Comedian Michelle Buteau wants to be more than funny. “Any of us can be funny, you know? Funny is not the question. It’s like, does it matter? Is it sincere? Can we learn? Can we grow?” she says, on the phone from New York.
In a sea of white guy comedians, Buteau is one of the many women of colour who is grabbing the mic and shaking up the industry—and trust, she has a whole lot to say. In fact, it’s tough to think of something Michelle Buteau hasn’t gotten refreshingly candid about in her work. From motherhood to aging to sex parties to marriage, it’s all on the table. Also, she’s a literal superwoman? She’s a standup comedian and was a regular guest on the podcast 2 Dope Queens, host of WNYC Studios talk show Late Night Whenever, scene-stealer in Something Great and she just started a new podcast about how to adult.
This summer is going to be BIG for Buteau, starting with her role opposite equally DGAF comedy queen Ali Wong in the highly-anticipated Netflix’s highly-anticipated rom-com Always Be My Maybe. A passion project written by Wong, Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park and Michael Golamco, Always Be My Maybe is the story of successful chef Sasha (Wong) and her childhood friend-slash-first lay Marcus (Park), who awkwardly reunite as adults who are now in very different places in their lives. Sasha’s raking in the cash and thinks she has her fiancé (total smokeshow Daniel Dae Kim) locked down, while Marcus is still living at home with his dad and helping to run the family business. (Plus, keep an eye out for ageless wonder Keanu Reeves, who makes a steamy cameo as Sasha’s third love interest.)
Buteau’s character, Veronica, is Sasha’s childhood friend-turned-assistant and is going through her third trimester of pregnancy in the movie. In advance of the film’s May 31 release, we talked to Buteau about the eternal appeal of rom-coms, the problem with motherhood in movies and if getting your sh-t together is even possible. Here’s what she had to say:
On rom-coms and the undeniable hotness of Tupac
What makes rom-coms eternally appealing? What can newer ones bring to the table?
I think rom-coms are popular across the board because we’ve all had a crush on somebody. We’ve all been afraid to tell somebody how we feel. We’ve all tried to put ourself out there and been rejected or been afraid of rejection. They’re also wildly and wonderfully formulaic, and that’s why they’ve always worked. And to put a modern spin on it, whether it’s to make a diverse cast, whether it’s to flip the story, whatever that is—that’s how you really change with the times.
How does your Always Be My Maybe character, Veronica, resist rom-com tropes?
I think Veronica’s character is so important. She’s a childhood friend of Marcus and Sasha, and she’s also a married, successful, pregnant lesbian having a family in an alternative way. And you don’t see those stories very often. And I do believe things like that start with the art. Whether you’re a drag queen, whether you know you want to have gender reassignment, whatever that thing might be. If you can see a character and relate to that, you can say, ‘I’m still represented.’ I think to the writers’ credit, they really thought about what voices need to be heard. And anybody that walks away from this film, I feel like they will feel seen.
Do you have a favourite rom-com?
Girl, bye. That’s such a difficult question. Like, do you have a favourite Whitney Houston song? How am I supposed to pick? I always felt like Julia Roberts with anybody is amazing, but I also feel like Jennifer Lopez is like the Spanish version of Julia Roberts where she almost does versions of her movies. And don’t even get me started with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks back in the day in When Harry Met Sally, but also let’s keep it ethnic with Love and Basketball and Poetic Justice, which technically isn’t a rom-com, but Tupac? Panty-dropping, let’s be honest. And John Singleton? Ahead of his time, rest in power. I’ll just say that.
What do you want people to remember Always Be My Maybe for?
I’m really hoping that one day people will be like, “Oh man, that was such a funny, great movie” and they won’t be like “With Asian people! Can you believe it?” Everything will be so diverse that it won’t be like “It’s the Black one! It’s the Spanish one!” It’ll just be a “one.” Wouldn’t that be great? Like the cast of Friends will just be like just a bunch of people from a bunch of different places. That’s what I really hope for one day. I love that things will be popular and a proven concept for Hollywood and other industries to sort of accept it and be like, “‘We need more of this because it’s so important.”
On the power of women and the struggle to get your sh-t together
What are the main problems with how motherhood and moms are portrayed?
I don’t know where this rumour came from that women aren’t funny or that they’re weak. Women are the strongest. Women hold it down, they have the babies, they take care of the babies, they take care of the house. I don’t know why being a stay-at-home mom isn’t considered a real job, but if you a nanny all of a sudden you’ve got a job. And women are shamed for doing things. They’re shamed for being too sexual, they’re shamed for being too loud, they’re shamed for being too successful. It’s a deep-rooted, thousands-of-years type rumour that women should be in a corner. The only reason why people want to hold women in the corner is because they can actually rule the damn world. And they do. Girl, don’t get me started, I am so done. Take me down to Missouri and Alabama right now.
Always Be My Maybe and your new podcast, Adulting, are both about figuring out how to get your sh-t together. Do you think it’s even possible to feel like an adult?
That’s the question that we all ask each other because there’s always something to strive for, there’s always something we can beat ourselves up about, like “Is my house clean enough? Did I get my taxes done soon enough? We’re supposed to send out those Christmas cards.” And I think the whole thing also is like, what’s your definition of it? Because taking the example of Black Thought from The Roots. He was an orphan by the time he was 14 and raised himself. But out of that came some really great, pure artistry where he really had nothing else but his art. So how are you an adult and embracing your inner child? The themes are adulting in this movie and that’s kind of what I’m #obsessed with. I feel like it’s a conversation that we can all have at any age.
On politically-correct comedy and her advice for WOC comedians
Are you looking for specific things in new projects?
Between becoming a mom, then also being a wife, and then also realizing my parents are getting older and being in my 40s, I realized that words have power. Diversity matters. All these things are very important to take into consideration, especially if I would spend time away from my husband and my babies and my dog. So I want to be in lots of projects that I feel people can be inspired from. Any of us can be funny, you know? Funny is not the question. It’s like, does it matter? Is it sincere? Can we learn? Can we grow?
What was the dynamic like between you and Ali Wong?
Oh, tons of improv, and that’s to [director] Nahnatchka Khan’s credit. And 1,000% the chemistry is amazing. People know when you have chemistry or not. Ali and I have known each other close to 15 years in the stand-up scene and we’re not threatened. You only want to see people win. That’s when it’s fire. I feel like the same could be said for Tina and Amy.
There’s a lot of debate about PC culture in comedy. Some comedians think they’re being censored while others are like, “Don’t be racist.” Where’s the line between making truthful comedy and comedy that’s unethical?
I feel like if you are that thing, then you have a bigger license to have an opinion on that thing. But look: if you’re just going to make a bunch of jokes about Black people when you don’t even have a Black friend, you cannot do that, honey. It depends what kind of place you’re coming from. Also, I feel like people should check if this is hurtful or ignorant. ‘Cause if it feels like that, then you should check yourself because it should always be funny. It should be funny first. And if it’s not going to be laugh-out-loud hilarious, then what point are you making?
What’s your advice for young or aspiring WOC comedians afraid they won’t find success?
Look, you just have to keep going. You know what I mean? You just have to keep going. If you’re doing this for the wrong reasons then figure your sh-t out and do something else, but if you really truly, truly love it, then something will happen.
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