One week after a clip of Kanye West’s failed HBO comedy pilot was discovered hiding in plain sight and subsequently taken down by the TV network that purports to not be TV, Wyatt Cenac decided to answer the call and be a hero, screening the episode in its entirety at his weekly Night Train show at Littlefield in Gowanus. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience to watch one of the most fascinating failed pilots of all time.
Cenac, who played Kanye’s cousin, filled us in on some details nobody had been privy to before1. While Larry Charles was correct in a 2008 interview when he said that Kanye West thought of himself as the “Black Larry David” and wanted to make a Curb Your Enthusiasm type show, West also acknowledged to Cenac that Entourage and Sex and the City were influences. Despite that fact, the scripts were strictly outlines, an approach to the scripts that was very Curb-esque. HBO ordered a half-hour show, so Kanye went ahead and sent them a one-hour episode, only to have it be returned by the network with the instructions to cut it down to thirty minutes for proper consideration. Those extra thirty minutes featured interviews with Cornel West, Nelson George, and Boyce Watkins, with more Cenac and J.B. Smoove improvisations. Kanye had Matt Besser come to his house to provide improv lessons (where he met Wyatt), but despite the tutelage realized he was not the best improviser in the cast, and would “give away” parts initially meant for him to do, which HBO did not care for either. Stories from Yeezus’ personal life appeared in the episode, as well as some of his idiosyncrasies, like a constant fear of having bad breath2.
The halitosis phobia came into play during the opening scene of the just over twenty-seven-minute final cut that Cenac showed us. In an Escalade, Kanye and his posse — which consisted of his girlfriend, his bodyguard, his cousin Cenac, Smoove, a man of indeterminable significance, and his mother (played by Kym Whitley), were being driven to a hotel room. Smoove, in his own funny way, instructed to Cenac’s character — named K.C., actually short for “Kanye’s cousin” — in no uncertain terms to get the star breath mints and “Kanye Food.” After a little voice over, a notably long period of time elapsed before Kanye said anything. A wide eyed West, seated right in the center of the action, let the cacophony of shouting transpire around him, his mouth open, teeth constantly visible. His look could have been interpreted as a look of someone in a state of amusement, bemusement, ennui, or zen, and it provoked a lot of laughter from the audience, no doubt aided by the knowledge that Kanye consciously wanted the supporting cast to take a big chunk of the speaking roles. The Escalade scene seemed to take up a fourth of the entire pilot, which was indicative of the main problem with the Untitled Kanye West Project — a lot of it lagged. As talented as some of the cast was, it was overly reliant on Wyatt and J.B. doing their improv thing. Of course, even when it lagged, there was the unshakable image of that entourage all together, with West always in the middle — it was very “Voltron like,” as Cenac pointed out in the post-game wrap-up.
Another reason why the pilot was something that will be hard to forget for a long time (not that I particularly want to), was the usage of close-up insert shots and flashback cutaways, stuff that seems incongruous to an improvised sitcom. They were used sparingly, so it didn’t overwhelm and spiral into a wacky tone like some Family Guy episodes are guilty of, but utilized enough to not be completely jarring. They definitely helped to combat any potentially boring moments. At a signing, a man who insisted on a music audition ranted and raved of his abilities, but it wasn’t until we saw a shaky close-up of his face where we got to experience and enjoy his manic energy. In the Rent-A-Wish scene that everyone got to see for a few hours last week3, Alison Quinn got the close-up treatment when she went into the gory details of a young girl’s death. Fortunately, that part didn’t make it in the only footage captured and not yet deleted from the internet that currently still exists.
One of the weakest scenes of the pilot was saved when the kid asked Kanye which celebrity he himself idolized. The question triggered a very funny flashback to West on his couch screaming “NO!” and pounding on his coffee table at least twenty times, on a loop4, over his dislike of the movie he was watching, and that movie’s request for Kanye to provide music for its soundtrack. Of course, West is as powerless over the charms of Tom Cruise as everybody else, and a Cruise impersonator and Kanye were then seen enthusiastically shaking hands5.
The inserts and cutaways weren’t the only positive aspects. Not that this should be any much of a surprise, but the music played throughout the episode was really impressive in its variety, and it provided the show a necessary and hip momentum. It also added significantly to the humor in a way I don’t remember ever seeing on a TV show before. In a wordless, funny scene where Kanye and his group ride the hotel elevator, we saw five-second close-ups of each character, each with their own song that explained either what that character was thinking at the moment and/or what that person was all about (Smoove’s song was something about sex). In 99.9 percent of other pilots, character backstory and motivations are conveyed through words usually with clunky exposition, but not on the Untitled Kanye West Project.
It makes sense that HBO did not pick up the pilot. They would have had to work with a man who is egotistical, very particular about what he wants, and knows that he has the power to simply walk away without warning. On the other hand, that is exactly why it should have been given a full season order — anything can happen. For all of his mishigas, West is a passionate artist who goes out of his way to pay one of the founders of the UCB to teach him the art of improvisation (and Kanye was actually not too bad), with a lot of unique ideas to bring to the TV comedy world. Towards the end of last night’s show, Cenac asked the audience if the pilot was better or worse than they thought it would be. Half of us thought better, the other half worse. Questlove’s question to our response and to Cenac’s question explains perfectly why West’s show should have been given a chance.
“What did you expect?”
1Questlove - who had not seen the pilot before either - joined him on stage to ask some of the thousands of questions we all had. For the occasion he wore a shirt of Kim and Kanye as Jack and Rose in this iconic Titanic scene. He also admitted to liking Whitney and John From Cincinnati.
2Kanye was worried that somebody’s first and only impression of him would be that he had bad breath. West also was fearful of being caught wearing sweatpants, because of his high fashion image.
3The only scene that separated Kanye from his entourage.
4TV and movie wise it was reminiscent of Hot Rod and Homicide: Life On the Street.
5Kanye had attempted to get the real Tom Cruise to make a cameo in a fifteen minute phone conversation that took place in the aforementioned Escalade, with the entire cast listening in. Obviously he said no.