Comedian, actor and author Michelle Buteau is busier than ever. She not only stars in BET Plus’ “First Wives Club,” hosts Netflix’s “The Circle” and will lead and executive produce “No Pulling Out Now” for Quibi, but she also recently shot an hourlong stand-up special (also for Netflix) and wrote her first book. Now, at a time when her audience may need to laugh more than ever, the fruits of that work are paying off: Her special, “Welcome to Buteaupia,” is streaming Sept. 29; and her book, “Survival of the Thickest: Essays,” is out in December, from Simon & Schuster.
In your new Netflix special, you say you’re having a “good ass year” — you have to be referencing 2019, right?
Yeah, I started working on this material last summer, and it was a good ass year, and the goodness was to be continued. I almost named the special “A Good Ass Year” and I was like, “That is hella inappropriate because it is not anymore!” Now we’ve just got to get through the damn day. But I picked March 1 to film the special. We were going to do something later in March because I was just so busy, but I picked it because it was my grandma’s birthday and we would always go down to Jamaica to see her and it was always a big, fun time of year — especially growing up in Jersey, getting to go to Jamaica in the middle of the winter.
When you’re writing both a stand-up special and a book, how do you determine what material goes where?
I think the material will tell you where it’s supposed to go. There are certain stories that are just more [about] fear or [are] dramatic or ridiculous that you can’t really do on a stage because everyone’s not going to get it and also you just sound crazy, so some stories just really lend themselves to print. And I didn’t even realize I had all of these stories until I started podcasting. People kept referencing these stories and they feel like they have similar experiences or feel less alone. [So for the book] I was like, “This is a dope opportunity to show a different side of myself.” And also the special was such a wild experience. I’ve always done comedy since I started, three days after Sept. 11, so this the longest I’ve gone without it — so you should feel sorry for my mailman, my husband, everybody on the street. Eye contact is not enough, can we just talk to each other from across the street? I’ve named all of the plants. It’s a lot of feelings and nowhere to put them.
Maybe that’s material for your next special?
It’s given me material for my next therapy session, for sure, and we’ll see how it goes. But this special was really special — LOL — because it felt almost like two different beautiful half-hours that made an hour, in that there’s the sassy, tell-it-like-it-is best friend Buteau and then there’s the new mom. It was really fun and satisfying to finally make tired mom jokes because I feel like I worked so hard to have these little nuggets of love and wonderment, that it felt like it was my moment.
Was starting stand-up after Sept. 11 an attempt to find light after so much darkness or a realization that life is short so you should go for your dream now?
I think it’s a little bit of both, but I didn’t even know it was a dream, to be honest. I had been mulling over the idea of stand-up for a few months before 9/11 just because coworkers were telling me I should do it, but I was like, “I need to get paid!” I didn’t really feel like I fit in: It was a lot of men talking about blow jobs, and I was like, “That’s not me!” I didn’t see myself — this was before the whole, “Be the change you want to see”; nobody was talking about that! But I used to write emails about my day — before there were really blogs — about my roommate who had an all-white cat named Cocaine and she always loved olive oil on her face and her hair and all of our doorknobs were slippery, and everyone kept forwarding my emails to other people because they were like, “This is so funny.” And 9/11 happened, and I was working at WNBC, editing the local news, and I was like, “Well this is crazy. Now we’re working 16-hour shifts to basically edit a real-life horror movie.” My news director said they would be offering free therapy for everybody, and I was in my 20s, so I was like, “I don’t need therapy! I’m going to try stand-up!” And it’s so many years later, and I could kick myself: “You should have had f—ing therapy.” But I started stand-up and I never stopped.
Do you see any parallels to how the stand-up world will respond post-pandemic to how it responded post-Sept. 11?
Oh for sure. The world was forever changed by 9/11: the way we travel, the way we think about how safe we might be, how available things were to people without us even checking if they’re legitimate or not. And it did feel like every show was sort of like group therapy where you don’t even have to mention what’s happening in the world, you just know people are in this room because they want to forget. And I think that as Jim Gaffigan and Dave Chappelle and Ali Wong are trying to do shows safely outdoors and stuff like that, it’s going to be the same: For the most part people want to forget. So it will be that, just people further away from each other. Still with a two-drink minimum, though.
For this special you talked a lot about your family and your experience with surrogacy. At this point in your career, especially when your mother is in the audience and Netflix cameras are going to cut to her reaction, how do you prepare your family for hearing about themselves on stage?
I don’t because if I give them too much time to think about it, they’ll try to give me notes, and I’m like, “No, you can come and you can not say anything and celebrate or you can stay home and wonder what happens.” Those are the rules. This is not a mother and daughter team situation; this isn’t “Dance Moms.” I think my parents started really respecting what I was doing after I started doing it full-time and making money. Obviously that’s the catalyst for most parents to say OK. But my mom is so old-school I don’t even know what school she’s from anymore because she was afraid of me becoming a drug addict when I said I waned to do comedy, and I was like, “No, you got it wrong, it’s drinking. We get paid in drinks. At least get it right if you’re going to give me some sort of ailment.”
Are there things you consider off-limits?
