn’t inject much personality into his one-liners and had a habit of nervously baring his teeth after each punchline.
There is, however, a bright side to this whole situation. Actually, two. To begin, it’ll free up Strong to do more sketch work—which reportedly is what she prefers to sitdown comedy anyway. And secondly, it clears the way for Strong’s worthy replacement: Former Saturday Night Live writer Michael Che, who’s been doing great work at The Daily Show since leaving SNL (or so we thought!!) last spring.
Before joining Comedy Central’s leading fake news team, Che was fond of highlighting how little he knows about politics in his standup act. Evidently, a few months under Jon Stewart’s wing changed all that: Che’s Daily work was consistently sharp and sophisticated. In fact, the only bad thing about Che’s run on Stewart’s show is its brevity; during his three months as a correspondent, he appeared in just seven clips altogether. And while the door is probably open for a return somewhere down the line, Che himself indicates that he doesn’t intend to do both TDS and SNL at the same time; he’s already talking about his time on The Daily Show in the past tense.
So before Che makes his way back to NBC, let’s take a moment to remember the strong on-camera work that, in retrospect, was probably the best Update audition a comedian could ask for. It all started with his surprisingly serious first segment, in which Che plays the role of the only person at The Daily Show who actually knows anything about the situation in Syria. Naturally, this doesn’t go over so well with Aasif Mandvi, who says that “Muslim stories” are his beat.
Che’s personality—smooth, smart, just slightly sarcastic—really got a chance to shine in his third appearance, in which he describes an unusually candid (and, needless to say, totally fictional) interview he conducted with a contrite, Halliburton-pajama-clad Dick Cheney. The money quote: “All I know is that as rainwater dripped down the window, Dick Cheney put his hand against the pane as he whispered, ‘What have I done? What have I done.‘”
Che’s next major showcase was his first long field piece, which examined the nation’s tendency to gravitate toward name-brand politicians—which partially explains why the Bushes and the Clintons still have such a hold on American politics. It features a wonderful moment in which a deadpan Che asks NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman if he’d ever vote for a guy named Phil Hitler.
But the highlight of Che’s all-too-brief Daily Show run has to be his last in-studio piece, “Race/Off—Live from Somewhere,” in which Che tries in vain to find a place that’s safe for black people. (Spoiler: Check out the photo at the top of this page to see where he ends up.) It’s the sort of segment that inspires belly laughs, righteous anger, and a desperate sense of helplessness all at once—and speaks to the sort of edge Che may be able to bring to Update, which could benefit from a more dangerous sensibility. Cry “Justice for Cecily!” all you want—but isn’t it exciting to imagine what Che might be able to do with Update as well?