Michelle Buteau

Jan 22, 2021

On New Year's Day 2020 Netflix released the first season of the socially-distanced reality series The Circle, hosted by this week's Ask Me Another guest, comedian Michelle Buteau. In The Circle, contestants live in isolation and can only communicate via the internet: a premise that became everyone's reality about two months later.

Buteau confessed she wasn't initially onboard with the concept: "A competition, and you can catfish people? Absolutely not, sir! Rude!"

She said she warmed up to the idea after watching the British version, which focuses on why people choose to misrepresent themselves online. "They are convinced that people won't like the real them," Buteau said, "And that is so sad and important to talk about."

Buteau, by comparison, has built her career on unapologetically being herself. Her new book of personal essays is called Survival of the Thickest. She said the book was six years in the making and was originally called, "Maintaining Chunky: A Thick Girl's Guide to Not Getting Fat...Or Skinny." But Buteau struggled to tell that story. "I just felt like a very lazy Jillian Michaels where I'm just like 'Work out! If you want! But also, who cares?' And I couldn't get past 20 pages."

But she credits her work hosting the WNYC podcast Late Night Whenever and co-hosting Adulting with Jordan Carlos that gave her the nudge to shift the book's message inward, "I was just telling these kind of crazy stories that didn't fit into the standup world, Simon and Schu Schu were like "we love the podcast, can you just write a bunch of essays?" I said "I can do that..."

In the before times, Buteau was an avid traveler and her and her Dutch husband would make frequent trips to visit Holland. So for her Ask Me Another challenge Jonathan Coulton led her in a music parody game that pairs the music of Van Halen with things about The Netherlands.

Interview Highlights:

On balancing new motherhood and writing a book

I thought "I'm gonna bring the twins home and write while they're sleeping." WHAT?! And then I was like, "I'll take the twins to Majorca with a nanny and then I'll write in the cool, Mediterranean breeze while eating a paella in between." WHAT?! Cut to me on the subway with one finger trying to type... girl it was a mess.

On why her babies aren't baptized

My uncle is the archbishop of Jamaica, and I had to get [my kids] baptized because I'm the only child and my mom is like, "don't disappoint me," and I still fold like a beach chair when she brings that up. I picked really good friends to be godparents, and both godmothers are gay. When I told my mom and they met the family, they were like "they're great but they cant stand at the altar because the church doesn't recognize homosexuality." And I was like, "it's legal," and they were like, "but not in the church." And I'm like, "but they were straight when I met them 20 years ago, is there a loophole?" I was just like, "You guys, c'mon, these are my friends, this is my chosen family." And so it was such a big moment for me, in my 40s, working so hard to be a parent, to finally put my nine-and-a-half foot down and be like, "I can't get these kids baptized because my friends are enough and they're always enough, no matter who they are or what they are, and I can't be that example for my kids."

On being the host of The Circle

We just shot season two safely in England. The great thing about the show is that we can shoot it safely because we are in quarantine. But I also just thought it was so important because whether you like social media or not, you have to engage with it somehow. What does your profile picture say about you? Are you giving out too much information or not enough?

Heard on Michelle Buteau: 'The Circle' And Van Halen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Hey, it's time to welcome our special guest. She's a actor, comic, podcast host. Her new book is called "Survival Of The Thickest." And her latest Netflix special is called "Welcome To Buteaupia." It is Michelle Buteau. Hello.

MICHELLE BUTEAU: Hey, girl, hey.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: First of all, congratulations - Front cover of Parents magazine. I thought that was so cool. You were holding your babies, Otis and Hazel.

BUTEAU: Yes.

EISENBERG: And but - I - just out of curiosity, just for fun, they don't like - they weren't like, hey, can I powder Hazel's forehead?

BUTEAU: That is so funny. No, they want to do their hair, though. And I was like, look. It does what it do, so good luck.

EISENBERG: They wanted to do their hair?

BUTEAU: Yeah. And even when we were trying to, like, wrangle them because, you know, twins that can start to walk, you just feel like you're in a dryer with baby limbs. You're like, OK, did you get it? And then there was this amazing baby wrangler. I forget her name, but she's the best in the business, and that's how they introduced her. And she had like toys in her bra. And she had like a little - and she'd, like, take the little joker (ph) out and be like, ahh (ph).

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

BUTEAU: And the kids were like, what? And she's like, go. And we're like, ahh.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: And it was, like, so wild, like I was being wrangled at the same time. And I said, how are we going to do this? This is so hard for us to get a picture. And they're like, oh, we'll definitely superimpose the best picture - their best faces on their body. And I was like...

EISENBERG: Whoa.

BUTEAU: I know.

COULTON: Right.

BUTEAU: I'm like, do it for me, too.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: You know, it's also - a year ago right now, you were hosting a show at The Circle...

