underrated

Wyatt Cenac Breaks Down the Eddie Murphy–Produced 1989 Pilot What’s Alan Watching?

From What’s Alan Watching? Photo: CBS

In the 1980s, it was commonplace for networks to air their passed-on pilots as prime-time specials. Wyatt Cenac caught What’s Alan Watching?, a 1989 CBS sketch-sitcom hybrid produced by Eddie Murphy, on one such summer special. Besides giving Alan Sepinwall the name of his blog, What’s Alan Watching? provided early opportunities for the world to see such future luminaries as Fran Drescher and Pauly Shore.

Cenac has been a deadpan voice for New York, and specifically Brooklyn, for years. “The city has changed a lot since I lived here as a baby,” he once said on This American Life. “When I was a baby, everywhere you went it was just colors and shapes everywhere. Gentrification has changed all of that. In my old neighborhood, I remember on the corner there was this amorphous yellow blob. Now it’s a Chipotle.” It’s this careful consideration of personal history versus giant institutions and social history that informs Cenac’s Emmy-nominated series aka Wyatt Cenac. In the series of shorts, Cenac plays a vigilante crime fighter in Brooklyn equally concerned with babies at bars as he is with serial killers. He says he created the show because vigilante crime-fighting was the closest job he could think of to being a stand-up. Rather than make another Louie, he wanted to branch out. A stand-up has a lot in common with a crime fighter: You’re not only putting on a certain costume and going to work, you’re putting on a costume and telling people how to be.

What’s Alan Watching? takes viewers through Alan Hoffstetter’s (Corin Nemec) evening having dinner with his family and avoiding them by watching TV. Alan flips channels between sketches that include a made-for-TV movie about James Brown in jail, an E! True Hollywood Story–style biography of Mr. Ed, and cameos aplenty. Shelley Berman, the Smothers Brothers, Alex Trebek, and George Carlin all make appearances. If you think a family sitcom won’t have multiple opportunities for horse-fucking jokes, you’d be wrong.

What on earth did I just watch?
Are you asking because you didn’t watch it, or because you were that blown away?

I was blown away.
Sure. What’s Alan Watching? was a pilot. I was a huge Eddie Murphy fan and found myself, whatever day it came out, parked in front of the television. I got a VHS tape and I recorded it. And I was blown away by it at the time, as a kid, because I don’t think I’d seen anything like it before. There’s this narrative structure with Alan and his family, but then it keeps cutting away to these things that he’s watching on television. There’s almost this Secret Life of Walter Mitty thing where his imagination, sort of through television, is being allowed to run wild. But unlike Walter Mitty, he’s not really a player in it. But there are all these bizarre and fun things happening. Like a television movie about James Brown.

Were you as deep into TV as Alan? I found myself really identifying — I made mixtapes as a kid of all my favorite shows on VHS. Did you have that relationship with TV as a kid as well?
Yeah, I loved television. It was the thing that I always wanted to have on, and I would watch anything and everything. At some point my parents started going to church more, and they wanted me and my brother to go with them, and we didn’t really have a say in the matter. There were some days where we didn’t go to church. The way that I knew we weren’t going was that I would wake up and I would watch the cartoons on USA Network. It would be Voltron, and I think 2 Stupid Dogs. And if it got to Jem, I knew we weren’t going to church. And I became the biggest Jem fan because that meant that I didn’t have to go to church. So I got so caught up in Jem’s story: “Okay, yeah, I will totally watch this show. I don’t know what’s going on. But I’m in, because it means that I don’t have to drink the blood of Christ.”

Ellen Cleghorne has a cameo in this, and then did a spot on aka Wyatt Cenac. That must have been a nice full-circle moment.
It was. Getting to work with Ellen Cleghorne was a very cool opportunity, and I was so appreciative that she said yes. She came the morning we were shooting, and she was so great. She brought such a fun energy to what she was doing, and improvised. It was very fun to get to work with her, and just even to talk to her a little bit. We didn’t talk too much about SNL and her time there, or the difference of what she went through as a comedian. But just getting to spend time with her and getting to work with her, it was a really cool opportunity to get to do that. And to get to direct her, too.

Eddie Murphy is featured in this show, and he was an executive producer. Was there anything about What’s Alan Watching? that you found particularly Eddie Murphy-y?
There’s a lot of DNA in that show that makes its way into many other Eddie Murphy things — thinking about that James Brown thing, and the prosthetics, knowing that years from now he’s going to be making those Nutty Professor movies that play with that same prosthetic stuff. There was an absurdist nature to it that I feel like he maybe doesn’t get enough credit for as a comedian. When you look at James Brown, that sketch is “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub.” Everything about that sketch is such an absurd idea. It’s one thing to just have a James Brown impression; it’s another thing to then just throw it into a hot tub as a talk show in a hot tub.

It’s also just an interesting pilot to look at when you think about the fact that a few years later, Beavis and Butt-Head became a thing that really spoke to the television culture that you and I were talking about earlier — kids sitting on the couch watching television, commenting on it. It doesn’t feel that different. It speaks to just how media gets consumed today. He’s flipping through channels in the same way that people run through a Twitter feed. There is a speed to how the character is watching something and moves onto the next thing and watches it and moves onto the next thing. With phones and YouTube, or Twitch, or anything else, it’s just a new way to flip through the channels.

