Michelle Buteau Is ‘Too Cute to Be Mad’

The comedian discusses her memoir, ‘Survival of The Thickest’

Portrait photo of Michelle Buteau in front of an indigo background.
Michelle Buteau. Photo: Mindy Tucker

Talking to Michelle Buteau is like talking to a longtime friend. Watching her onscreen, Buteau radiates a warmth that hums alongside her comedic performances. And offscreen, she exudes the same energy. Buteau and I connected via Zoom just two days after the U.S. election, and Buteau, with her signature grin, tells me she celebrated by buying a bottle of prosecco from a nearby gas station.

These days, Buteau has much to celebrate. Her stand-up special, Welcome to Buteaupia is streaming on Netflix and she’s recently starred in BET’s First Wives Club, and Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe. She also hosted season one of the reality competition show, The Circle.

Now Buteau is stepping into new territory with her literary debut, Survival of the Thickest (Simon and Schuster) out December 8. The memoir delves into the comedian’s childhood and her start in stand-up comedy. Buteau also writes about dating in New York, landing her first television role, and often being the only Black woman in the room. She also gets honest about her journey to motherhood and the chaotic joy of raising twins. For now, Buteau not only seems to be doing it all, but she’s having a damn good time doing it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: I loved reading about your childhood, growing up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Haitian father and a Jamaican mother. You write about one of your first relationships that ended because of a dream you had that he was cheating, which turned out to be true. I feel like island women are always having these dreams and premonitions. We have very strong intuition. So how has your intuition guided you in your career?

Michelle Buteau: I feel like it’s helped because if I’m thinking something, I have to listen to it. I have to say oh this is what instinct is. This is what a gut feeling is. Because if I’ve thought about it, even subconsciously, and I dream about it and I end up being right, I just say it. Say what you mean, say what you feel. That’s really helped me do that in speaking up for what I want.

I also watched your stand-up special Welcome to Buteaupia and you talked about working with Jennifer Lopez and being such a fan and knowing all these random facts about her, but also having to play it cool. Are there any actors that you’d like to work with, but haven’t yet?

Yes, all of them. Are you serious? I mean Viola Davis is like butter. If there’s something in the comedy space with Octavia Spencer, I’d love to work with her because she started out doing comedy and made the jump into drama. Working with her would be stellar. But I mean anybody. Anybody who’s not a predator, I want to work with you.

“Every institution right now, I’d burn down like a season finale of Game of Thrones and rebuild that shit. ”

Two of the funniest stories you write about are your move to Miami and dating a guy who can’t read and then this saga of cracking your front tooth having it fall out at the most inopportune times. These stories are so outrageous and hilarious, and it made me wonder who is the sounding board for your comedy?

It really changes depending on the subject. I find it best for me to bounce off people who know me best and longest as opposed to my comedian friends because they’re really good at structure and how you make it a tighter joke. I turn to my tried and true — my chosen family. They’re the ones that I can kick stuff by.

As a female comic, is there anything you would change about the industry?

I’d tear it all down. Every institution right now, I’d burn down like a season finale of Game of Thrones and rebuild that shit. But I am just one pair of titties, and I can’t do it alone. I was the only female, the only person of color on a ton of shows for many years and I had to use that to my advantage. I’m not the same size as everybody. Whether it’s having freckles or being the lightest person at my family reunion, whatever the fuck it is, make it work for you because you really don’t have a choice. We’re all too cute to be mad.

“I’m an equal opportunity heaux. We know this.”

As I’m reading your book, one of the things that came across is that you have very strong boundaries. When a friend from childhood, who wronged you, reaches out to you later on, you shut it down. You kept that same energy all those years later. Do you ever regret not giving people another chance?

No. Because I feel like when we’re together in a friendship or relationship, I’ve given them so many passes, and I really try to understand where people are coming from. My friend always says you have to meet people where they’re at, which is what I’ve been doing for a really long time. But now, I’m exhausted. So if you don’t know better, you won’t do better and it’s not my job to teach you. I also feel like, for me, I was just too jealous and petty at that time to ever forgive someone. There’s a reason why you’re an ex. I gots to move on. I never really understand my friends who really pine over the same person and try to make it work with someone where they know it’s never going to work. There’s so many other people that you can just do something else with. Just create another narrative or story. Life is so short. Take a trip to Punta Cana or some shit and motorboat someone you’ve never met before. Male or female. I’m an equal opportunity heaux. We know this.

In your stand-up and in your book, you talk about the struggles of starting a family. And when you announced to some of your friends that you were thinking about surrogacy, the reactions were not always positive. What would you like to change in the conversation about motherhood and surrogacy?

I think the shaming and unsolicited advice. If your friend is saying I’m having a hard time doing this and it’s something that involves their body, you don’t have to say “well stop drinking” or “don’t eat this” or “eat that” or “you should be doing this.” It’s not a “you should be doing” conversation. It’s just a “I’m sorry you’re going through this. If you need help, let me know. I’d love to help you find a doctor that specializes in that.” That’s all you need to say. You don’t have to diagnose anybody.

I want to talk a little about your hosting. Many years ago, you had your first hosting gig at this male revue in what was essentially a dive bar. And now you recently hosted The Circle. So do you prefer hosting or acting?

I love it all for different reasons. It’s coming from the same place where I love to bring people together and be my silly, goofy, sincere self. It’s all about driving the show or the message and keeping it moving and also representation. So I like it all. And I also like checks.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’m really excited to see what happens with this book. The dream is what can I do with the book after. Is there another book? Is there a movie that I get to actually star in? Or a TV show? I’m very happy to be the bridesmaid, but now the bitch needs to be the bride.

Mariette is a freelance travel + culture writer. Her writing has appeared in Travel + Leisure, VICE, Essence, and more. Read more at mariettewrites.com.

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