BUTEAU: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Which was a social experiment show where the contestants were isolated from each other...

BUTEAU: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...And could only interact through the Internet - a novel concept.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: I'm telling you, talk about being ahead of your time.

COULTON: Yeah?

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right.

BUTEAU: Yeah. We actually - it actually dropped January 1, 2020...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: ...Which feels like 37 years ago.

EISENBERG: Absolutely.

BUTEAU: And we just shot Season 2 safely in England, which is really - obviously, that's, like, the great thing about the show - is that we could shoot it safely because we are in quarantine.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Right.

BUTEAU: But also, I just thought it was so important because, you know, whether you like social media or not, you have to engage with it somehow.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

BUTEAU: And what does your profile picture say about you? Are you giving out too much information or not enough? Why do people catfish? And at the end of it, a lot of them are like, because no one really likes the real me. And that is so sad and important to talk about. So, you know, on paper, when I first read about "The Circle," I'm just like, competition and you can catfish people? Absolutely not, sir. Rude.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: And then I watched the British version. I was just like, this is so cool, man. This is, like, really fun and entertaining. So I'm just glad to be a part of it.

EISENBERG: So, you know, and you're no stranger, obviously, to the podcast radio show world because in 2019, you hosted on WNYC "Adulting," where you would bring on guests and tackle topics that were fun - like is a pet turtle too much of a responsibility?

BUTEAU: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Which is funny thinking about right now in hindsight specifically for you because you are doing the most adulting (ph) of all time (laughter).

BUTEAU: Yeah, it's crazy. It's almost like - I did "Adulting" with friend - my friend Jordan Carlos, who you know and I love.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: And he told me, you know, when you become a parent, you have to parent yourself. And I didn't know what he meant. I thought he just meant, like, fold your laundry. But I'm like, oh, you really have to check yourself all the time because you're an example, for better or for worse, for these young minds. And it's like, OK, what are we going to do about this, you know? The biggest thing that happened for me was not getting my kids baptized because my family's very Catholic. My uncle is the archbishop of Jamaica.

COULTON: Wow.

BUTEAU: And so when I picked the - yeah, I had to get them baptized because I'm the only child and my mom's like, don't disappoint me.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

BUTEAU: And I still fold like a beach chair, like, when she brings that up. And so I picked really good friends to be godparents. And two of the godmothers - both godmothers are gay. And, you know, when I told my mom and they met the family, they were like, oh, this is - they're great, but they can't stand at the altar because the church doesn't recognize homosexuality. And I was like, it's legal. And they're like, but not in the church. And I'm like, but they were straight when I met them 20 years ago. Is there a loophole?

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

BUTEAU: And I was just like, you guys, come on. Like, these are my friends. This is my chosen family. And so it was such a big moment for me in my 40s, working so hard to be a parent, to finally put my 9 1/2 foot down and be like, I can't get these kids baptized because, you know, my friends are enough. They're always enough, no matter who they are, what they are. And, like, I can't be that example for my kids. How did I get onto this? You know what?

EISENBERG: No, that's - no, it's so - but wait a second. Just...

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Too real? It was too much realness. I know.

BUTEAU: I know. I know. I was just like, I should definitely save this for my therapy session later.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But so how did your family react? Were they like, we will revisit? Is your - is it the kind of thing where then it just goes unspoken?

BUTEAU: Yeah, it's definitely unspoken, but it's always there...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: ...Which sucks...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: ...Because, you know, I'm waiting for it to be a thing.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I call that the simmer, the family simmer.

BUTEAU: Yes. Yes.

EISENBERG: Let's just have it simmer. How long? Ten years? I don't know. It's interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But, you know, that thing - the parenting word that I didn't know before is modeling. Like, you're always modeling for your kid, which, yeah, I feel like it pushes every button because all of a sudden, as soon as my child repeats something back to me in the tone and the words that I'm using, I'm like, wow, that is wildly inappropriate.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: I know. But I'm always so impressed that they use, like, a curse word correctly. I'm like, well, yes, then you get it. I'm not worried about you.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: That is a source of no small amount of pride - is when your child can curse in a grammatical way. That's very satisfying.

BUTEAU: Yes, I think so.

EISENBERG: That actually happened to me - is that my kid did curse at school, and we got a call. And luckily, the teacher was cool and said, well, I got to say, it was the right context. So...

COULTON: (Laughter) See - it's good.

BUTEAU: Look, look - I love that.

EISENBERG: On top of everything else, you're - you have a new book, a memoir, that came out in December, "Survival Of The Thickest." Congratulations.

BUTEAU: Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: You were writing this for how long? How long were you putting this together?

BUTEAU: Oh, girl, that's so crazy. You know, I've had this idea for, like, six years, but it kind of didn't go anywhere because it was originally supposed to be called "Maintaining Chunky: A Thick Girl's Guide To Not Getting Fat... Or Skinny."