Oh sure, everybody doesn’t need to know everything, but I try to be respectful — I try not to be an a–hole — when it comes to talking about my family and my extended family because I don’t want people to feel like they can’t be themselves in front of me or that they don’t trust me. There’s always a fine line. And for the most part, I think I’ve done a good job of picking out universal stories between my parents and my husband’s parents that I think most people can enjoy — but it’s also like, come on, my mother-in-law’s name is Hanneke, I have to talk about that! And it is a common name in the Netherlands so it’s not like I’m saying some off-the-wall stuff.
What makes you want to get so personal, rather than political, in your stand-up?
I don’t mind going on a show or a roundtable and voicing my opinions but for me, like 9/11 or COVID, if I’m going to do stand-up, I want to have an escape. I don’t want to think about how sad the patriarchy really is and how misogynistic healthcare is, and I would rather not talk about 45 because I would be flipping tables like a Jersey ‘Housewife.’ But if it affects me, I will touch on it, but for the most part, other people can do that well. And this is just my opinion, but political comics rarely talk about their personal lives, so I think you’re probably one of the two, and it’s really an interesting place if you can do both — which is probably one of the reasons Chappelle is so big and important.
There is a moment in the special where you say you realize you are “an achievable Beyoncé for government workers.” How did that come about?
I talk a lot and I say a lot of crazy things and then if my friend says, “Write that down” or if somebody chuckles, then that can be a laugh somewhere else. I really love to read the room. That’s the special thing about stand-up, too: when you can connect with people and you don’t even know them. And I realized I would always get a different reaction when I would go to a veteran’s parade as opposed to the Caribbean Carnival — or if I went to a lawyer’s office compared to the post office. The way people would treat me, it was amazing, I was like, “These men can’t get enough, my God!” And I went to Botswana and South Africa for my 30th birthday and I remember going to townships and other places and they’d be like, “Oh my god, Beyoncé, Beyoncé!” And I’d be like, “That is real cute.” And then I was going to Amsterdam because I was dating my husband long distance and they were just like, “Oh my God — it’s equivalent to fat Beyoncé in Dutch; it’s big Beyoncé.” So that’s where it came from because it was always a thing with people. If it wasn’t Raven-Symoné , it was Kate Hudson — just kidding.
Raven-Symoné is a real comparison you get, too?
Oh my God yes. They think we all look alike. I can’t tell you how many times since 2012 people have gotten me and Nicole Byer confused. Even in meetings. An executive told me, “I love your work on ‘Nailed It.'” I was like, “That’s not me!”
What can we expect in Season 2 of “First Wives Club”?
We are trying to figure out how to safely film Season 2. It’s already been written — I’ve read some of it — but they’re trying to figure out how to make it COVID-friendly to shoot, so there will be some rewrites. But it’s pretty juicy. All I can say is, I really appreciate [creator] Tracy Oliver for not only hiring two women — Jill Scott and I — who are not size 8, but to also write in steamy scenes that all women will feel seen in and appreciated because big bitches need love too! We are worthy of love. So I am very excited.
What does COVID-friendly mean to you?
That is the question I ask every day, all day because information is coming in faster than I can comprehend, and so I think that for me to feel safe on set, everybody [has to be] on the same page, be super vigilant about being safe, getting tested, keeping our distance, staying quarantined, being efficient with our time and our shots and then also not getting too comfortable. Week 2 we’re doing the [right] thing, Week 3 I see a nose — no! Put your nose away! I don’t want to see it. Don’t get comfortable, we’ve still got to stay safe.
Do you feel it’s easier to stay safe on a set like “The Circle,” where you host alone and the contestants are isolated so the personnel on set with you is a smaller number of people?
That show is set up for quarantine; those people are in quarantine. The fact that we can do that safely and not really see each other until the reunion — but by that time we would have already done our quarantine time — is pretty amazing. We’re really, really lucky.
Have you heard a different response from the audience watching “The Circle” this many months into their own lockdowns, as opposed to those who watched it when it dropped in January and people will still partying from New Year’s?
For sure. When the show first came out, everyone was like, “Why is everyone dressed up if they’re not going anywhere? Why do they have lipstick on?” And I was like, “You guys, they’re on TV!” Now that we’re all stuck at home, I come downstairs in a onesie and kitten heels just to do the dishes, and I’m like, “This is why. Sometimes you’ve got to dress up even if you have nowhere to go.” And also people have been on social media more than ever before — every time I go to Instagram there’s like 17 live shows; everybody’s just a baker and a DJ now; it’s just way too much. But this is what it is now. We have to deal with social media, and I think “The Circle” is not only entertaining but important if you don’t know how to navigate social media: Who are you really talking to? Are you really being your best self? What does your picture say about you?
Things you didn’t know about Michelle Buteau
Hometown: Hamilton Square, N.J.
Currently binge watching: “Indian Matchmaking,” “I May Destroy You,” “90 Day Fiancé”
Inspirations: Wanda Sykes, Tig Notaro, RuPaul
Causes she most cares about: Education in Jamaica, Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Black Lives Matter and women’s marches: “To name one organization is like to name your favorite Whitney Houston song, you can’t; there’s always going to be more than one.”