When Michelle Buteau walks onstage in a sequined gold lamé pantsuit, the crowd roars with the intensity of an arena on its feet.
For a moment, I hear nothing out of my left ear.
The rumbling audience at New York’s intimate Sony Hall is packed, sitting shoulder to shoulder for the taping of Buteau’s Netflix comedy special.
Nearly seven months later, in the year of our pandemic 2020, I still hear a high-pitched ringing in my ear — tinnitus — from that pleasantly raucous March night. After COVID-19 consumed the city, few would dare hover that close to strangers again. But the lesson is the same now as it was then:
People really love Michelle Buteau.
The actress and comedian from New Jersey is Zooming in from her New York home this week to promote the comedy special, “Welcome to Buteaupia,” premiering Tuesday, Sept. 29 on Netflix.
Even before the special’s debut, Buteau is all over Netflix. The streamer’s promotions call her “the scene-stealing queen.” At this very moment, people flipping through Netflix could be watching Buteau dispense her signature charm in a romantic comedy, a high school dance movie and a reality series, underscoring another fact:
Michelle Buteau is everywhere.
For now, though, she’s reminiscing about growing up in New Jersey.
“It’s funny, because when I tell people that I’m from Jersey, they’re like, ‘Makes sense,'” Buteau, 43, tells NJ Advance Media.
“And I never know what that means,” she says. “But for me, it always feels just like a big table at an Italian restaurant where everything is family-style. So for better, for worse, you’re going to have the cousin there that you don’t want to see. And that’s kind of like what comedy is sometimes at a show — when we used to do shows.”
She “enters the chat” for our Zoom call with her 21-month-old son, Otis, on her lap. The toddler lets out a hearty chuckle as Buteau playfully flips him upside down. His twin sister, Hazel, is somewhere offscreen.
Buteau lives in the Bronx with Hazel, Otis and her Dutch husband, Gijs van der Most, who works at the couple’s furniture store, Van Der Most Modern in Brooklyn.
“You know, I’m from Jersey, and he thinks I sound aggressive all the time,” Buteau says in the comedy special. “Like, I’ll be making breakfast and I swear to God, I feel like he just hears DMX. ‘How you want your eggs?!’”
With the trailer for her special getting some mileage out of that particular clip, Buteau frames the so-called aggressiveness another way — “Passionate.”
“I think for sure there is a bravado that goes with Jerseyans… Jerseyites?” she tells me. “And I definitely think that has crept into my DNA. I mean, not to mention, I’m Caribbean as well (her mother is from Jamaica and her father is from Haiti), but I’m really proud to be from a state that is sort of like a nationality. There aren’t many states that are like that, but Jersey is definitely one of them.”
In 2019, Buteau brought her special brand of magnetism to a breakout performance as the friend of a celebrity chef (played by Ali Wong) in the hit Netflix romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe.”
The same year, she appeared in the well-received Netflix limited series “Russian Doll” with Natasha Lyonne, the romantic comedy “Someone Great” with Gina Rodriguez and “Tales from the City,” a miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s novels.
But the anointed queen of Netflix didn’t stop there.
The pre-pandemic days of 2020 saw the premiere of “The Circle,” the buzzy social media-based reality competition she hosts, which has been picked up for two more seasons. Buteau also appeared in “Work It,” a teen dance movie that premiered in August.
Off Netflix, Buteau had a lead role in the first season of the BET Plus series “First Wives Club,” which debuted last year and is getting a second season. She appeared in the Rebel Wilson movie “Isn’t it Romantic,” and her voice could be heard in the Fox animated series “Bless the Harts.” Buteau also played a focus group-scammer in a February episode of Comedy Central’s “Awkwafina is Nora From Queens.”
“This has been a good-ass year,” she told the crowd at her New York show in March. Notwithstanding the public health crisis, there’s even more for Buteau to celebrate heading into 2021. She’ll star alongside Jennifer Lopez in the romantic comedy “Marry Me,” due out on Valentine’s Day. Her memoir, “Survival of the Thickest,” will be published Dec. 8. And “No Pulling Out Now,” her forthcoming parenting series, is coming to Quibi, the short-form streaming service that launched in April.
