“Every time I see a white person, they’re like, ‘Black lives matter, Black lives matter, Black lives matter!’ They’re so excited to tell me, it’s so strange.” – Michael Che in “That Damn Michael Che,” starring Michael Che.
That damn Michael Che has been doing an increasingly damn good job co-anchoring “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” since 2014 and he’s pretty damn funny in a new HBO Max original sketch comedy vehicle that’s smart, insightful, topical and intended to make you uncomfortable from time to time — which it succeeds in doing, and that’s just the kind of comedy we could use right about now.
Case in point: a running bit in the pilot episode (which runs for a breezy 20 minutes, as does the second episode), featuring Che and his fellow “SNL” cast member Cecily Strong (terrific as always) as residents of a high-rise building who get stuck in an elevator, much to Che’s dismay — not because he’s claustrophobic or frightened, but because Strong’s character is a kind of anti-Karen, i.e., a well-meaning white woman who finds it impossible to have a conversation with a Black person without immediately talking about race and how “woke” she is.
As the elevator doesn’t move and Che keeps pushing buttons in the hopes something will happen, Strong says to Che, “I just want to say I’m sorry … for everything going on in the country. With the police shootings and ALL of the injustices and for white privilege. I’m an ally, obviously” — and she points to the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” button on her bag. “Actually, my nephew is half-Black.”
The lights go out. Yep, they’re stuck all right.
Again: he’s not cursing about the elevator. He’s wondering what he did to deserve being stuck in a confined space with Anti-Karen.
Cut to a filmed bit in which four NYPD officers film a PSA on a basketball court, offering “some quick and easy things you can do, to not get shot by us.” You can imagine how that goes sideways.
With current and/or former “SNL” cast members Colin Jost, Heidi Gardner and Colin Quinn and guest stars such as Omari Hardwick, Method Man and Billy Porter lending their considerable talents to the proceedings, every sketch on “That Damn Michael Che” hits the mark. And from time to time, we cut to Che in a backstage type setting, where he offers his laid-back but often biting and sharp observations to an unseen and apparently small ‘audience,’ most likely the crew of the show. “There’s nothing worse than a dancing cop,” he says, “only because if that cop does happen to kill me later, I got killed by the dancing cop. F---ing humiliating.”
The series also features animated bits, and the time-honored comedy sketch show staple of the faux commercial, e.g, a well-filmed and hilarious ad for “Fitbit Protest,” a smart watch that keeps track of your heart rate “as well as your contributions to social change.” Says one young white woman, “We just marched further than MLK!” before she high-fives a fellow protester. And there’s a scathingly funny “flashback” to Che’s childhood, when his mother (played by “SNL” alum Ellen Cleghorne) learns his older brother has become a cop and is horrified he’s given up his job at his uncle’s chop shop to become a law enforcement officer. “I should have seen the signs,” says mom. “Look at you! Wearing that Yankees jacket, them wraparound sunglasses, all that blue you’re wearing. I was HOPING that you was a Crip! And what kind of example are you setting for your brother!”
We eventually return to the elevator sketch, and a note-perfect epilogue illustrating how our supposedly enlightened, liberal, non-racist white woman might have the best intentions but still has a long way to go. And don’t we all.
Based on the first two episodes, “That Damn Michael Che” is a good show with the potential to be great.