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: But I just felt like a very lazy Jillian Michaels, where I'm just like, work out if you want, but also, who cares? And I couldn't get past, like, 20 pages for, like, six years.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: And then when I started podcasting and, like, just telling these, like, kind of crazy stories that didn't fit into the stand-up world - and then Simon & Schuster were like, we love the podcast. Can you just write a bunch of essays? I said, I could do that.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: I can do that. And I just started writing. It was a lot. I'm not going to lie. I thought that I - oh, I...

EISENBERG: Humbling.

BUTEAU: I'll bring the twins home, and I'll have time to write when they're sleeping. What?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I know.

BUTEAU: What? And then I was like, you know, I'll just take the twins to, like, Majorca with a nanny, and then I'll just, like, write in the cool Mediterranean breeze while eating a paella in between.

EISENBERG: Fantastic.

BUTEAU: What? Cut to me on the subway with one finger trying to type. Girl, it was a mess - in the bathroom on my phone, a computer, in closets.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I've done a lot of work sitting with my back against my tub.

BUTEAU: Yeah, that's how John Mayer writes all his songs.

EISENBERG: Really? Sitting on the floor of his bathroom?

COULTON: Is that true?

BUTEAU: Ask Jessica Simpson. Ayo (ph) - too soon.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So - OK, so your husband that you also talk about in your book, he's Dutch.

BUTEAU: Very.

EISENBERG: Do you speak Dutch? Have you picked up any Dutch?

BUTEAU: You know, (speaking Dutch).

EISENBERG: OK.

BUTEAU: I pipe it. I don't really, you know...

EISENBERG: I can do this. I can do (speaking Dutch). That's what I can do.

BUTEAU: Yeah, (speaking Dutch). Yeah.

COULTON: What is that? What does that mean?

EISENBERG: It's just hi, how are you?

BUTEAU: How are you?

COULTON: Oh, I see.

BUTEAU: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Do you like that salty black licorice?

BUTEAU: What's his name? Ayo.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: Mom jokes. Actually, I don't like licorice. I have - no, it's sort of like people with cilantro. I do love the coriander, but I can't do licorice. It just makes me fold like a fitted sheet. How many times can she fold? We'll figure it out.

EISENBERG: Many, many times. And you put the corners in together. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Michelle, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

BUTEAU: I hope so. I have my good exercise bra on.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Good. Yeah, it is a workout. Your husband was born in the Netherlands, so you kind of know about some Dutch stuff.

BUTEAU: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Strap in. Jonathan Coulton is going to lead this game in a game we called Holland Opus.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: We have changed the lyrics to Van Halen songs to make them about famous things developed in or associated with the Netherlands.

BUTEAU: Oh.

COULTON: This makes no sense. Why did we do this? Because Eddie and Alex Van Halen were born there. So to earn the point, all you have to do is name the thing that I'm singing about or the Van Halen song that I'm parodying.

BUTEAU: Oh, my goodness.

COULTON: Of course, I'm going to be doing these Van Halen songs in the way they were intended, on an acoustic guitar.

EISENBERG: Of course.

COULTON: If you don't know either of those things, you can just explain to us the difference between Holland and the Netherlands.

BUTEAU: OK.

COULTON: OK, here we go.

(Singing) Old world was...

Oh, wow. It's high. That's the problem with Van Halen. It's very high. Here we go.

BUTEAU: It is.

COULTON: (Singin) Old world was captured and under his spell. Those bulbs, they cost a lot. A purple flower that's shaped like a bell until the bubble popped.

BUTEAU: OK, I have - I want to say you're talking about tulips.

COULTON: I am talking about tulips. That's correct.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: Do you know tulips were originally Turkish and a bunch of kings loved them, and then they were like, bring them over here, and they became a national product? And one tulip actually cost a whole servants' year - a year of a servant's pay. How gross.

COULTON: That's right, the famous tulip mania. And there was - it was actually one of the first examples of an investment bubble, a market collapsing. It happened in 1637. Michelle, did you know the name of that song that I played?

BUTEAU: No, boo. I most certainly did not.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: That was called "I'll Wait."

BUTEAU: Oh, OK.

COULTON: All right. Here's the next one.

(Singing) My shoes, they are made of poplar. My shoes, they cover my whole foot. My shoes, they are safety rated. These are my wooden shoes - yellow with red leaves.

BUTEAU: I mean, you're talking about a clog, right?

COULTON: I'm talking about clogs. That's exactly what I'm talking about. Yeah.

BUTEAU: You know, my sister-in-law raises horses, and so she lives on a farm. And so I was always like, what's up with the clogs? And she - and I don't know if this is right or wrong, but she was like, oh, we wear clogs because when you're farming and a cow or a horse steps on your foot, you don't want your foot to break. And that's why we have clogs. And they've just sort of, like, taken off.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: That makes a lot of sense.

