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After the Sept. 11 attacks, Michelle Buteau decided: 'I better start living'

Michelle Buteau arrives at the <em>Vanity Fair </em>Oscar Party on March 10.
Evan Agostini
Michelle Buteau arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on March 10.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Michelle Buteau made a life changing move. She was working overnight as a TV news editor for WNBC in New York City, splicing together disturbing footage of the attacks, when she decided to take a leap and do stand-up comedy.

"For about a year, my coworkers were telling me, 'You're so funny, you should do stand-up," Buteau says. "And so what happened on September 11, leading into September 12, 2001, is that I realized, 'Wow, we all might die. So I better start living.'"

Buteau spent her early years in comedy hustling from one remote venue to another. She performed in small towns, in laundromats and strip bars, for people who weren't always listening. Throughout it all, Buteau says she followed the advice of her friend, comedian Wil Sylvince, who told her: "Once you get really good in a room, go to a room where you're the worst, and that's how you get better."

"I don't know what dragon I was chasing," she says. "I always looked at it as an opportunity to learn something good or bad and get better."

Twenty-three years later, Buteau is booked and busy. Her Netflix show, Survival of the Thickest, is a semi-autobiographical comedy that will soon enter its second season. And this summer, she stars with her friend Ilana Glazer in the film Babes, a buddy comedy about two women on their journey to motherhood.

Buteau's own path to motherhood was rocky; she experienced four miscarriages and underwent IVF — while traveling back and forth between California and New York for auditions. Now the mother of 5-year-old twins, she credits comedy with getting her through.

"Humor is my lifeline," she says. "Comedy kept me alive. I had something to live for. I had something to do. I had a sense of normalcy."

Interview highlights

On why she initially said no to the role in Babes

I was prepping for season one of Survival of the Thickest. I am in my 40s. I am playing a 38 year old. I have 3-year-old twins, a loving relationship with my husband and my body. That's a lot to be taken care of. Also, I'm an only child; if I don't call my parents every day, they're like, "What happened?" … And so I have a lot to do, and I don't want to mess it up. And I want to be present for everyone and everything.

And Ilana's like, “But I don't see anyone else doing this role but you.” I’m like, “I'm a tired mom of two and I'm working a lot.” She's like, “Yeah, that’s the role.” … She kind of forced me into it. And then when Pamela Adlon was attached as a director, I'm like, "Oh, I really gotta do it because I love these women too much." So I'm glad I did it.

On her dream as a kid to be an entertainment reporter

I wanted to be an entertainment reporter. My mom used to get the Enquirer at the supermarket, and I used to rip out the pages and go in the bathroom mirror and, like, do a little recap. And that's kind of what I wanted to do. ... And I remember I had a ... professor tell me in front of the whole class — because we were going around and saying what we wanted to do with our degree, and I said, “I want to be an entertainment reporter" — and he said, “You're simply too fat to be on TV.”... And I was raised to respect my elders. … I didn't see anyone like me. So I was like, fair enough. I believed it, and that's why words matter.

On the process of loving her body

Oh my God, can you imagine if I had the confidence of Lizzo at the Grammys in first grade? … It was a process. … You just don't wake up one day and say, "OK, it's all good," you know? Unfortunately and fortunately, with age, it gets better because then you realize it's not you. There's a bigger problem. It's this unrealistic, patriarchal standard of beauty that we'll never live up to. And so things are getting a bit better. I mean, I can't believe there's plus-size clothing because I truly always looked like a Greek widow. It was always black. …

It's all the things. It is taking care of your body, your mental health, your physical health. It is the company you keep. It is the food you eat. It is all these things. It's what you listen to. I mean, that's all a part of your process. And so even with my mom, who I love … but even when I was playing a sold-out Beacon Theater show last year, I showed her my outfit and she said, “I'd prefer something a little bit more age-appropriate because you're almost 50.” Even the people that love you will say something about your body, but the most important opinion you will ever have is the one you have about yourself. So you really have to believe that. And if that means cutting people off for a little while, and having people around you that just love on you, then do that.

On her approach to dating when she met her husband

It was supposed to be a one-night stand. … I was doing a lot of comedy at the time, and I had been cheated on a lot, and I'm like, "You know what? Dating is just not for me. This is just so stupid." And so what I did have time for was sex. What I didn't have time for was a 2- to 3-hour dinner and listening to really boring stories. So I was not into dating at all. And I didn't want the guy to pay for me because then he felt beholden to me calling him back or something. I'm like, "Get out of here, I gotta pay for my own meals. I'd rather do three shows in one night and figure out this joke than pretend that you and your childhood is entertaining." And so it kind of worked out for me, I guess.

On the internet’s interest in her ethnicity

Somehow, somewhere, somebody has said that my dad is half Lebanese. He is not. But that's hilarious. My dad is from Haiti. … But if you want to pay for my 23 & Me, let's go. … My mom's from Jamaica. And I remember growing up, I tell people I'm Jamaican and Haitian, and being a light-skinned person with freckles in America and they're like, "What? You don't look Jamaican or Haitian!" I'm like, "Have you been there?" And they're like, "No." I'm like, "How do you know what the people look like if you've never been?"

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.