The success has been a long time coming, but it all took root in the Garden State. What part of Jersey did Buteau call home? It’s complicated.
“Oof, girl, I’m like the Khaleesi of Jersey, honey,” Buteau tells me. “I’ve been all over.”
Buteau was born in Boonton. She spent the rest of her formative years across a more than 100-mile swath of the state.
“I moved to Hamilton — Trenton, Central Jersey — and then I did my last year of my ‘residency’ in Marlton because then at that point, both my parents worked in Philly,” Buteau says. “I worked at the Cherry Hill mall my last year. And I also did some bike messengering in Center City, Philadelphia. I mean, it was pretty wild. I think I bought my first joint at the Rutgers campus in Camden. But I also worked at Quaker Bridge Mall, too, in Hamilton. Or is that Princeton? Girl, bye.” (Note: It’s Lawrenceville.)
In the process, Buteau attended a variety of Catholic and public schools — St. Peter’s in Parsippany, St. Gregory the Great Academy in Hamilton Square, Steinert High School in Hamilton Township, Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville and Cherokee High School in Marlton, where she graduated.
Khaleesi, aka Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons (and Revenge) from “Game of Thrones,” isn’t the only powerful woman Buteau uses as a touchstone. In her special, she calls herself “an achievable Beyoncé for government workers.”
And then there’s Jennifer Lopez. In Buteau’s New York show, she talks about the challenge of working with JLo. Trying not to stare at her beauty was difficult enough, but she also could not divulge just how much she knew about the megastar. Not only are they both mothers of twins, but they also share a birthday. On the “Marry Me” set, Buteau had to feign surprise about their Leo sisterhood. When Lopez mentioned that she used to be engaged to a Leo named Ben (as in Affleck), she was ready.
This Thanksgiving, Buteau will enter the holiday movie canon with “Happiest Season,” a romantic comedy from director Clea DuVall that centers on a couple played by Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. Still to come: “The Stand-In,” a comedy with Drew Barrymore, Ellie Kemper (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Holland Taylor.
Buteau, who attended Florida International University in Miami, started off in journalism. She was working as a producer in broadcast news on Sept. 11. After the attacks, she turned to comedy.
In her upcoming book “Survival of the Thickest” (Gallery Books, Dec. 8), she talks about her upbringing and body image. (“I’ve always been an odd-body,” she writes in an excerpt. “I try to keep my shirts tucked in, but somehow they always find a way out. I have learned to be comfortable just sitting with a wedgie.”)
She also recalls career milestones, like opening for a male stripper show on her first road gig as a comedian.
Caution: clip contains explicit language
“It sort of turned into this low-budget ‘Magic Mike’ episode that nobody was ready for, including me,” she tells me. “I even opened for female strippers in Queens because they paid me in food. It was hot. I even did warm-up for Maury Povich back in the day, and they paid me in pizza and that pizza didn’t even have a topping, but I was like, ‘I’m here for it.’”
Later in her career, Buteau had a role in the Fox comedy series “Enlisted” (2014), voiced Wendeloquence in the Adult Swim animated series “China, IL” and appeared on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” and “Broad City.” Her stand-up was featured on the network in 2015 and on HBO’s “2 Dope Queens” in 2018. A frequent guest on the podcast of the same name, she brought her talents to two of her own: “Late Night Whenever” and “Adulting” for WNYC Studios.
But how did she become a go-to supporting actress who tends to upstage the lead?
“Happiness,” Buteau says. “Like, sh-t, man, be happy. A lot of my friends are just like, ‘Oh, I only have four lines.’ I’m like, make those four lines the best four lines anyone’s heard all. Damn. Week. On. Set,” she says, snapping her fingers with each word. “You know what I mean?”
With all of her TV and movie roles, it might seem like we’re in some kind of Buteaupi-ssance — a la Keanu Reeves’ Keanussance, or Laura Dern’s Dernaissance — were it not for the fact that Buteau just reached her first major career crescendo.