EISENBERG: That makes tons of sense.

BUTEAU: It's sort of like a hard hat for your feet...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: ...Because when you go to farms - because when she turned 40, we all went to bed-and-breakfast called the Cow and Chandelier Farm because it was a cow farm and they love chandeliers. And you could...

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: ...Milk cows to which, like, under a chandelier.

EISENBERG: No way.

BUTEAU: And you can't make this up, and why would I? And so they pass out little clogs before you go into the farm. And so this is - I can't - who am I?

EISENBERG: It's the best. This is the best. No, I love this. This is like - I mean, trust me, if there was a bar down the street in Brooklyn called Cows and Chandeliers, there is no way that would not be just packed 24/7.

BUTEAU: That's true.

COULTON: And I also love that you were like, I actually have a story related to...

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: ...Wooden shoes and getting stepped on by cows and also involves chandeliers.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTEAU: Oh, my God.

COULTON: Michelle, do you know the name of the song that I was just singing?

BUTEAU: Oh, I don't. I recognize the song, but I was like, I have to think of one thing at a time.

COULTON: That was "Right Now," is the name of the song.

BUTEAU: Oh, OK. I was like, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: OK, here's another one.

(Singing) This is impossible, the object that I see - the crazy stairway and relativity. Drawing hands, drawing hands, drawing hands and tessellations. Those lithographic hands and tessellations.

BUTEAU: Graphic hands?

COULTON: Lithographic hands. A lithograph - like, a hand drawing itself, lot of...

BUTEAU: Oh, no. I don't know.

EISENBERG: But you know...

COULTON: ...Stairways, playing with perspectives...

EISENBERG: Staircases...

COULTON: ...Upside-down staircases, is an artist.

BUTEAU: Is it Van Eyck (ph)? No. Is it...

EISENBERG: I love the way you said that. Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: I know. That's a flex. That's a flex right there.

EISENBERG: That was great.

COULTON: No, we're looking for M.C. Escher.

BUTEAU: Oh, I wouldn't have got that. I'm not that cool.

COULTON: That's all right. How about...

BUTEAU: That is - you guys are making this hard. I like it.

COULTON: (Laughter) How about the song? Do you know the song?

BUTEAU: No, girl.

COULTON: It was "Hot For Teacher."

BUTEAU: Oh, that's what I was going to say.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: All right, here's another one.

BUTEAU: OK.

COULTON: (Singing) Just like Pete Townsend plays guitar. In moving air, I am a spinning machine. For centuries I have been keeping the energy clean.

BUTEAU: OK. Windmill, I got that.

COULTON: Windmill is correct.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BUTEAU: And it was so hard to get that because I love that song, which I can't remember the name of.

COULTON: That is called "Jump."

EISENBERG: It gets exciting.

BUTEAU: Yes.

COULTON: It's a song about jumping. Everyone likes to...

EISENBERG: Everyone loves that.

COULTON: (Laughter) Everyone loves jumping.

BUTEAU: I know. And doing a split while you jump is just like, who are we?

EISENBERG: With a scarf.

BUTEAU: Yes.

COULTON: I know. He was something else - greatest frontman ever.

EISENBERG: So good.

COULTON: OK, this is the last one.

(Singing) It's got yeast and hops. So tell me, why did it taste like skunk? The bottle's green. Oh, yeah, that's why it tastes like skunk.

BUTEAU: Oh, Heineken?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Heineken. That is right - founded in the Netherlands in the 1800s.

BUTEAU: It's so funny. Why does everyone think that Heineken is German? It's so annoying.

EISENBERG: I know.

BUTEAU: Also, I prefer - not that we need to need to talk about it - I love a good Belgian beer. I love a good beer when a higher alcohol content so I'm not wasting my calories. I'm doing what I got to do right away. Give me that soft Bavarian pretzel with that cold leffe. Sign me up. Let's say a prayer.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Amen. Amen.

BUTEAU: Yes. Hallelu (ph), hallelu.

COULTON: Yeah. Michelle, I have to ask, did you know the name of that song that I played?

BUTEAU: Girl, you know I didn't know the name of the song.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: OK. Oh, good. I'm glad I asked anyway. It was called "Why Can't This Be Love."

BUTEAU: Oh, I thought it was "Body Ody Ody" (ph) by Meg Thee Stallion. Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: There's that one, too.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: They sound similar. Thank you so much. Michelle Buteau's new book is called "Survival Of The Thickest," and her latest Netflix special "Welcome To Buteaupia" is out now. Thank you so much for joining us.

BUTEAU: Oh, my God. Thank you so much for having me. This was fun. Now I want beer.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff along with Julia Melfi, Scott Ross and senior writers Camilla Franklin and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern, Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I am her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.