Lorne Michaels has probably watched and enjoyed Michael Che’s debut hour special. After all, he hired Che, put his faith in him to carry half of the Weekend Update desk, and has continued to back him even after Season 41 got a lukewarm reception. And Michaels also executive produced Che’s new hour. But did he really watch? I mean really pay attention?
Che’s first hour special premiered on Netflix last Friday and Michael Che Matters is the perfect title for his debut. It’s as strong as you hope a first special would be. In a very crowded field, Che stands out as one of the best young comics working today- and he’s just getting started- but you might not know that if you only know him from his run as co-anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.
That’s not to say Che isn’t doing a good job, or wasn’t a great choice to finally bring color to Saturday Night Live’s oldest recurring segment. But the current format of Weekend Update doesn’t allow Che to show off what he does best: take on social and world issues head on, without fear of repercussions, from his own vantage point. Michael Che Matters is all Che, and he unapologetically delivers his take on the universe- Black Lives Matter, the Trump phenomenon, the power of white women, how to handle the N-word, equal rights, civil rights, parenting, terrorism, free speech, gun control and more. There’s real strength in the hour, and Che has an undeniable viewpoint.
But seeing Che killing onstage in a Brooklyn warehouse wearing jeans and a hoodie and delivering lines with real resonance brings up an important question. If Lorne knew enough as EP not to force Che into a traditional theater, and suit and tie to present his special, why is SNL still trying to shoehorn him into a Seth Meyers delivery on Weekend Update? Saturday Night Live is still inexplicably caught up in the idea of running a fake news show formula, complete with anchor desk, clips and characters. It’s a format which has run its course especially now that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and others took the idea and used it far more effectively than SNL ever could. It’s time to update the premise, and Che is the perfect vehicle to take SNL’s Weekend Update in a new direction, if only they will let him.
Che’s power comes from his laid back delivery, and ability to reframe issues, finding the angle others aren’t taking, without the accusatory finger that the Weekend Update format forces. And there is no reason he can’t bring that same energy to SNL, without the trappings of a 1970’s newsroom, dressed like he’s showing up for a job at a bank or selling real estate. Che isn’t the first anchor stifled by an outdated format. The same thing happened with Colin Quinn and to a lesser extent, Norm Macdonald. No one knew from watching Weekend Update in the late 90’s that Colin Quinn was going to be the most effective political voice of his generation, and Quinn certainly hasn’t suffered from the experience, but can you imagine how much better Weekend Update would have been if SNL had let loose the reigns a bit when Colin was at the desk?
So, Lorne, if you watched Che’s special, then you know that you have a real player on your hands. Drop the suit and the desk. Drop the rhythm that harkens back to another era. The world has changed and the way we get information has changed, yet Weekend Update continues to parody a news model that doesn’t even exist anymore. Younger viewers never knew Walter Cronkite, only know Barbara Walters from the View (even she gave up the desk) and couldn’t pick David Brinkley out of a line up. They don’t even relate to today’s news anchors, opting instead to get their news from other sources. You made a long overdue choice to diversify Weekend Update, bringing Che on board as the first black anchor, but hopefully you didn’t bring on this strong young urban voice to just be window dressing or get good press. Now you need to let him play his game. The NFL has thrived by bringing on black players and letting them play their game, their way. No coach would have forced Cam Newton to be a pocket QB.
It can be difficult to change tradition, particularly one that has been a part of the show since the inaugural season and spawned many brilliant performances. But it’s not working anymore and it’s time to update the premise.
When you are lucky enough to have an original voice- don’t force that talent to adjust to your game–format around the talent. Do that, and SNL’s Weekend Update will not only live on, but it will once again be imitated by everyone in the game.
Watch Michael Che Matters, exclusively on Netflix.