Culture

Live from New York, it’s Michael Che’s weird fixation with me

My feud with the ‘Saturday Night Live’ head writer has lasted several months all because I said his show was unfunny.
Culture

Live from New York, it’s Michael Che’s weird fixation with me

My feud with the ‘Saturday Night Live’ head writer has lasted several months all because I said his show was unfunny.

Michael Che, the head writer of Saturday Night Live and host of Weekend Update, can’t stop talking about me. It began last June, when SNL launched a website to take open writer submissions. The submission agreement included the same type of standard language you’ll find in any writing submission, absolving the show from claims of theft should any future segments end up similar to submitted material. But the SNL submission included a unique clause, one I’d never seen before, basically stipulating that if you include a link to your social media, everything on it would be considered submitted material and subject to the same legal absolution.

I thought it was notable that SNL was essentially giving themselves the power to cherry-pick the feeds of anyone who submits, so I did what I always do when something is even mildly annoying to me: I made a nasty little post about it on Twitter. I posted screenshots from the submission document with the pithy caption “The funniest thing about the SNL Writing Submission site is it absolves then from stealing your ideas, and then also says if you include a link to your social media it counts for everything you’ve ever posted as well.” At first, the post got maybe a dozen retweets.

When I posted this, I didn’t tag the show, nor mention any of its employees by name. But within 15 minutes, Michael Che found my post, and reposted it to his Instagram story. Over the screenshot was a big block of white text reading “lol the shit people worry about.. i think you’ll be fine, man.” He followed up with a screenshot of a DM from a follower asking who I am, to which Che responded “hes one of those bearded white guys with glasses that hates snl, not much about his personal life on there, but im sure its awesome.”

I am a bearded white guy with glasses who hates SNL, so for one of the few times in this piece I will award Michael Che some credit. The reason why I hate modern SNL is very simple: I’ve watched it. This is a show that happily invited Donald Trump to host when he was merely a super racist presidential candidate, and then went on to do the weakest political comedy of all-time during his presidency. (Last year’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” parody singalong with all the members of the Trump cabinet, and the Deal Or No Deal sketch that culminated in Trump choosing a box of “hamberders” stand out as particularly low lows.) Since 2015’s SNL40 40th anniversary special, the show, which has always featured celebrity guests, seems more reliant on cameos and stunt-casting than ever — whether it’s every member of Trump’s cabinet being portrayed by a movie star, or an SNL cast-member from only a decade ago showing up to raucous applause sign applause for the tenth time this season. There are some very talented comedians who work on SNL, such as Bowen Yang and Kyle Mooney; unfortunately, that’s not evident in the overall quality of the show.

In a follow-up post, Che revealed the reason why my criticism specifically bothered him so much: “he works for kimmel. i love kimmel.” This wasn’t correct — I quit Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2016 — but it showed that Che was motivated to respond to my critique because it came from a fellow writer of late-night network variety TV. Were I still a professional TV writer desperate to remain employed in the industry, I’m exactly the kind of person who would never say a negative word about SNL publicly. But after my two years at JKL, I decided that I didn’t really want to work in variety-sketch anymore, thus freeing myself from the entertainment industry omertà on ever saying that any TV show or movie is bad. I’ve relished in this newfound freedom — you’ll know and maybe even be annoyed by it if you follow me on Twitter — but it’s nice after over a decade to finally be allowed to say publicly what I’ve always said privately among friends.

Che was fixated on me for the rest of the day, sending out another Instagram Story with an absolutely baffling dunk about how I hate dodgeball and “restaurants where you have to take off your shoes.” His posting culminated in a mantra I’ve seen repeated time and time again. In block text, he wrote, “im always baffled by comics that publicly shit on comedy jobs. here’s some unsolicited advice for people who wanna work in comedy, lol don’t do that. I mean, unless ‘twitter personality’ is your professional ceiling.. it’s a bad idea.” This is a common refrain from bosses in entertainment when they get called out online, but the fact is, Michael Che is probably right — if you’re looking to get hired on SNL, you probably shouldn’t do a bunch of posts about how SNL is bad. I am, of course, not trying to get hired on SNL, which rendered his point moot.

After our first day of back-and-forth, I thought I wouldn’t hear from Che again. I was very, very wrong. I would be going about my day-to-day life, before suddenly receiving a deluge of messages from people warning me that I was once again in the SNL head writer’s crosshairs. Then I’d be pulled into another back-and-forth, as I’d respond on Twitter and watch him reply on Instagram. Our correspondence was never direct, which allowed it to be nastier, and here I’ll admit some complicity: Had I not been so resolute in talking shit, Che probably would’ve stopped. Alas, I was, because of how absurd the situation was, and so it continued. Sometimes weeks or whole months would go by with nothing, before all of a sudden, I made another appearance on his Instagram story for his 400,000 followers.

There was the time we bickered about the function of the applause sign on SNL. There was the time he dunked on me for offering tuition-free slots in a class I was teaching. There was the time I posted about making Campbell’s tomato bisque wrong (I am not smart), and the next day Che spent the afternoon making fun of me for eating soup and saying that I must be “saving up for a gun.” He mocked a podcast I appeared on because the Patreon only costs $5 — between this and the large block text Instagram stories, I’m forced to conclude that Michael Che is an early-onset Boomer. Last October, he spent the Friday afternoon before the David Harbour-hosted episode of SNL posting that I was “miserable” and also noting that I’d made a pie that afternoon, which to me just feels inherently contradictory.

