Director Oz Rodriguez has worked with comedian and writer Michael Che for years. The two met at “SNL“ in 2013, when Che joined as a writer, and Rodriguez was directing segments for the show. Since then, he has directed the comedian in the Netflix special “Michael Che Matters.” Now the duo has reunited for HBO Max’s “That Damn Michael Che.”
Rodriguez directed all of season one of the sketch show and points to Che’s blunt delivery in his comedic stylings as a highlight of their latest collaboration. “I think he’s really honest and from that honesty comes interesting humor,” said Rodriguez. “It was so exciting but also a little surprising when I saw those first few scripts because he’s really putting himself out there.”
Unlike sketch shows of the past, Che puts a twist on the format that invites a more intimate experience for the viewer by weaving in his off-the-cuff opinions in a confessional style between sketches. The show hits all the right and relevant notes, with each episode taking on a new tone and theme to address cultural moments. There’s a cinematic episode about losing a friend to gun violence, an episode on policing, another on losing out on love, and the pitfalls of achieving success in Hollywood. It’s a lot to unpack, but Michael Che’s matter-of-fact delivery makes the show an effortless watch.
Awards Radar sat down with the show’s director Oz Rodriguez to discuss the HBO Max show, representation in Hollywood, and more.
Niki Cruz: Given that you directed Vampires vs The Bronx, I have to mention Gregory Diaz and how he kills it in In The Heights.
Oz Rodriguez: I feel like a family member. I feel so happy for that man. He kills it so hard! He’s a star, and it’s so dope. It’s awesome because I met him three years ago when he was a younger kid so it’s amazing to see him grow and destroy it in In The Heights, and I’m very happy for the future Greg roles coming up.
NC: Hollywood has a long way to go with including the Latinx community, but as a storyteller, what is it like to see different perspectives of the community on screen?
OR: It’s awesome, and I want more. I think Latinos are a big concept with so many voices, and so many types. For example, with Vampires, and In The Heights, and hopefully more stories, we’re seeing that a Latino is not [as they’re] represented in media. I’m from the Dominican Republic, so it’s really exciting to see movies that have Dominicans on the screen and to hear our version of Spanish, too. It’s exciting to see all these different stories and to have the chance to tell them.
NC: I love That Damn Michael Che, the show. Michael’s delivery is blunt and is an honest perspective that I think resonates. How was it collaborating with him on the show? Did it have a similar vibe like SNL in terms of your collaboration?
OR: Yes and no. There’s nothing like SNL. We had a little bit more time in the sketch show. At SNL, you get an assignment for a sketch Wednesday night, Thursday you go scout and prep, write, shoot it, and Saturday it’s on the air, so it was nice to have a little more time to look at locations, and casting, and wardrobe, and basically use all the tools at your disposal to make this interesting show.
NC: I think when comedy is powerful it’s when it’s showing a mirror up to society. It seems to be a theme in your work with Michael.
OR: Yeah, At SNL he’s been in sketches on camera a couple of times in a narrative form. I knew he was a performer, but it was really exciting that he wrote these sketches. He didn’t make it easy for himself. He wrote a break up episode, and an episode that’s a dramedy when his friend gets shot, so it was exciting to see him challenge and push himself in all aspects.
NC: All the episodes have different tones from one another. The “special episode” felt cinematic in its own way. How was it shooting that?
OR: I’m glad it worked out that way because we shot everything together during the pandemic. Every episode has a theme, and a style, but that particular day we shot a little bit of episode one, and a little bit of episode two, so it was about keeping all of those ideas in your mind. One thing we worked out with the DP Eric Branco and the production designer Valeria De Felice was that every episode had a color so it helped us, and hopefully the viewers, to get used to all of these ideas we’re throwing at you, to try to have something that unifies it together.
NC: The show addresses the pandemic in ways you haven’t seen on television. There are commercials about how companies pandered to healthcare workers in ads. For those commercials, what was it like capturing that specific tone?
OR: Yeah, it’s an amazing observation because we all remember those commercials. I’d go back to our SNL experience where you have an idea that you think is funny. With the execution, for the White Castle ad, it needed to feel like those ads, so you reference, and try to follow the way they’re put together. You wind up breaking down all of these commercials. I think it’s about telling the story using the narrative tools of the thing you’re parodying.
NC: The confessional style segments of Michael felt like stand up without the audience. Was that always the intention?
OR: Che wanted to have a moment — almost to what you’re saying — sort of like stand up, which he’s comfortable with, but also have a moment where it’s him outside of a narrative space and also set up jokes and be funny. Even though he’s playing himself in those narrative ideas, he’s more himself in the confessional and giving it a different energy for the show. It’s something to ground the viewer because we’re throwing a lot of ideas at you. Che had stuff he wanted to talk about, but we also had the writers there to react to him, so it did feel like a stand up show where he had something to talk about, but they would encourage some other things. We had a list of things to address, but it was on the looser side.
NC: Did production hold shows like Key & Peele and The Chapelle Show as references, or were you guys hunkering down and not looking at other sketch shows?
OR: We weren’t necessarily looking at other stuff. We were trying to think of how we could do these sketches in an interesting way that hasn’t been done before. We tried to make it look more cinematic. It feels a little more direct with Che almost talking to you, the viewer. I personally just watched a ton of movies, but Chapelle Show is the Chapelle Show, so it’s something that’s always there. We’re just trying to add to the sketch show conversation and try to make something a little unique.
NC: I imagine there were challenges working during the pandemic.
OR: Oh my God, pick a day, pick a sketch! Just starting with COVID testing every day. It’s hard with sketch shows. The show I did before Kevin Can F*** Himself, that’s a smaller cast, so it was easier to hunker down and do the thing. With this show, we’re getting new actors every day, and these people have to go into the cadence of testing. Everything was 50% harder when we started shooting in the pandemic and then locations, too. You have to wonder, is it COVID friendly? Is it big enough? Do we have space for testing? Some decisions are not even creative, they’re out of necessity for health, but out of that, it pushes you into figuring out some stuff in an interesting way.
NC: This show can go over forever with the amount of material that Michael has. Are you hoping to go back for a season two?
OR: I’m hoping. Hopefully easier shooting. Things are opening up, so hopefully, it’ll be a little more interesting, but there are many things to keep talking about — even post-pandemic and what the world looks like, so I think Che’s working on a bunch of stuff right now.
That Damn Michael Che is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]