Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.
Michelle Buteau has had a busy year. She’s currently in the midst of her comedy tour, Beautopia, and starring in the new BET+ show, First Wives Club (an adaptation of the 1996 movie). You may also recognize her as Ali Wong’s pregnant best friend in this summer’s Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe. Or maybe you’ve heard one of her two podcasts, Adulting and Late Night Whenever. She also had twins (via surrogate) in January. Here, she talks about finding her ambition while working at a mall in her 20s, how she dealt with her doubters, and the moment in her 40s when she finally hit her stride.
Did you always think of yourself as ambitious?
I started thinking of myself as an ambitious person when I graduated college. But when I hear stories about myself as a child, I guess I was pretty ambitious then, too. We lived in a cul-de-sac in New Jersey, and when I was eight, I made a magazine out of construction paper for all the neighbors. It was called Head Over Heels, and I illustrated it with a little head in a shoe. It was real fucking creepy, but I thought it was a genius idea. Then our neighbors asked my parents if I would stop putting mail in their mailbox. And now look at me, motherfuckers! So yes, to answer your question, bitch has been booked and busy since 8 years old.
What happened after college that made you more motivated?
I was a late bloomer when it came to believing in myself — like, 24. I think it had to do with being out in the world. I didn’t really know how to deal with other people until I started working retail at the mall in my 20s. I had a boss who was tired and lazy, and I had to stick up for myself if I didn’t want to be taken advantage of. He’d be like, “Can you work another hour without getting paid?” No! I learned how to speak up for myself at the Jersey mall. I had to have a backbone. I was accountable for my decisions. And I learned that people aren’t mind readers. They’re not going to understand what you want unless you tell them.
When you were starting out in stand-up, I know you faced doubters and people constantly asking about your plan B. How did you ignore them?
I kind of enjoy that. I always thought those comments were a reflection of the person making them — just because you don’t believe you can do something, don’t think I can’t do it. But I realized early on that I can’t have that argument all the time, otherwise I’m going to be like an extra in a Spike Lee film, just fighting everybody. So my whole thing is, Watch me bitch, just watch me. And that was my mantra from early on. If you don’t want to hear from me, you’re going to hear about me. Bye. I don’t have time. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody except myself and perhaps the person who’s going to hire me.
How did you decide to focus on comedy in the first place?
When I first started out, I never thought acting would come to fruition, because it seemed like you mostly had to be very skinny or the extreme opposite. Back then, “plus size” wasn’t even a term we used for a female figure. There was never like, just the thick chick. So I figured stand-up was fun and I didn’t have to look a certain way other than the way I look. I was game for whatever happened. It was like, I was asked to audition for this thing. Cool. Thank you for paying me. I hate to say It happened organically, because that sounds like I’m selling coconut ice cream at Whole Foods. But you get it.
When did you first feel like you were really onto something in your stand-up career?
Probably this year. Just kidding! I started in 2001, and in 2005 or 2006 I booked my first TV gig on Comedy Central, for a show called Premium Blend. When that happened, I felt like I became part of this club where the industry wanted to hire me. It took a good four or five years of doing this thing that I love to do, and having no idea where it would go and whether it could make me money. I remember Jay Leno saying that comedy is like college — you have to put at least four or five years in before something happens. And even four or five years into it, you don’t even know your voice yet. You’re still trying to figure it out. That’s why I’m always more interested in older comedians — like, 30 and up — and what they have to say. Someone who’s lived a life and seen some shit.
Have you gone through periods where things weren’t going well, or the audience wasn’t responding, and you second-guessed yourself?
I never really blame the audience I take ownership over my set. I try to approach it like, “You are here to love me. This is a dinner party, and you guys are paying for it. I’m just showing up. I’m the friend that somebody else brought. We’re just going to have a good time.” Once I started thinking like that, then stand-up really shifted for me.
Have you found that your ambition affects your relationships?
That’s the thing: It’s great to be ambitious, but you also have to make time for people who love you and make you feel whole. It’s so important to treat your relationships the way you would treat your career. So yes, I am very ambitious in comedy and the industry and acting, but I’m also very ambitious when it comes to having a good relationship with my husband and my kids. So I plan. I plan the date nights. I plan dinners. I plan the family outings. I plan the time in the morning when we chill, all of that stuff.
Has parenthood affected your ambition at all — made it stronger, or shifted it in certain ways?
My ambition is definitely stronger. But I’m also more selective now. My friend Jordan Carlos [a co-host on Buteau’s podcast Adulting] told me, “When you become a parent, you have to start parenting yourself.” And I was like, “Whatever, Jordan.” And then our twins were born, and I was like, “Fuck, he’s right.” So I’m definitely more selective with things that I’m doing, and in turn, better things are happening.
What happens when you take on too much?
My husband checks me. He sprays some lavender on my face and he puts me in a corner. I think it’s really important, as a woman who is trying to do it all at the same time, to have a partner who says, “But you don’t have to.”
For instance, I’m working on new stand-up material and I’ll get frustrated and stressed that it’s not happening right away. And my husband will be like, “Here. Have this CBD edible, and just tell me your joke out loud.” And then I’m completely calm and there’s no pressure. I’m just bouncing jokes off of him. And suddenly, I’ll come up with a better structure or tag. And he’s like, “Yeah. You just need to talk to someone and not yourself.”
Have your ambitions changed as you’ve gotten older?
I think turning 40 was a gift that I didn’t know I needed. I had done four years of IVF, and I was bloated and bruised and my spirit was broken. I tried another year and then I was like, “Okay, I’m good.” I gave myself the license to stop, and go back into stand-up full-heartedly and say, “This is what happened to me. I need to laugh. You all need to laugh.” And that’s when I hit a new stride in my life and in my career. Shit really comes together when you don’t give a fuck anymore.