On the ‘Night Train’ with Wyatt Cenac

For almost four years now, Wyatt Cenac has hosted the live weekly Brooklyn comedy show Night Train, and thanks to Seeso, soon you can experience the show for yourself even if you can’t make it to New York to see it in person. Premiering its six-episode season this Thursday, Night Train with Wyatt Cenac is packed with fantastic performances from Roy Wood Jr., Michelle Wolf, John Hodgman, Aparna Nancherla, Eugene Mirman, and many more guided under the part-silly, part-zen, self-described “art school dropout” style leadership of host Wyatt Cenac. Ahead of Night Train’s Seeso debut, I spoke with Cenac about the show’s origins, his unique way of introducing comedians to an audience, and why he’ll never be a cat owner.

Congrats on the show! I just watched the first few episodes – it’s really funny, and it goes by so fast.

Well thank you! That’s exactly what you hope – that people enjoy it and that it doesn’t feel like an hour and twenty minutes. And I really appreciate Seeso for letting us do that. Initially when we talked about this as an idea, they wanted the episodes to be an hour long, so the fact that we were able to do an hour and a half and every comedian was able to do a longer set and all the other weird stuff that got added in there was great. It was great that we could do that, and credit to the editors, because they basically had to cut what was like six movies.

In the second episode, you talk about having a dog and how that didn’t work out so great… If you don’t mind me asking, do you live in Park Slope?

I don’t live in Park Slope, I live in Fort Greene.

Oh okay. A few years back, I saw a guy in Park Slope who looked a lot like you out walking a dog, so I had to ask.

It’s very possible! When I had her I was in Prospect Heights, and there aren’t a lot of places you can go to take a dog to exercise them, and there’s a dog run that’s right in Park Slope, like an off-leash dog run, that I went to a couple times. So it’s possible you saw me headed there, although we didn’t go that many times because it’s also a dog park that’s right next to a skate park, and that’s not particularly good because dogs – not all dogs – but a lot of dogs do not like skateboards, and my dog, she did not like skateboards, and she actually jumped the fence of the dog run to go after a skateboard.

I thought the dog story was funny since you told us back in 2014 you prefer dogs over cats. It made me wonder: Why not just get a cat? They’re so much easier.

I feel like you can’t trust a cat. I feel like a cat’s got an ulterior motive. The moment you show any weakness to a cat, the cat is gonna take over.

[laughs] Well I can’t argue with that. So can you talk about how Night Train got started?

The show will be four years old later this year, and it started because of Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler. They did a show in New York called Hot Tub, which they now do in Los Angeles. So when they were moving to Los Angeles they were taking their show with them, but they would do it every Monday at this venue Littlefield, and Marianne Ways produced their show and wanted to keep doing a show, and Littlefield wanted to keep doing a show. So Kristen reached out to me and asked me if I would want to host it, so I thought “Oh yeah, I might be up for doing something like that” then Marianne and I talked about it.

I’d done Hot Tub a bunch, so I knew how fun the room could be, and it just felt like this would be a fun place for me to get to work on stuff and tinker with ideas. And then also there are other talented people coming out to perform, and I definitely think my last two albums started there – parts of each album started at that show, and then I filled it out in other venues over the course of making each of those albums.

What’s it like to host a standup show as opposed to being one of the comics in the lineup?

It’s a very different muscle. There’s something nice about going and just doing a spot on another show or at a club, because the host is already there and sets the table, so you don’t have the same type of responsibility – you just have to come and be funny and then you get to leave. As the host you’re kind of creating a relationship with the audience, and you wind up setting the tone for the rest of the show. Initially I was somewhat hesitant about hosting shows because that responsibility is a weird thing – to have to keep checking in with the audience and keep the energy going and all those types of things. I’m not the kind of person who wants to host a party. I’m more of a person who, you know… I’ll maybe say hello, and then you’ll find me in the corner slowly drinking all your whiskey. So it’s definitely an interesting thing, and it’s been a fun experiment for me to push myself out of my comfort zone a little bit.

I haven’t seen every standup show ever, but I’m confident in saying you give the best comedian introductions ever.

Thank you! I guess that started when I was doing the show, because I always thought it was weird how if I was doing a show when I was coming up, if I didn’t have any credits the host would come out and they’d be like “Oh this guy’s great! He’s a great friend of mine, he does clubs and colleges…” And I remember when that first started happening to me I was like “I don’t do colleges! I’ve never done a college…I’d love to do a college!” I never knew what the actual added value of that was – whether it was “This guy does clubs and colleges!” or “You may have seen this guy on Boston Common!” – I don’t know what the value added there is. Because more often than not, the audience members are probably gonna be asking themselves “Wait, who was that guy on Boston Common?” and going through that and not paying attention. So if I just make up something or say something ridiculous, that to me is more fun and just pokes fun at that weird thing we do where people are introduced by things they’ve done in the past as though somehow that’s gonna be the thing that makes people listen.

It’s also a cool way to keep things creative and funny during parts of the show that are typically just blank space. Because I think just as many people, if not more, just tune intros out and don’t pay much attention to them.

