Wyatt Cenac on His New Album, Kanye, and the Response to His ‘WTF’ Interview

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Comedian Wyatt Cenac. Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

Wyatt Cenac is many things — a comedian, a black man, a creature of Brooklyn. If you mention him to a stranger, chances are they’ll be familiar with the name but not fully confident of where they know him from. For better or for worse, the second you say “Daily Show” followed by “black guy,” however, the connection is made. For more than four years, Cenac was a writer and correspondent for the Comedy Central staple, leaving in December 2012. While currently hosting the weekly comedy showcase “Night Train” at the venue Littlefield in Gowanus, Cenac has also been touring across the country, doing stand-up. One of those stops was in Madison, Wisconsin, where he recorded Furry Dumb Fighter, his new stand-up album, out today. We caught up at the Exley in Williamsburg to talk about his new project, Black History Month, and why Lionel Richie is black Paul McCartney.

In your stand-up, you talk about the name of Three years ago, I had this email chain about starting a spoof Tumblr about It started off as meat for black people, and then it went down the dark route of black people as meat for cannibals. Then it went to black people meeting dot-com, like, “Okay, black people, welcome to the internet.” For you, how do dumb jokes like that materialize?
Every time I would see it, I thought, Oh, there’s a fun thing about reading it versus saying it. I wrote this 12-page Luke Cage comic book for Marvel once and I got to create a villain. His name was Lone Shark, so there was this running thing of whether it was spelled L-O-A-N or L-O-N-E. I like the idea of “I’m a lone shark,” and then people are like, “You are here to collect a debt?”

“No, no, no. I’m rolling solo.”
With something like blackpeoplemeet, it seems like clearly they were thinking, Okay, we want to do black JDate, but we can’t call it “Black JDate,” so what do we call this thing? I have to imagine there was an intern or somebody low on the totem pole who was like, “Are you sure you want to do that …?” And they were like, “Shut up, Terrence.”

Also, can white people sign up?
Can Rachel Dolezal show up on Black People Meet?

She just had a kid and it has the best name ever.
Langston Attickus Dolezal.

I actively plan on not having a kid with a name that black.
That is like you are really going in.

Rachel Dolezal is blacker than me. She wins.
Also, it is going to suck for that kid, if he grows up and doesn’t become like a Supreme Court justice – if he grows up, and he’s 18, and he tells Mama Rachel, “I want to rap …”

“Goddamn it, I gave you everything, name-wise.”
[Both laugh.]

Was it always your plan to tape the record in Madison?
I’d actually been in Madison a year before and two things happened. One of which was Chappelle was in town the same night, so I was uncertain anyone would show up to my show. Also, the day that I was there, I had gotten word that a friend of mine had passed away. So, those two things hit at once and it was still like, I’ve got to do this show. And it sold out and the crowd was so great, even if I was in a weird head space. Then after my show, I did a guest spot on Chappelle’s late show. So, when I started looking at cities to record, I remembered Madison. When I needed an audience to be great, they were great for me. It felt like, If I can sell out a room with Chappelle across the street selling out a theater, they might like comedy.

Did you like the crowd that was there the night of the recording? From the audio, it sounded like even when you were making fun of them, they were like, We understand we are Madison, Wisconsin.
They are self-aware but also they weirdly have a connection to so much. You look at the rash of black people who have died or been brutalized at the hands of police officers, they had their own protests for a guy there. They’re dealing with all that stuff, too, in a way that I would not have expected. So, there’s both ends of the spectrum. They were like, Oh, yeah, we get it. We’re this weird, progressive bastion in the middle of Wisconsin. But also, we have our own weird shit that we need to deal with and we’re not as progressive as we think we are.

People are beginning to navigate the world of talking about police brutality topics with any smidgen of jest. I’ve had hesitation even substituting the “black” in Black Lives Matter for a joke, something you do in your stand-up. You also spend some time listing names of those killed, being like, “This is fucked up.” Going into it, did you want to make sure it wasn’t just jokes?
It’s tough. You’re talking about real life and you’re talking about real people and you’re talking about real issues. You want to be respectful, but, at the same time, I grew up with that sense of laughing to keep from crying. My thinking was, Well, if I’m going to make this joke, is there a way of making it so it both can give some people a sense of laughing to keep from crying, but also give other people a little bit of a dig, like, “Imma laugh, but it kind of hurts”? And it should hurt, and you shouldn’t necessarily be able to fully walk away from this absolved, whether it’s guilt or whatever discomfort you feel. 

