Into Comedy in a Crisis with Michelle Buteau
Trymaine Lee: It feels like it's been a while since America has had any kind of holiday. This one, Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, honors the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. This year we're honoring those folks, while at the very same time nearly 100,000 other Americans are known to have died from Covid-19.
And that number goes up every day. (MUSIC) We know lots of people are going through hard times right now and won't be spending this holiday weekend at traditional events. I know my family for sure is gonna miss the annual African Dance Festival in Brooklyn. So we thought maybe we could lift the mood just a little bit. Bring some relief and some laughter.
Michelle Buteau: Hi. I am so excited. I have shoulder pads and a statement lamp. (LAUGH)
Lee: I see.
Buteau: This is my--
Lee: And earrings--
Buteau: --night out. (LAUGH)
Lee: And earrings too. You gettin' it. I see you.
Buteau: Yes. (LAUGH)
Lee: That's comedienne and actor and podcaster and author Michelle Buteau. After working her butt off for nearly two decades in comedy, she's finally getting her due. There's First Wives' Club, alongside Jill Scott. She's got a Netflix special comin' up, and a book too. And she's our guest on today's episode. Just before coronavirus hit, Michelle hosted a reality show, also on Netflix, called The Circle.
Announcer: Welcome to The Circle.
Male Voice: What's up, Circle?
Announcer: A new social experiment where players don't meet for the first time.
Male Voice: What?
Announcer: They only communicate through the circle.
Male Voice: Circle.
Male Voice: Circle.
Male Voice: Circle.
Male Voice: Take me to my profile.
Lee: (LAUGH) Listen, the premise, and I'm serious here, was eight people who had to stay inside their apartment and could not meet face to face. They even had to use social media and giant screens to communication. Sounds familiar, right? We'll get to that. (MUSIC)
I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. On today's show, laughter and comedy durin' a national trauma. Is it okay to be funny? Is it even possible? (MUSIC) A heads up to our listeners. You'll notice that we've bleeped out some adult language. Michelle Buteau, thank you so much for joining us.
Buteau: Oh my god. Of course. What else was I gonna do? (LAUGH) Laundry?
Lee: There we go. (LAUGHTER)
Buteau: Clean my kitchen for the third time and never have a clean spoon? (LAUGHTER) (MUSIC)
Lee: Another thing I should mention. Turns out Michelle and I have a mutual friend, an actor on one of her shows. He told me about some kind of fabulous meatball party that happens at her place. It's called Swap Meet. Kinda like Thanksgiving, but not really. (MUSIC) And apparently I've been invited to the next meatball party. I don't know. There's meatballs happenin' apparently between y'all. I don't know what's happenin'.
Buteau: Actually, that's my meatball party. I can't believe he just invited you to my--
Buteau: --meatball party. (LAUGH) But, look. It is what it is. It is one to those events. I like to make events-- that have a pun in them, but then also involve food that is not, like, Thanksgiving. 'Cause I feel like that is so boring. Thanksgiving. We have to have turkey and these sides. And, like, some people don't even like sweet potatoes. Some people call 'em yams. It's confusing. (LAUGH)
So my husband and I love meatballs. We love food in general. We're just-- good old fashioned garbage cans. (LAUGH) We've been doing it for five or six years. About 40 to 45 people make meatballs. Small ones so we can all bite. And then over 100 people come. It's exciting to see what people bring. And-- and (LAUGH) it's all about the sauce for me. Like, if you have a good gravy to dip somethin' into, then that's all that matters. (LAUGH)
Lee: How'd you actually-- get into comedy?
Buteau: Oh my god. Okay, black James Lipton. Let's do it. (LAUGHTER) (RUSTLING) Okay. Montel Williams. Let's go.
Lee: Let's get-- let's get in there. (LAUGH)
Buteau: Okay. Low budget Steve Harvey. How we doin'? (LAUGHTER) I'm so sorry. This is what happens when I put on red lipstick--
Lee: It's all good.
Buteau: --and shoulder pads.
Lee: Looks good. Looks good.
Buteau: Everything-- (LAUGH) I've been doing comedy for 18 years now, and I was in TV production at first. I worked for local news stations and did some field producing and editing. And-- I was simply behind the camera because I had a college professor that told me I was too fat to be on camera, 'cause I wanted to be a reporter.
