While there are going to be a lot of fond farewells to Jon Stewart, who will do his final episode of The Daily Show August 6, Wyatt Cenac has a much more complicated memory of the late-night host. Cenac, who was a writer and correspondent on The Daily Show for over four years, spoke with Marc Maron on his “WTF” podcast about what it was like working with Stewart. Maron asked, “And you got along with Jon?” “Naw,” replied Cenac. While Cenac initially wanted to see Stewart as a father figure, he didn’t get that. What he remembers instead is a moment when Stewart screamed at him in front of the entire staff. “There had, in my experience, never been an explosion like that,” he said.
This happened back in the summer of 2011, when Stewart was roundly pillorying the 2012 presidential hopefuls, including one Herman Cain. He made fun of Cain by doing a “voice.” At the time Cenac was on a field assignment, and watched the bit from home. “I don’t think this is from a malicious place, but I think this is from a naïve, ignorant place,” he remembered thinking. “Oh no, you just did this and you didn’t think about it. It was just the voice that came into your head. And so it bugged me.” Stewart had been getting flak from Fox News for the voice, and he wanted to do something to respond — an Avenue Q–style “Everything I do is racist” segment. (They did change the frame to one making fun of Stewart.)
Cenac, who was the only black writer there at the time, voiced his concerns during the writer’s meeting. “I’ve got to be honest, and I just spoke from my place,” said Cenac. “I wasn’t here when it all happened. I was in a hotel. And I cringed a little bit. It bothered me.” He wanted them to drop the bit and said that it reminded him of Kingfish, a character Tim Moore played on Amos ‘n’ Andy. He remembers:
[Stewart] got incredibly defensive. I remember he was like, What are you trying to say? There’s a tone in your voice. I was like, “There’s no tone. It bothered me. It sounded like Kingfish.” And then he got upset. And he stood up and he was just like, “Fuck off. I’m done with you.” And he just started screaming that to me. And he screamed it a few times. “Fuck off! I’m done with you.” And he stormed out. And I didn’t know if I had been fired.
The fight carried on at Stewart’s office and was only stopped when one of the office dogs began pawing at them. (Aww.) Eventually, the show had to go on, and Cenac remembers going outside to a baseball field and having a breakdown. “I was shaking, and I just sat there by myself on the bleachers and fucking cried. And it’s a sad thing. That’s how I feel. That’s how I feel in this job. I feel alone,” he said.
The entire conversation is well worth listening to. Cenac is characteristically thoughtful about how racial dynamics manifest themselves in creative spaces like The Daily Show, and how it places people of color in a bind where they have to “represent”:
Something like this, I represent my community, I represent my people, and I try to represent them the best that I can. I gotta be honest if something seems questionable, because if not, then I don’t want to be in a position where I am being untrue not just to myself but to my culture, because that’s exploitative. I’m just allowing something to continue if I’m just going to go along with it. And sadly, I think that’s the burden a lot of people have to have when you are “the one.” You represent something bigger than yourself whether you want to or not.