Something that What’s Alan Watching? got right about that kid’s channel-flipping experience is how the stuff he actually spends time on aren’t the things that are actually targeted to him. He was watching documentaries about Mr. Ed. Can you remember anything you saw as a child, a voracious consumer of television, that wasn’t for children but you still got obsessed with?
I feel like there were things that were maybe from different eras that I got caught up watching. Old shows like I Love Lucy or Gilligan’s Island. Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp was a thing that I remember watching and really wanting to understand. Every Christmas some local channel would play this movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It was a movie from the ’50s or early ’60s, and it was clearly not for me. Not that it was a scary movie – it was just a weird, bad movie. I would find myself occasionally being like “Let’s see what soap operas are like” or “Let’s watch Remington Steele.” I wasn’t watching nature documentaries or anything. I think if I was watching any science shows, my mother would have been very happy for me.

Did you watch a lot of SNL as a kid?
I did, but I watched more of the best-of stuff or the episodes that would get played on Nick at Nite. It wasn’t until probably I was a teenager that I was able to watch the live show. Prior to that, I had all these years of watching the ’70s and ’80s versions of it, and I was surprised. Like, “I guess they’re still doing this, but it’s different people and it doesn’t have that vintage ’70s video look.”

Something that I found kind of tonally similar between What’s Alan Watching? and aka was the very careful balancing between how absurd the characters were going to be and how grounded. Your show isn’t exactly surreal, it’s our world but with more vigilantes. How do you make people that are still believable, but also outsized enough to be funny?
aka came out of having taken a lot of development meetings a few years ago, and people saying “What’s your Seinfeld? What’s your semi-autobiographical life as a comedian in New York?” At the time there were a lot of those shows already on the air. I was thinking we might be at peak “television about the mundane life of comedians when they’re not onstage.” Was there something else I could think of that was like being a comedian, where who you are at work isn’t the same as who you are when you’re off the clock — where you tend to work nights, and nobody really understands what your job is like? And the thing that came to mind was vigilante crime fighter. So I was going around pitching that as my semi-autobiographical thing, but I’m just cutting and replacing “comedian” with “vigilante crime fighter.”

With that as the thought going in, the characters still had to feel like real people. Whether you’re a comedian, a vigilante, or you work at Target, you put on a costume of some kind and you present that to people. But who you are in real life, that’s where the interesting stories come from. So I tried to really focus on the interesting stories and not get too caught up in the vigilante side of things. You could spend way too much time there and very easily get to a place of feeling too wacky or something.

I wonder if, between aka and Problem Areas, whether you’ve gained any insight into how you think police should interact with communities.
How do I think police should interact with communities?

Or how communities should police themselves? It seems like there’s a lot of trying to figure out justice in your work.
I feel a little bit like you’re asking me like, if I were mayor, what would I do? And I don’t feel like I’m expert enough to talk about the nuances of everything, because it’s very easy to say “We should look at how resources in this city get allocated.” And I do feel like that’s the first thing that I would want to talk about — resource allocation. In low-income neighborhoods that are considered high crime, the resources sent into that neighborhood are police. Other resources might have just as much, or an even greater, effect at crime reduction and overall neighborhood safety — resources to make sure that the same educational opportunities that are provided to the most affluent neighborhoods are provided to those in the the least. Social services that could perhaps talk to people in the neighborhood, and could deescalate situations that don’t require force, and that might nudge people who may need it into seeking treatment and help that comes in other forms than simply arrest. And so for me, I would be curious to see a conversation on resource allocation.

But again, as someone who is not actually involved in how the city spends its money, I don’t know if it’s an easy enough thing that if I became mayor tomorrow, I could say “Okay, we’re going to spend a billion dollars to make sure that the poorest neighborhoods in New York have great trains and buses that are running on time constantly, and have all the streetlights, and the schools are as good as Stuyvesant High School, and there are job-training programs.” It’s very easy for me to say that as someone who doesn’t have access to the city’s budget. But I feel like the conversation, before it even gets to fixing policing, needs to be “Well, let’s look at the decisions that we make as cities and communities. In an impoverished neighborhood where there is a lack of access to the same types of programs and resources that exist in middle-class, upper-middle, and affluent neighborhoods, why aren’t we talking as much about that?” In talking about that, in fixing that, maybe it lessens the need for continually throwing police in as the answer to all of these other problems.

That was great. But I won’t make you run for mayor.
Thank you, I appreciate that. I don’t want to run for mayor. It feels like it’s a shitty job. You’re principal of the city.

But the principal is in the pocket of the superintendent. The Simpsons taught me that.
That is true. That’s very true. And this column is about things that are underrated, and The Simpsons is a show that has never had to worry about that. Comedy is in the pocket of Big Simpson.

Wyatt Cenac on the 1989 CBS Pilot What’s Alan Watching?