And, you know, this was, like, in the mid-'90s before we had cameras, and before we had hashtags and we were offended and did stuff. You know? "Oh, okay. I'm not gonna question his authority." And to his point, there was no one that looked like me on TV anyway, so I was, like, I definitely wanna be creative and have every day feel like a different day.
So I went into production. I did that for a really long time, but I also just had this little thing inside of me where I was just like, "I'm so tired of making everybody look so good. These people are basic and I'm basically tellin' them how-- how to have a personality on camera."
So, was, 9/11 happened, and then I was like, "You know what? Screw it. The world is crumbling-- and I might as well do something that I've always wanted to do, because (SLAPPING) who cares about what people think at this point?" And this is, you know-- it's similar to what's happening now.
A lotta my friends have finished their script or, you know, cleaned their closet or asked for a divorce. And so when something major like this happens, it's like, "Okay, this is the universe just telling us that we need to do some spring cleaning."
Lee: So let's talk about The Circle here. And so you have this show. They're sequestered. They're quarantined. They don't have access to each other. So now we're all livin' like we're in The Circle. Are you clairvoyant? Do you know somethin' we don't know? (UNINTEL) the Illuminati? What's happenin'?
Buteau: Call me now. (LAUGHTER) I know. I'm Miss Cleo. (LAUGH) Circle. Yes. This is wild. Crying face emoji, send. I-- you know what, I'm still wrapping my bloated freckled face around that one, to be honest, because I spent hours and hours watching footage of everybody just looking at screens, talking to each other. And here we are, just all on a screen talking to each other. (LAUGH) So--
Lee: It's craterzy.
Buteau: --you know, I do keep in touch with-- the season one cast, because they're really wonderful people. I mean casting did a great job picking-- real Americans that represent the diversity of America. Right? And even social media where we're at. And so we keep in touch with each other. We send videos to each other. And it-- it's (LAUGH) like we're reliving the whole episode all over again, 'cause it's this, like, heart face emoji, send. (LAUGH)
Lee: So everything has kinda come to-- a screeching halt, but this has been a really big year for your career. Like, your name is-- you know, it's growing. Your stature. Your projects. You starrin' in some movies. You hosted a Netflix reality show. You have this amazing book coming out later. For someone who was grindin' and rollin' and then for this to happen, was this kind of-- a needed break or was it kinda like-- did it throw you off kilter?
Buteau: I think a little bit of both. You know? I think a little bit of both. When it first happened I was like, "Okay, two weeks. Okay." And I think the scariest part too was, like-- there was so much information coming in, more than-- it was coming in so fast, like-- I couldn't process it.
And I lived by Heart Island, which is an island where a lot of Jane and John Does are buried, and it's sort of just like-- it's a graveyard for people that died alone. And as I'm looking out my window and I see these refrigerated trucks coming in, I'm like, "That is so sad that they died alone, but also, like, wow, so beautiful that they all get to be buried together for eternity." So it is just, like, multiple levels of what.
Buteau: You know, you can't be in a business like stand up comedy or the entertainment business and worry about-- "Oh man-- (MAKES NOISE) what's gonna happen next?" You just have to trust that something will happen, and you just have to keep creating something.
Because, you know, the world could be functioning just fine and you'd still be like, "Where the jobs at?" You just-- (MAKES NOISE) it-- it's so crazy. Like, "Oh, she's got that. He's got that." It's like, "Who cares what everybody got. Focus on what you have. Look at your plate and keep it moving." Oh my god. All this truth. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: You are the mother of twins. How-- how old are they?
Buteau: They are 16 months.
Buteau: Which is, like, a year and a half. I'm bad at math. (LAUGH)
Lee: So is it more-- more comedy or drama at-- at your household? You're-- you're a wife. You're a mother. Two small kids. That's-- that's a lot.
Buteau: Yeah. I mean it's a lot, but it's also, like, just enough, right? 'Cause wow, what would I be doing if I didn't have this beautiful family to take care of? I am really-- I'm really so glad they're so cute and look like me, 'cause it'd be so much harder if they were ugly. (LAUGH)
As a mom, or even as-- any parent, just taking care of whether it's a puppy, a finicky plant or your kid, it's, like, you spend so much time taking care of it, you're like, "When do I bond with it?" And ow, I didn't even know that was a thing.