In December, I went out of town to spend the holidays with my wife and dog. It was a great time; Cambria was beautiful, and we watched Little Women and Uncut Gems. While I was driving back home, the day after Christmas, I got a heads up that Che was posting about me once again. I went to his Instagram story, and found that he had posted a DM from someone who holds a personal grudge against me that was filled with both lies (that I am a Trump supporter) and smears about my history and personal life (that I’ve done cocaine and gone to strip clubs). This latest round was so personal and such a clear attempt to “cancel” me that I couldn’t help but feel like this was bloodsport now. We were really playing for keeps. Again, this all started because I said the submission guidelines were weird and that the show sucks. Now I’ve got this TV personality millionaire spending his off time researching my history with drugs. (I’ll save him some time: I’ve done drugs and gone to strip clubs; I did not vote for Trump.)

It’s been very strange to have the co-head writer of America’s most storied comedic institution become preoccupied with me, hitting me with increasingly personal attacks and actively trying to destroy my reputation. If I had slightly thinner skin or any desire to ever work in Hollywood again, it would probably be pretty upsetting.

I’m not the only person Che has obsessed about in this way — he is extraordinarily attuned to online criticism, no matter how baseless the claims. Steven Hyden, a cultural critic for Uproxx, wrote a piece in April titled “Why Does Everyone (Still) Hate SNL’s Colin Jost?” which caught him Che’s ire. “Che apparently didn’t like the column, and he decided to mock me on his Instagram,” Hyden told me. “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.” (I’m just glad, once again, not to be notable enough for a Wikipedia page.)

In the end, Hyden said he understands why Che did what he did. “Colin Jost is his friend, and he was feeling protective. I get that. I also think celebrities have a right to publicly respond to their critics.” Hyden stressed he’s not a victim, but this kind of response to criticism is not typical. “This is the first time a celebrity has accused me of having sex with dogs. It has not happened since.”

“It’s all very weird,” said Seth Simons, an Outline contributor, freelance comedy journalist, and frequent Che target. “Michael has an extremely powerful, visible position that he uses to obsessively demean people who criticize him. That he can apparently do this without consequence signals to every other bully in comedy, an industry full of bullies, that they can too.”

I reached out to Che via Instagram DM to provide him opportunity to comment and respond. At the time of filing, I have not received a response (but he hasn’t blocked me, either).

Like many people in his position, Che has attributed these critiques to “clickbait,” jealousy, or just plain unfairness. More than anything, it reflects the conflict-free bubble where he lives his everyday life, as he’s accustomed to a level of deference simply by virtue of his professional position. When everyone in your personal orbit either works at SNL or wants to work at SNL, it probably is a shock to see “SNL is bad” plainly stated. When that bubble is pierced, he appeals to his job title — accusing people of jealousy or, in my case, falling back on the old “You’ll never work in this town again” threat-advice. If that fails to silence his critics, he resorts to personal insults of a caliber that only one of the greatest minds working in comedy could accomplish.

This culture of self-congratulation and shutting out criticism is a great way to feel good about making a lot of money working on a big, important TV show, but it also stifles what could be useful self-reflection about one’s work. On the less vital end, this is part of what makes SNL so tired creatively — our country’s most storied comedic institution feels like it has no cultural responsibility beyond delivering the required number of weekly minutes. On the more vital end, this brand of self-protective creative nihilism can lead to a staff of professional comedy writers and actors dutifully providing presidential candidate Donald Trump with their services for an hourlong network TV campaign ad free of charge.

In the end, working at SNL is the crown jewel for career-focused comedians, the key to a long and profitable career doing bland mainstream comedy (and the occasional passion project on cable). The position itself is the goal, so the job is mostly about self-preservation, not creating good comedy. So why engage with criticism?

This vehement aversion to criticism seems to have taken hold across rich professional comedians. Jerry Seinfeld, worth nearly a billion dollars, can’t bear to step foot on a college campus for fear of an 18-year-old getting mad at him. And this is not generational: Last year, Che’s SNL castmate Pete Davidson stormed off the stage of a show at the University of Central Florida after calling them “privileged little assholes.” Then, in December, hours before performing, ticket holders to a Davidson stand-up performance were required to sign a legally binding non-disclosure form. Venues are more often requiring audience members place their phones in Yondr bags — a locked pouch that prevents the use of smartphones.

People will say this is about cancel culture, but I’m not convinced, at least not fully. To be frank, I think a lot of these comedians are fooling themselves if they think they’re doing anything edgy or interesting enough to be canceled for. I mean, honestly, what material is Jerry Seinfeld going to do that will get him canceled? He already dated a teenager, and nobody cared. As much as comedians like to fashion themselves as high-minded pontificators of the notion of free speech, this is more about creating a safe space for the really rich ones to do their material without hearing any complaints.

But there’s an ironic flipside to this saga: If these comedians are so eager to stamp out criticism, they’re admitting that they’re paying attention. Ten years ago, there was no real way for someone like Che to seek out and reply to criticism like mine, which at the time might’ve run on my personal blog, with no organic way of reaching the outside world. Now, those walls have come down, which is why I can say the following words with full certainty that they’ll eventually find their way to its intended target: Michael, SNL still sucks, and you are weird for caring that I think it sucks. Once again, thanks for reading.

Jack Allison is a streamer and podcaster. He is the co-host of Struggle Session, a leftist look at pop culture and politics. He also co-hosts JackAM, a daily morning show streaming every weekday at 7 a.m. (PST) on Twitch.