If you only paid attention to social media, then you’d think Michael Che is always on the verge of so-called cancellation, despite the fact that he’s a head writer of Saturday Night Live and one of the longest-serving anchors of “Weekend Update.” The second season of his spin-off sketch series for HBO Max finds Che leaning into his perceived persona, confronting social dilemmas through his own personal experiences and interactive stand-up routines.
Opening Shot: On a New York City subway platform as a train speeds past, revealing a young white couple kicking an older black man who’s on the ground.
The Gist: Che walks up on the situation, wondering why none of the bystanders will help or even call for help, not even the cops shown walking away at the top of the stairs. But once they recognize Che, the victim stands up, starts spouting vulgar epithets and Che’s attempt to laugh at him backfires, as the bystanders accuse him first of approving of the vulgarity, then somehow link Che even further with the other man.
After the title credits, we cut to Che doing stand-up. The episode uses short stand-up segments to introduce the other sketches, launching into a common thematic premise, which casts Che as a comedian in “excommunicado” for a running John Wick spoof. Kenan Thompson, over sushi with Che, hands him a coin and sends him to the Comedy Cellar to trade it in exchange for saving his career.
One stand-up bit leads into “Arthur’s Abortion Dojo,” where a Texas karate teacher realized the state’s new outlaw of abortions presented him with a business opportunity, selling kicks to pregnant women’s bellies for “$40 a pop.”
Another bit leads into a Scared Straight spoof where the inmate, Kool-Aid (Greer Barnes) discovered the tweens he’s trying to scare are all murderers.
And a stand-up bit about backlash toward Joe Rogan making Che “afraid of podcasts…because you talk too much” leads into a police interrogation sketch starring Sam Richardson as a detective getting a guy to snitch not by good-cop, bad-cop tactics, but by unveiling a podcast studio in the interrogation room.
The Wick spoof, and the episode, ends with Che making it safely to Club Excommunicado, only to find its other member is a guy clearly meant to be Cosby (although not referenced as such, so hold your lawsuits!) offering Che a drink and some questionable counsel.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: Pause With Sam Jay, obviously, since they’re both SNL vets with sketch shows on HBO Max at the same time, although Che’s approach and viewpoint suggests he’s aiming for something closer to Chappelle’s Show.
Our Take: Season 2 feels much more self-assured, and the jokes are stronger for it.
Some of the jokes in the season premiere feel almost too topical, and even if that might not be quite so deliberate, it might also be a happy accident. Those karate kicks to induce abortion hit much harder now. That white kid who shot up “Walmart….the whole store?” who responds to the convict by blowing on his finger gun? Whereas the broadcast networks were all-too-quick to pull episodes this week, claiming sensitivity to the moment of a school shooting massacre in Texas, perhaps we needed to have HBO Max move forward with this, in part because it helps back up Che’s premise that comedy should be dangerous.
As he said earlier in the episode: “Part of me likes the idea that you can be canceled. It lets me know that there’s a danger element to stand-up comedy. There should be a danger, or everybody else would f—ing do it.” Right?!? If there were no social or financial consequences to saying whatever you wanted in the guise of comedy, then what would hold anyone and everyone back?
As opposed to what Ricky Gervais claimed in his Netflix special, out this week, defending his comedy as tackling “taboo subjects” but really just using it as an excuse to be an a-hole, Che posits that he’s an accidental a-hole. Each episode in this second season suggests that Che wants to do the right things in life, but keeps digging deeper holes for himself publicly. The joke’s almost always on him.
Not that he or his cast mates don’t get off some solid zingers. Among them: Che explaining a ridiculous hairdo and outfit to Kenan Thompson by saying he’s getting Netflix money for his mediocre pitch, or Thompson, moments later, suggesting Che might have to move to Austin and “start slinging right-wing jokes” if he refused to apologize.
Sex and Skin: No.
Sleeper Star: Since Che has a rotating cast of guest stars, there’s plenty of opportunities for different comedians to shine in each episode. Reggie Conquest comes closest to being a recurring character in Che’s misadventures most apt to break out as a star in his own right.
Parting Shot: Che performs additional crowd work stand-up over the closing credits, joking about how he had no idea about Roseanne Barr’s cancellation, or the woman Roseanne had lashed out at over Twitter.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The second season is far superior to the first, so jump right in on Season 2 if you’ve never watched this series. And if you’re jumping in with any qualms about Che, the creator/star made his best defense in the season premiere, telling un-Cosby: “If you’re a decent person, people will figure that out eventually.”
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.