And so I'm having all these, like, mini revelations too that I-- is really fun for me, 'cause I'm, like, talking to my mom friends, I'm like, "I had no idea." They're like, "Yeah, girl. (LAUGHTER) It's okay to cry when you get poop stuck in your fingernail before you had your coffee." I said, "I just thought it was me." (LAUGHTER) They're like, "You are not alone."
So that's fun. You know? I hustled hard. I've hustled hard for 18 years. And now I get to be in the Bronx, braless, with my cute kids with curly hair, and just cut up a bunch of broccoli and feed them. And-- that's where I'm at right now. That feels like Heaven. (MUSIC)
Lee: More truth from Michelle Buteau right after this.
Lee: The-- the rapper Common-- famously said, "Ain't nobody smilin'." And so I wonder right now when folks are goin' through so much, unemployment, the virus, is this a time to be smilin', to be laughin', or tryin' to find entertainment?
Buteau: Oof. I mean-- (SIGH) you know, the big answer is yeah, sure. But I think the real answer is-- you have to do whatever you need to do. You have to allow yourself to feel sad and mad and (BEEP) but up. You know? In order to get to the place of, "Okay, I can breathe now."
I went through that. "What is science? Am I sick? Are they sick? What does this mean? Will I come back? I don't have my job, but I have my hea--" it-- like, you just have to allow yourself to feel whatever the (BEEP) you're feeling. And so, you know, I think it's important for, you know, SNL and Wendy Williams and, like, pop culture, sure, to maintain whatever sense of normalcy we can, because people do like to check in.
And especially people, you know, who are by themselves. They need it more than ever. I mean people like me who are stuck home with their kids, #blessed, but it's, like, (LAUGHTER) we don't have time to watch stuff. We're just cleaning and-- and raising and-- and, you know, all the housekeeping, and just tryin' to-- maintain our sanity.
So I think it's like-- and then once in a while I'll see a meme, and thank you so much, 90 Day Fiancée for all those memes. I check when I'm on-- on the toilet, 'cause that's my me time. (LAUGHTER) Don't worry about it. I wash my hands after I take a (BEEP) and I wipe down my phone, okay? Who was not (LAUGH) washin' their hands after they take a (BEEP) and ridin' the subway? This is how we got into this mess.
Lee: Triflin'. (LAUGHTER) So you get paid to make people laugh, but durin' these times what's making you laugh? Are you finding sources of entertainment?
Buteau: I mean for sure I'm conjuring good feelings in-- simply because I have to be strong for my parents and for my husband and for my kids and for my dog. And let's be honest, for me. But I'm realizing now that I am home how much I worked. How much I was really entertaining everybody all the time. How much I was tap dancing.
And, like, look I'm takin' a pause for the cause like everybody else. I'm takin' a rest. This is the first time I've put on a good bra, like, in seven weeks or months. You know, I feel like I've-- created this beautiful plus-sized body of work for people to enjois. Let me just sit back and drink my Le Croix while you guys watch all the stuff I've done on the YouTube.
Lee: One thing that's not lost on me, just how absurd this moment actually really is. Like, it-- like, take out food. People with bags on their heads. What have you noticed of the silliness of this? Obviously, it's very serious, but is there some silly, absurd nature to everything that's goin' on?
Buteau: Oh man. I think-- I don't wanna discount people's feelings, but, you know, when science is politicized, it's like, "What are you even talking about? These are facts, Boo Boo." You know? This doesn't mean-- (LAUGH) like, we're not even talkin' about insurance and taxes. We're talking about science.
Lee: Drink some bleach.
Buteau: You know? So it's just, like, how or why-- (LAUGH) if a woman were to say, "We should have some bleach," we'd be like, "Women are so stupid." If a black man were to say, "You know what we should do?" We'd be like, "Ah, black people are not educa--" It's like-- it-- it-- it-- chi-- it makes my right eye just have a heartbeat every time. And I'm just like--
Lee: I can see it.
Buteau: --this-- this (LAUGHTER) can't-- I mean y'all cannot-- y'all-- who's got buy-- nobody's got buyer's remorse, guy? This is crazy. (LAUGH)
Lee: You have this-- book coming out. This might be my favorite book title ever. Survival of the Thickest.
Lee: Talk to me about it.
