Fresh off the release of his new Netflix comedy special, Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn, Wyatt Cenac is taking his standup across the country. The Daily Show alum's new material is sharp and sometimes personal, with bits that range from gentrification to his father's murder. He spoke with CP in advance of his Nov. 21 stop at Club Café.
Can you talk a little bit about what the process was for creating your latest special?
I left The Daily Show and had been kind of locked up in a development process that [was] almost a purgatory-like process. You write a thing and just wait and wait and wait. So in that in-between time, I've been writing and performing and doing shows and got to a place where I was like, "Oh yeah, I have an hour here that I want to share." I got a little more impatient and just felt like I'm just going to do it on my own, and hopefully there will be a market for it.
Was the material something you arrived at by spending some time in comedy clubs?
Yeah, I try to get up around the city every week. I host a show in the city, in Brooklyn, every Monday. But I also try to get up and do spots around town as much as I can. If you do the same joke 100, 200, 2,000 times there's a point at which you feel like, "OK, I want to put this joke on [a] record so I can stop telling it."
One thing you riff on in the special is gentrification. Should we start raising alarm bells here in Pittsburgh once we have a store that only sells mayonnaise?
I would be worried that you might have hit peak gentrification if you have a store dedicated to — I'm going to say probably like the fifth-most-popular condiment.
The special has a really personal vibe — it's shot in a small venue and you talk more about your own life. You even talk about your dad's murder. Was that difficult to make funny?
There is definitely [a] challenge because you got to bring people in and you don't want them to feel bad or weird. Or if you do, you want to be able to create that tension and then take the air out of that balloon. [Losing my dad] is a bit that I knew I didn't want to do forever. I didn't want to get it to a place where it just became something that I could recite by memory and it lacked any emotion behind it.
- Photo courtesy of Eric Michael Pearson
- "A little bit of a megalomaniac": Wyatt Cenac
Why'd you release the special through Netflix?
A lot of time[s] when you put a special out on television, you have to build in commercial breaks. That can ruin the momentum of what you're doing. It would be a very weird thing to talk about losing my dad and then in the middle of it, it just cut to a commercial for cat food. When you have something go up on television, it has its premiere night and then you're at the mercy of the network as far as when they're going to re-air it. What's great about it being on Netflix is it's always there and always accessible.
Do you try to play non-traditional venues too?
I like playing rock clubs and I like playing theaters, but I also enjoy comedy clubs a lot. I'm doing venues on this tour where people are coming out to see me. [At] a comedy club, they're coming out to laugh and they don't care if it's you or the next person. You're more at the mercy of the tone that's already been set. If the two comics before you made the audience laugh a lot, you have to go in and live up to that and you have to feed that. When it's your own audience, you still have to put on a great show, but they're more familiar with you. They give you the benefit of the doubt a little bit more. If I do a gig in front of my audience and something does well, I feel good about it. But then if I do the comedy club and it does well, I feel even more confident that I can take it to my audience.
I'm sure you get this question all the time, but why did you leave The Daily Show? Did leaving feel risky?
I think there's always the fear that "I've got a steady paycheck, why walk away from this?" But The Daily Show — it's not a career. It's a job. Because it's television, people see it as a more glamorous thing, but it's a job. I work for Jon. He was my boss. That's all it was. At some point, you feel like you hit a ceiling at a job and you feel like you want to do more.
One of my favorite Daily Show moments of all time is when you interviewed PETA about its argument that whales are slaves that should be freed under the 13th Amendment. Are subjects of interviews like that really not in on the joke?
She wasn't in on the joke, and more often than not, anyone we would sit down with — they're not in on the joke. People now know what The Daily Show is, but at the end of the day, they just want to get on TV. They just want to get their opinion out there. One of the things [field producers] always make a point of doing is whenever the piece airs, they follow up with the subjects. And what you find more often than not — even people who wound up looking silly — [they're] proud and happy with how it came out. There are pieces I did where people said offensive things and they wound up looking silly, but afterward they were like, "Yeah, I loved it."
Do you think Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is doing something fundamentally different than The Daily Show? It seems to be doing this hybrid thing between making fun of the news and doing original reporting.
What you're seeing is John [Oliver's] point of view. If you see him do standup, he approaches standup from a similar place. Or if you listen to his podcast, it also comes from a similar place. So I think this is just a different stage to put that on.
You seem to divide your time between writing for shows like King of the Hill and The Daily Show and performing and developing really good standup. Do you see yourself as devoted more to one or the other?
I enjoy creating, whether it's creating my own show ideas or writing a feature script or doing standup. Writing for other people — it's good and I guess it's a good job, but it's a job. You have to be able to cater for somebody else. And I think I'm probably a little bit of a megalomaniac in that it's hard to sometimes do that.
What's next for you?
I'm going to finish out doing these tour dates for this year, and then in the new year, maybe add more cities if possible. I've tried to develop some television ideas, [but], you're at the mercy of the people you're developing with and that's a long, very arduous process.