Michelle Buteau is one of the friendliest people I have ever met, even though the first occasion of our “meeting” happened over Zoom while she was in a hotel room in London, under the covers, taking a break from filming a project that she was not at liberty to discuss. “Oh my god, there’s still a price tag on this fucking pillow,” she said at the top of our chat. “At least they got me a new pillow.” While in London, Buteau has been making the most of it, taking her toddler twin babies to British playgrounds and enjoying the small pleasures of being quarantined anywhere other than her home.
Even through the grainy screen of my computer, Buteau radiates the same energy as she does in all of her work— the friendliest woman in a room full of strangers, the life of the party, and, unsurprisingly, an empathetic and kind ear. Though 2020 has been overall a disaster of a year for humanity at large, Buteau has had the pleasure of putting out two very important things into the world: a Netflix special, Welcome to Buteaupia, released on September 29, and Survival of the Thickest, a book of essays that reads like a long conversation with a very smart and funny friend. It is the occasion of the former that found Buteau and I speaking to each other through a computer screen in the early hours of a Monday morning. Survival of the Thickest is a delight, from start to finish, and a nice introduction to a woman who has been in the game for a long time and is more than ready for her time in the sun.
“My career is as old as Justin Bieber is,” Buteau said. “My career remembers when Taylor Swift had curly hair. I am so excited for a special and a book, but I feel a little cheated. I can’t tour, I can’t hug strangers, I can’t do a book tour. But there’s also the flip side, like ‘well, bitch, you’re not hooked up on a ventilator and your family loves you and you can still share this Black joy content with people ... so again, [I’m] happy.”
Buteau’s comedy special was taped March 1 of this year, in the last gasps of normalcy, at Sony Hall in New York. “I really wanted it to feel like a dirty-ass New York City night out,” she said. “When I saw Sony Hall, I was like, This is it. This used to be the Roxy, where gay men would go roller skating on a Tuesday night in jean shorts, where there was a gender-neutral bathroom before it was a thang. I was like, this is it. And look at these lights. I look like a sassy fucking angel. I’m here for this.”
The audience’s energy in the taped special is palpable; Buteau is a New York woman born and bred, and there’s something lovely about watching someone make their public debut at home. That energy in combination with Buteau’s self-assuredness, which reads as confident and comfortable instead of cocky, makes Buteaupia a pleasure to watch and puts her special into context. “I had just come back from L.A, on the 29th [of February],” she said. “I went to go buy antibacterial gel in the airport and they were all sold out of it. March 1st, we were out. There were people that came to the taping that were going through chemo. For a lot of people, it was their last night out.” That a record of anyone’s last night of 2020 normalcy exists in the first place is a particularly poignant gift, and to have that last night be full of laughter, more so. I watched Buteaupia after the debates were over, as a palate cleanser of sorts—comedy specials are difficult to get right, but Buteau’s brand of comedy is more subversive than it looks. It’s old hat to say that a woman talking frankly about sucking dick is refreshing, but Buteau’s ribald delivery makes the proceedings seem like less of a put-on and more like the unvarnished truth.
This same truthfulness comes across in Survival of the Thickest, which could be read as a distilled version of her standup, but because it is a book, it’s much more permanent, and therefore, scarier. Survival of the Thickest is a nice companion piece to her body of work, but especially to the Netflix special, which was so pleasant that I wanted more. The book delivers, covering more wide-ranging topics in the detail I craved. There’s a chapter about the perils of bad dick, about IVF, and about 9/11. The tragedy of September 11 is partially what pushed Buteau into doing comedy in the first place. For years, Buteau worked in cable news, but behind the scenes as an editor. On September 11, she spent hours watching footage of the attacks, for work, tasked with creating b-roll clips of the buildings absent any bodies or death. “When 9/11 happened, I was just getting over the breakup with my college boyfriend who didn’t know how to read but was still cheating on me,” Buteau told me. “And I [realized] I was making money off a tragedy. That’s fucking horrible. I’m like, ‘fuck, man, we’re not guaranteed anything. So we’ll just try something else.” Stand-up, which is something people told Buteau she should do, was now something she wanted to do.
That the book is more wide-ranging and also, at times, more serious than her standup is scary for Buteau, but it is necessary to the medium itself. “With standup, you could always edit yourself, even if it’s being filmed for TV,” she told me. “You can’t just get rid of it with a book. Doing standup for so long, you realize that saying something is completely different from writing it. It’s just a fucking wild circle of emotions. At this point, I wrote it a year ago, and I’m just ready for this shit to drop in the wild.”