Buteau: She (UNINTEL). Survival of the Thickest: Plus Size (LAUGH) Essays in a Small Minded World. Yes, honey. I wrote this (LAUGH) because my heart was full and my jeans were tight. (LAUGH) You know, when I started podcasting, I just thought I'd be talkin' to people about what was goin' on in the world. How they grew up? Blasey blah.
And then I started realizing, "Ooh, I got a lotta stories." And it's not just, like, the same story you keep telling at the dinner table. These are stories that sort of resonate with people-- from all walks of life. And so I just started making-- a bank of, "Oh, I'll tell that story one day," or, "I'll flesh it out," or, "I'll do it at a storytelling show."
And-- storytelling shows are wonderful and magic, because you're just telling this, like, very deep, intimate, raw-- story of this part of your life in a dark room. Then people reach out to you and they're just like, "Oh, man, I was going through this. Thank you so much. Now I feel less alone."
And I'm just like, "Well, I feel less alone for sharing, and you feel less alone for hearing." And then you'd read other books and manuscripts and stuff, and essays from comedians, and you're just like, "That is so interesting. And that is so wild. And-- and-- and-- and truth telling and in their voice."
But yeah, man, my husband truly, like, put me in a room and he's like, "We are doing everything else. Ha-- how about you just focus on this?" And so he really helped me find the time. So I am very-- I mean excited isn't even the word. I'm all the things. You know? I'm anxious. I'm-- I'm hopeful. I'm excited. I can't wait for people to read this and be like, "Uh-uh (NEGATIVE). I cannot believe she said that. I can't believe she did that. I can't believe she went through that." (LAUGH)
Lee: What's it like workin' with Jill Scott? We saw the-- the Verzuz, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. And I saw someone say that Jill Scott looks like she gives the best hugs. She's glowing and warm--
Buteau: Oof. (LAUGHTER) Oof. Ooh. I'm getting chills just even thinking about Jill's hugs. Jill's mom is a healer, and so Jill has that-- she's got that thing where if you walk into the trailer and she's like, "You didn't sleep well last night. You okay?" And I'm like, "What, do you-- you-- ah," you know?
Like, the audio guy will mic her and she'll be like, "You need to take some vitamin Can. You're gonna get sick next week." And we're like-- "What?" (MAKES NOISE) (LAUGHTER). She'll just come up and, like, touch a part of your arm. You're like, "Oh, I feel better." She's like, "I know." And, like, will just walk away. You're like, "Jill?" (LAUGHTER)
She's magic. She is-- she's pure magic. And she's (BACKGROUND VOICES) so talented. I mean she's nice to everybody on set, but she's also like, "Do your job, 'cause I'm doin' my job." You know what I mean? She's business. She's-- she's gorgeous. She's just, like, makes up songs for no reason. Like, she's just-- (LAUGH)
Lee: That sounds very Jill Scott of her. One-- one last question. Why does comedy matter now?
Buteau: Oh man. Comedy always matters, to be honest. Right now, we are going through something collectively, but people go through stuff every day. And, you know, they need to laugh as well. The biggest, highest compliment you could tell a comedian after a show is, "I needed this."
"I had a rough day at work." "My husband just left me." "My dad just died." "I needed to laugh." "I just lost another baby." "Thank you so mu--" like, you never know what people are goin' through. And so that's why comedy is always important.
Because Ryan Michelle Bathe, who plays one of my-- first wives friends on-- First Wives' Club, would always say her grandma would say, "If you're not laughing, you're crying. If you're not crying, you're laughin'." And it's just like, "Well, why can't we do both?" (LAUGH) (MUSIC)
Lee: Michelle Buteau-- thank you for the laugh. I think so many of us needed this. You are a bright, shining star and we really, really appreciate your time.
Buteau: Thank you so much. (SINGING) "This is how we do it." (LAUGHTER)
Lee: I ain't gonna sing along with you, though. (LAUGHTER) All-- almo-- almost had me there. (LAUGH) You almost had me. (LAUGH)
Buteau: All right. So nice to meet you, sort of.
Lee: Likewise. Well, I'm gonna be at the meatball party, so there we go.
Buteau: Oh, right. You're invited.
Lee: There we go. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Thank you.
Buteau: Bye. (MUSIC)
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. Hope you had a healthy, happy and safe holiday, and we'll catch you on Thursday. (MUSIC)