NEW YORK — Michael Che, the comedian who co-hosts “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” often jokes about poverty in New York City — and the gags are personal.
Since Che, 35, grew up in a housing project on Allen Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (and spent countless summers hanging out in the neighborhood’s Alfred E. Smith Houses), he is no stranger to the crumbling conditions in the city’s 176,000 public housing apartments.
Now he is betting that making people laugh can help fix the country’s largest housing system, which houses more than 400,000 New Yorkers and urgently needs about $32 billion to repair a multitude of issues, like leaky roofs, faulty boilers and pest infestations.
On Friday, Che will headline a comedy event in Manhattan to raise money for a nonprofit associated with the New York City Housing Authority, known as NYCHA, which is facing a possible takeover by the federal government. He also started a separate fundraiser for those who cannot make it to the show, titled “A Night for NYCHA.”
“This city is so rich and so vast and so powerful and so important to the fabric of the country that you would imagine that our public housing would be a lot more habitable,” said Che, who is the youngest of seven children and has family members who live in public housing.
Jeff Ross, Michelle Wolf and other surprise performers will take the stage at Irving Plaza near Union Square Park, not far from Che’s former stamping grounds.
We spoke with Che this week about his show and how his time in public housing shaped his comedy. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The New York City Housing Authority has been in the headlines for being plagued by problems. When did you first realize the magnitude of the issues, and how did the comedy event come together?
A: Embarrassingly, this show wasn’t my idea.
The problems were something that I knew about. Sometimes when you know something is the case, it seems so overwhelming that you don’t even think to help.
A friend of mine was telling me how she really wanted me to do a show for NYCHA and asked if I would help.
Q: So, are you going to keep organizing comedy events until you get the $32 billion NYCHA needs?
A: Wouldn’t it be fun if that’s how it worked out? I solve poverty one comedy show at a time?
We understand that the need is so great that one comedy show is not going to solve it. But it’s not a sad charity event. It’s still going to be a comedy show. It’s a secret lineup, because I didn’t want people to buy tickets based on the performers they’re going to see. I want people who really want to be there and really help.
Going without heat, it really sucks.
Q: Did you go without heat?
A: Of course. You think I lived in the one NYCHA building with heat?
You go without heat. You go without food. You go without doorknobs. You go without everything. Elevators don’t work. There was grease and oil inside the elevators to keep off graffiti, but then you couldn’t touch the wall.
And the thing is, it’s all fixable!We can do something about this.
Q: Public housing developments also faced problems with crime and drugs in the ‘80s. Were you exposed to that?
A: You remember the people sleeping outside. You remember the murders of people in their teens and 20s, people making tons of cash who weren’t making tons of cash the day before. It’s a very familiar story.
My whole family’s from public housing, so you think all elevators smell like pee. You just think that’s the way it is.
Q: You joke unapologetically about gentrification, poverty and race. How much of your comedy is informed by your upbringing?
A: It’s important to keep in mind how close we are, many New Yorkers, from needing public assistance and from needing public housing.
At the Al Smith Houses, there was a shelter right in the center of the projects. I remember kids who grew up in the projects were mean to kids who lived in the shelter because, to us, they were poor. So it was classism among poor people, not even realizing that we were all maybe a paycheck away from just being in a shelter ourselves.
So many of us could end up there for any given reason.
Q: Public housing carries a certain stigma, even though it’s where one in 14 New Yorkers live. Do you see your platform as a way to shape the narrative around public housing?
A: I just say what I think is funny, what I think people should hear.
But I do think there is something to knowing that someone where you’re from made it out, or that someone with a similar upbringing did something that maybe you’d want to do. There are so many bad examples from public housing that it’s kind of good to have a good one.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.