An interview with Wyatt Cenac
Wyatt Cenac’s voice is tinny on speakerphone, and he sounds tired, but that might be a trick of his accent, which has all of the drawl of Texas and none of the twang. Best known for his stint on The Daily Show (“Four and a half years,” he emphasizes), Cenac is a comedian and writer whose new stand-up special, Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn, is premiering on Netflix. In the special, taped in the basement digs of Brooklyn’s Union Hall, Cenac covers everything from artisanal mayonnaise stores to reading the police file of the man who killed his father. It’s an intimate, deeply personal show, but Cenac’s easy-going delivery and occasional use of puppets makes for an entertaining and humorously reflective set.
“There is something about Union Hall,” Cenac says. “It’s a comfortable place, so I like to do shows there, but also, for me in general, I prefer comedy in small venues.” Indeed it’s a trend recently, with many stand-ups choosing to tape their specials in smaller theaters and clubs like Union Hall; Maria Bamford taped her latest special, Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special!, in her parents’ actual living room. For Cenac, it’s about connecting with the audience.
“I like it when it’s an experience that you as the performer and the audience share together,” he says. “And that’s what the experience is more often than not. If you really want to capture what it’s like to see a comedian live, more often than not, you’re going to see them in a small venue.” As for the effect performing in an intimate space has on his material, Cenac thinks it’s not the space but the comedy itself that’s personal. “Doing it in a small intimate space—yeah there was, Oh okay, this is personal—but in general I think stand up’s kind of personal.”
Cenac won three Emmys for writing during his time on The Daily Show, and now he’s making his directorial debut with Brooklyn. In it, he incorporates mini-sketches featuring puppets and special guest stars, like an absurdist Sesame Street. Cenac’s dry, intelligent humor would be welcome on any number of networks, and he has a knack for staging and storytelling, but when asked if we can expect a Wyatt Cenac Show any time soon, he just laughs. “That’s some network’s decision. I would be more than happy to make anything that pops into my brain and put it on television. [But] that’s up to some network saying, ‘You know what our network needs? A sleepy-eyed black dude.’”
The sketch elements of Brooklyn are a nice touch, a way of making the at-home viewing experience unique from the recorded version of the show. In addition to airing on Netflix, Brooklyn is also available on vinyl through Other Music (which you can find here, if you’re interested). But it was the audio recording that concerned Cenac first. “I wanted to make a record, and I was always a fan of comedy records, and I own a bunch, so for me, I like the idea of trying to capture the sound of going to a show.”
Recording a limited edition vinyl LP available in one store in New York is one of the most hipster things I’ve ever heard, but Cenac relays a bit in his show that might signal the start of Hipster Apocalypse. In Brooklyn there’s a store that sells nothing but artisanal mayonnaise, and no, that’s not a joke. It’s a real place that exists, and to prove it, Cenac includes footage of the actual store in the special. “It’s probably the worst add for that mayo store they never asked for,” he laughs. “There’s someone in life who grew up in a world where all of their dreams were possible.”
The gentrification of Brooklyn makes up a fair portion of Cenac’s show, which brings up Spike Lee’s critical comments about Brooklyn’s changing environment earlier this year. Cenac’s take on it, though, is characteristically more laid back. “There is an inevitability that time will eventually change everything. The hope, and I think this is where gentrification comes in, the hope is when that change comes, that change can be inclusive, rather than exclusive. And that even as a neighborhood changes, it still makes sure to honor the traditions and history that existed in the neighborhood, and to also honor the people who currently live in the neighborhood, as opposed to trying to drive them out and terraform the neighborhood into something new.”
Part of the changing landscape of Brooklyn is the Barclays Center, which Jay-Z lobbied to have built in Prospect Heights. Cenac riffs on the Center and Beyonce, and I wonder if he’s at all concerned about receiving a visit from the Beygency. “I feel like I am such a low blip on the Beyhive’s radar, that I’m not worried,” he responds. “Which is probably the first thing a person says before they then get kidnapped by a bunch of back-up dancers and forced into the Beyonce labor camps.”
He also talks about his love of Batman—some of his best material comes from comparing how his and Bruce Wayne’s reactions to the loss of a parent differs—and we talk about the sorry state of diverse superheroes in the current crop of superhero movies. “I don’t feel like comics have been very good to minority superheroes,” Cenac says, “be they female, be they black, be they Asian. So, it’s unfortunate, but it also maybe raises a larger point. You’d hope that there would be more minorities that are going into those jobs, working in comics, to give those characters the stories they deserve, that could then be turned into movies and help make them popular.”
And then Cenac describes the best superhero movie we’ll never get to see, a 1970’s era Power Man/Iron Fist project he and Chris McCulloch (The Venture Bros.) devised and attempted to pitch to Marvel. He explains, “Marvel will not take our calls. And we had the whole thing mapped out! We wanted to place it in the seventies. Our dream cast is that we wanted to get Terry Crews to play Luke Cage, and we wanted to get Ryan Gosling to play Iron Fist. We thought, ‘Oh yeah, let’s just embrace that these were characters that were in the seventies, at the height of Kung Fu flicks and Blaxploitation’, and let’s just live in that, in the same way that X-Men: First Class lived in the sixties.”
He sighs. “It was going to be amazing. And I don’t say that lightly. I would stake, not my reputation, but someone reputable’s reputation on it. I’d stake Ryan Gosling’s career on it. It would’ve been the best thing he ever did.”
Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn is available everywhere Netflix is from today.