Yeah. It’s like trying to get a cosigner for a bank loan or something. It feels a little strange, like, “Oh okay, if these jokes don’t work, are you gonna start saying lines from that movie we saw you in?” And there’s also something that evolves naturally from giving people ridiculous intros. When I started doing it at the show, the audience was very resistant to it, and they either weren’t paying attention or they were taking some of them way too seriously. So what naturally started happening – which is great and to me I think it helps the show – is when I give somebody a stupid introduction, a lot of times they’ll come out and respond to it, and I think on some level it just gives them a little extra bit of time to connect with the audience where they’re just responding to the fact that I said they’re the starting shortstop for the Seattle Mariners, and they can come out and deal with that however they want. That just winds up, to me at least, giving the comics something with the crowd right when they come out, where they can all laugh at this stupid thing I said and have a little fun with that.

Night Train’s editing style plays with the audience/performer perspective a lot with split screens and different techniques. How’d that approach come together?

That was something I had been thinking about. I had a couple thoughts when we started cutting as far as visual elements that I wanted to do, and to some degree it kind of goes back to my Netflix special and the thought that I had when we did that, which was just trying to create some visual added element. Because the best way to experience standup is to actually be at the show, and maybe the second best is to just listen to it, to put headphones on and listen to an album or something like that. Watching it on a television or on a laptop is the hardest way to connect with it, so with the Netflix special I created a bunch of interstitials, and that was kind of the test kitchen for this.

When I came into this, the thought process was what visual thing could I do to just elevate this so you’re not just watching a person stand on a stage – you get to see it from a bunch of different ways and maybe in a more dynamic way and also just try to get a sense of the perspective. I think at the end of the day I was just trying to give it sort of an “artful” feel. So yeah, that’s what the split screens were all about – just trying to show you the perspective that “Oh yeah, that’s what it looks like as this person is talking directly to the audience” or “Here’s what this person looks like from three angles in this moment” and you’re seeing it as if you’re on the one side of the room then the back of the room and it just, I don’t know… It just felt like an interesting way to look at it in a kind of art school dropout way.

I liked seeing the producer Marianne in there too. It definitely has that insider feel when you get to see the booker and comics hanging out backstage.

Thanks. And that was important, because this show doesn’t happen without Marianne. She not only produces the show and books all the comics, but she is the one who makes sure that the show goes forward and that the comics are having a good time. There are little elements that she does – like where every week there’s pizza, and I’m kind of like “Why is there pizza?” But people eat it, and she’s thinking about those things and taking care of the comedians and doing all that stuff in a way I wouldn’t know how to do if I were doing this show by myself.

So including her in part of that was important to me, especially because when I came to New York, that was when I started seeing people producing comedy shows who weren’t comedians. When I came up in LA, a lot of comics produced their own shows, and so if you wanted to have a show in the city you produced it yourself. And that was exhausting because you’re the one booking comics, you’re the one trying to get it listed or reviewed and dealing with the venue and all those hassles, and then after all that trying to write jokes and host a show or get somebody else to host…it was just a lot to do. I remember trying to produce shows when I lived in LA and I hated every minute of it, so the idea that there are people who enjoy that and do a great job…I felt like we would’ve been doing a disservice to what the show is if we didn’t highlight her.

And Jon Benjamin as George the Bodega Cat? That’s a big get for any producer.

[laughs] That was. He brought his own cat suit, so that was the easy part. He’s got a bunch of cat suits, it was just whether or not he’d agree to wear one at a show. He keeps them all at home and they’re only for special occasions, so this was special enough for him to wear one of his cat costumes – or “catstumes,” as he prefers to call them.

That was a lot of fun to do with Jon, and that’s also something that’s so fun about the show: Every now and again, we can do weird things and we can have silly bits that people can come in and do. We’ve had Marcus Monroe come in and go through the audience juggling swords, and that’s in between two comedians doing straight standup sets, and we’ve had musicians come in and play music – just all kinds of interesting fun things. So to be able to do a little of that with the Seeso show was great. And yeah, to have Jon be one of those people and to have him bring one of his cat costumes was great. And like I mentioned, he is a collector of cat costumes, and when people watch the show they will recognize the craftsmanship and the fine stitching that goes into all of his catstumes.

I also wanted to ask you about the TBS show coming up, People of Earth. How’s it feel to have a starring TV series role? Especially on TBS, which keeps adding so many great Daily Show alums?

Well, there are some very smart Daily Show people working at other networks too, but it’s been fun to watch Sam’s show and to watch Jason’s show, and from everything they say, the network has been nothing but supportive and great to them. We haven’t started shooting People of Earth yet, so at this point I’m just kind of like “Well okay, I hope I stand where I’m supposed to stand when they say ‘action’ and I hope I don’t fuck things up too much.” But there are a lot of very talented people on it – Brian Huskey and Ana Gasteyer are both in it, Alice Wetterlund…just some very talented people. So that should be a lot of fun. I don’t know how much of the heavy lifting I have to do when there’s other talented people like that around, so yeah, it should be an interesting summer because I think we start shooting that in July.

I didn’t know it hadn’t started shooting yet. So that teaser was from the pilot?

Yeah, we shot the pilot last year, so now the whole season will start shooting next month in Toronto, and that’ll go I think until the fall. I’m not sure when the show actually airs… I’ll be honest with you Megh, I’m a little in the dark on this one. I got locked into cutting six episodes of a standup show and I know at some point I’ve got to find a place to stay in Toronto, because I don’t think I can commute every day, but I should probably get on that, because I think it’s maybe two or three weeks away.

Night Train with Wyatt Cenac debuts on Seeso this Thursday.

On the ‘Night Train’ with Wyatt Cenac