“It feels good,” she says. “You know, I feel like I’ve been doing it for so long. I’ve been auditioning for-ever. So I’ve always been putting in the work in one way or another. And so a lot of the stuff now is getting greenlit. And I also think I can attribute this to the world changing, between #MeToo, Time’s Up, BLM, body positivity. All those things, man. …
“I’m here to say sh-t will definitely happen if you could put in the work.”
Buteau momentarily leaves the room to move her laughing toddler out of the frame.
“They start to turn into a pumpkin, especially if they can hear my voice,” she says.
Spending more time together at home during the pandemic, Buteau has been watching her children grow into their personalities.
“I was parenting real hard,” she says. “It was real crazy. I mean, they were babies when we first started, and now they’re toddlers. So you know, instead of 18 to 24 diapers a day, it’s more like 12 to 16, which still seems like a lot, but like, they can carry stuff. And they can’t say words, but they definitely have opinions, which is good. I always wanted my kids to question authority, and now they’re not even 2 and they’re just like, ‘You sure you want to do that?’ I’m like, damn.”
The pandemic produced another important development close to Buteau’s heart when New York state approved a measure in April allowing paid surrogates as of February 2021. Buteau and her husband welcomed Hazel and Otis in January 2019 via surrogate. Since paid gestational surrogacy was illegal in New York, they had to go to Pennsylvania to grow their family. The comedian, whose hormones are affected by a prolactinoma, or a benign pituitary tumor, previously tried in vitro fertilization and had four miscarriages. She had advocated for New York to change the surrogacy law.
“If I really think about it, I’ll just cry,” Buteau says. “There’s an overwhelming feeling of joy, knowing that whether it’s a straight couple having infertility issues, or a gay couple or a woman who was a cancer survivor and has frozen her eggs, or whatever the situation is, it’s just amazing to know that they can go in their backyard somewhere in New York and make their dreams come true. They don’t have to figure out how to fly themselves out to Utah or drive to Pennsylvania or any of that stuff. They just add more stress and money and drama to an already stressful situation. So there’s this weight, almost, that feels like it’s been lifted knowing that New York feels like it has our back.”
Buteau’s upcoming show, “There’s No Pulling Out Now,” is billed as a not-so-G-rated conversation between parents about parenting.
“We’ve been writing this show for Quibi for a minute, and then also trying to rewrite it, trying to figure out how to make it COVID-friendly,” she says.
However, working on anything past March has been a daunting concept.
“A lot of my friends are like, ‘Are you creating? Are you writing?'” she says. “It’s just like, no. I have no space to be creating right now during a global pandemic within a civil rights movement. I am really trying to get through the day.
“I’m trying to have important conversations with neighbors because I do live in sort of a purple town,” Buteau says. “I’m not trying to challenge people in a way that feels like Jersey road rage — LOL — I am really trying to have important, thoughtful conversations with friends and family and in-laws and just the peripheral circle that I never really paid attention to.”
Speaking of circles, as the entertainment industry gets back on its feet, Buteau is going to be filming another season of “The Circle,” which she calls “a very quarantine-friendly show.”
It’s like the pandemic if there was no virus… and no Zoom. The Netflix reality competition isolates contestants from one another so they have to rely on a custom social media platform to communicate. In order to stay in the game, some turn to catfishing, trying to trick people into thinking they’re someone they’re not.
Buteau will also be filming a second season of “First Wives Club” for BET Plus. In the series, inspired by the 1996 movie starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn, she plays Bree, a doctor and mother of two who splits from her husband.
“I have such a girl crush on Tracy Oliver, who created the show, who worked on ‘Girls Trip’ as well,” Buteau says. “To get back to set with Ryan Michelle Bathe (who plays Ari) and Jill Scott (who plays Hazel) is just a damn Kwanzaa dream in a bottle that I didn’t even know I needed.”
Michelle Buteau’s “Welcome to Buteaupia” premieres at 3 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29 on Netflix.
Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a subscription.
Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at [email protected].