I definitely felt this sometimes with The Daily Show, where we gave people a catharsis. Okay, here’s something crazy that happened in the world and now you laugh at it, and afterwards you can go to sleep and not feel like you have to be burdened with it anymore. So, for me, the challenge has been, Can I talk about something in a way that is both funny but also doesn’t let you off the hook?

We’re in a new age of black people talking at white people not just without fear, but like, You need to hear it this way from me. You bring up slavery in the stand-up. And you don’t just guilt the shit out of white people, you break it down so plainly that the message is “It is so crazy that y’all did this to us.” Like you explain how insane it is that Thomas Jefferson is on a mountain.
I’d never been to Charleston before and I went two years ago. It’s a weird place. The day after my show, a woman took me around. She was showing me buildings and plantation houses, and I had this weird epiphany. You see the house and it’s got a plaque of the person who owned it, and I found myself thinking, There should be plaques of all the slaves who built it. You can call this whomever’s house, but black people built that thing, and it’s still standing. Sure, it sucks – we got got – but we did amazing things with nothing. People always look at a prisoner who can make toilet wine as a genius, but this motherfucker built a house that’s still standing almost 200 years later. We do slaves a disservice by calling them slaves. In the dehumanizing sense of the word, but also in the fact that these people were doctors and farmers and builders and nurses. Growing up in the ‘80s, ‘90s, A Different World time, you had so many people in dashikis who would be like, “Brother, you descended from kings and queens and we invented mathematics and we did this and that.” And it’s like, that’s all great, but if you want to get a little closer to home, we built the White House.

Fuck a pyramid.
We built D.C. Beverly Snow is technically like the first restaurateur in D.C. Have you heard of this book Snow-Storm in August?

He was like the first Top Chef. Everybody in D.C. would just go to some weird tent and eat oysters – that was lunch. Dinner was just meat in a pot. And this dude said, “You know what? I’m going to get a restaurant and have people sit and there’ll be a menu.” It became the spot in D.C. We have a claim to that dude.

No respect. He’s like Lionel Richie.
Yeah, he’s black Paul McCartney. 

Black Paul.
I want to get that started, where people call Lionel Richie “Black Paul.”

To the point where he finds out about it and is first embarrassed, but then starts to own it.
He just starts a Twitter account called “Black Paul,” and Paul McCartney starts one called “White Lionel.” And then they do an album, Black Paul/White Lionel.

Watch the Throne.
Oh, I would be front row at Black Paul/White Lionel.

You have a part in the stand-up talking about Black History Month. What were your Black History Months like growing up?
I went to an all-boys Catholic school in Dallas. Black History Month every year meant that there would be an assembly where I would have to give a speech. And maybe it speaks to the fact that I still get on stages now and occasionally make white people uncomfortable, because that’s what I would do. I vividly remember the first time the biggest part of my speech was the fact that people at the school would give all the black kids shit for sitting together. And it’s like, “Have you looked around the cafeteria? It’s a bunch of white dudes sitting together! Like you all never invite us to sit with you?” Afterward kids were coming up to me from all grades, saying, “Yeah so I went to algebra after that and we spent the whole class talking about your speech.” Black History Month became a burden: I gotta give another speech to get a kid out of a chemistry test.

On the album, you get at the Kardashians and Ray J, which made me think of Kanye. You have Kanye stories, including being a part of the now-legendary 2007 HBO Kanye pilot. What’s your take on February 2016 Kanye West?
People try to act like, “Oh my god! This is not the Kanye that we signed up for.” I don’t think he’s that different than the Kanye I knew. He’s always been this sort of creative. I remember when he did Late Registration, he was going to Largo every night, which is this venue in L.A. that has a lot of alternative comedians and indie musicians. That was the same time that he got Zach Galifianakis to do the “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” video. And this was before The Hangover – so many more people know Zach now than knew Zach then.

And he worked with Jon Brion, who was this Fiona Apple collaborator. It’s not like Kanye was saying, “Oh, I need work with the most successful, the most well-known music producer.” He went to people he felt he could collaborate with and make something interesting. He was less concerned with how many units he could move.

When you look at his whole career, as a producer, whether he’s making stuff for Jay Z or whoever, that’s always the stuff where he was like, “Okay, this is where I make my money. But when it comes to me, I’m trying to make my art.” So, in that way, he’s not any different than he ever was.

For a small stretch of my life, I saw the dude every day, working on that pilot. And then we were still in touch. When 808s & Heartbreak came out, he texted me, “Yo, are you in L.A.? I want you to come hear it.”

What was a takeaway of spending so much time with him?
He is trying to make art. And in trying to make art, if the artist at that moment is like, “I’ve decided I’m going to do something totally different,” he has empowered himself in a way that’s like, “I’m going to go where this takes me.” Kanye is a student of art. He’s an art-school-dropout type of kid that will talk about art till the cows come home.

And he likes being surrounded by people that are better at types of art that he’s not as good at.
One of the things that I remember very vividly him saying when we did that pilot was he wanted to surround himself with people that were better than him, as far as comedy. It spoke to his whole life: If he surrounds himself with people who are better, he has no option but to either fail or rise. And that is not a decision that a lot of people would take.

I’ve been really fixated of late on this idea of going crazy.
Like, you’re looking to do it and you want some advice?

[Laughs.] Has there been a moment in your career where you thought based on the art you were making or what you were saying that people were worried about you or thought you were different?
That Maron interview definitely drew a line in the sand for how people perceived me. There was this sense of, “Oh, he’s not the guy we knew,” or “Something’s off about him.” There are people who don’t really know you but have a judgment on you, so if you live up to that, then great, but the moment you veer from that, it becomes problematic. There were some people who were fans of mine from The Daily Show who will never fuck with me again.

Yeah, they’re gone.
The reality is they were never fucking with me to begin with. They were fucking with an idea of me. That show and that opportunity put me in front of an audience that was not aware of me. Hopefully, in that time, I was able to entertain those people but, also, hopefully in that time, I was able to find and speak to my constituency within that particular audience. Nobody’s for everybody. It’s like the Chappelle thing: You want people laughing for the right reasons. So, maybe that alienates or offends some people. Chances are they were living in a narrative that didn’t accept your humanity. There are some artists that may actually be crazy, but there are some artists that just make different choices and because they are different, we call them crazy. Maybe we’re the crazy ones because we don’t allow people to grow and don’t allow people to be something more than what we demand of them.

They want people to provide things one specific way.
I always see it with Ahmir [Questlove] actually. He tweeted something recently because a dude tried to take a photo of him while he was DJing and the guy was upset like, “Oh, I tried to take a photo with Questlove and he turned his face away.” Ahmir responded to the dude, “I’m trying to do a job right now and I don’t actually answer directly to you. You are not the boss of me. You are a consumer of a thing I make and what you are entitled to is the thing you purchased to consume. That does not entitle you to stopping me in the middle of a DJ set and making me pose for a photo with you.”  Whether it’s on television, whether it’s music, we invite these people into our homes – well, no … “You didn’t invite me in, you invited this thing I did in.” That is very different from me.

With this album, where are you right now? What part of this cycle do you feel like you’re in?
I don’t have a label deal anymore. When I was in a deal with my last album, they weren’t as interested in making that album or shooting a special. I did it on my own and it was that art-commerce intersection. The commerce side sometimes is like, “Oh, well we’re going to determine when this is ready.” Where I felt like it was ready and I needed to get it out. The validation on that was it got nominated for a Grammy.

Louis C.K. won, by the way. He beat you.
He did. Yeah. But it was a validation of, “Okay, this was ready.”

Your instincts were right.
Yeah. But also comedy albums aren’t To Pimp a Butterfly. They’re not moving those types of numbers, so I’m not going to buy a house off of the money I make off this record. I might get a nice steak dinner. My hope and expectation is that people will buy it and people will listen to it and people will feel it. At the same time, I’m not driven by the sense that I’ve got to move this many units. People who like me will get it. And there’s no rush for them to get it. People aren’t looking up what’re the first week sales.

“What are the first week numbers?”
I remember my first album made the top 10 of iTunes when it first came out and I was just like, Oh my god, that’s amazing. And then a month later, you see the sales numbers. .. I always think about this Outkast lyric from “Elevators.” It’s Andre 3000 and he’s talking about “Got stopped in the mall the other day / Heard a call from the other way that I just came from / Some nigga was sayin’ something, talking about smoke something / ‘Hey man, you remember me from school?’ ‘Nah, not really.’” And then the guy is basically like you must be rich. The part that I remember most is he’s like, “I have been going through the same thing that you have,” or something like that. “True, I’ve got more fans than the average man / But not enough of loot to last me to the end of the week / I live by the beat, like you live check-to-check / If you don’t move your feet, then I don’t eat / So we like neck-to-neck / Yes, we done come a long way like them slim-ass cigarettes from Virginia / This ain’t gon’ stop, so we just gon’ continue.” We just turned into a Michael Eric Dyson MSNBC appearance.

Wyatt Cenac on His New Album, Kanye, Daily Show