Catching Up with Wyatt Cenac

With season 2 of TBS’ sci-fi comedy series People of Earth premiering tonight at 9:30pm, we thought it would be a good time to catch up with the star of the show, Wyatt Cenac. Cenac was working as a standup comic and writer for King of the Hill before he landed a regular spot as a writer and correspondent for The Daily Show. Since his departure from the show in 2012, he’s gone on to release specials on both Comedy Central and Netflix, as well as earning roles in various TV series and films. To him, everything he does fits into the category of comedian. “The role of a comedian is to go in and make something funny. That might be a situation where I’m writing, a situation where I’m in control, like standup or something of my own that I’m making, or it might be something like being an actor in someone else’s project…’comedian’ is the catchall.” I talked to Cenac further about what the word ‘comedian’ means to him, his upcoming shows at Just For Laughs, and how a good producer is the key to the success of his weekly live comedy show Night Train.

Night Train has become such a beast. It’s one of the hottest shows in New York for comics and comedy fans. How did you get the show started?

All the credit really goes to Marianne Ways, who is the producer of the show. She was producing a show in the space before I got there. It was Hot Tub with Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal. When Kurt and Kristen moved to LA, Kristen reached out to me to see if I would want to take over the time slot. That’s kind of where it started, but Marianne had been producing their show for years. When I took over, she continued to do everything she was doing as a producer as far as making sure it was a place that comedians would be excited to perform at and that crowds would come out for on a Monday night in Brooklyn.

I don’t think people give show producers enough credit.

I agree. As somebody who started out in LA, when I was coming up there weren’t really show producers in the way that there were when I got to New York. In Los Angeles, usually the comedian was the one producing and hosting their own show. At one point I remember trying to start a show. It was me and another comedian, Stephanie Escajeda. We talked about starting a show at this place downtown. We had a friend who had a connection there. I remember the first one we did. There was a big crowd and people were excited. It was at an old strip club that had been converted into a bar. Matt Braunger did the show. He was tall enough that the top of his head hit the ceiling above the stage. It was a cool little stage in a cool little place, but it was us having to do all of the, “Okay, I’ve got to make flyers. I’ve got to try to get people to come out.” I remember one night when it was just a regular bar night. People were getting out at 2 in the morning. I’m there handing out flyers to drunk people trying to get them to come back another night for a comedy show. I have a lot of respect for what producers do because I was not good at it. I think it’s great because now as a comedian you can just focus on trying to write jokes.

It takes someone who is pretty immersed in the scene to produce good shows. I feel like they need to at least have done comedy before and been around long enough to have a big Rolodex of quality people to book. But I wonder if a lot of comics don’t want to call themselves producers because it carries a sort of stigma. Like, “I’m a comic. I’m a real comic. I don’t want to be a producer.”

I can say that when I was coming up there was a sort of stigma around people that would produce shows, comedians who would produce shows at, say, The Improv. They would produce shows that were always sold out. But sometimes the thing was that if you do their show they’re going to ask to do your show. The stigma with some of those comedians was that they were better producers than they were comedians. The amount of work that they put into making sure the show was sold out was time they weren’t spending writing jokes. So the idea and belief was sort of that they’re not as funny and that they do a sold out show, but don’t usually do particularly well at their own show. If you want to do their show because it’s a great crowd at The Improv you know that the ask is going to come back in some sort of quid pro quo type of way. I think there was that stigma, but now I don’t know. I think what has been nice is seeing the evolution where there are more producers who are doing those things. A lot of them had to kind of learn on the job, but with a good producer I think the hope is that they’re a fan of comedy and a fan of comedians first. I think if they know how to make the comedians feel comfortable and welcome they will succeed.

I saw that you will be hosting two showcases on July 29th at Just For Laughs. Do you know your lineups yet?

I don’t know the whole lineup. I know Robby Hoffman is performing. She just did Night Train. We met and chatted. She lives in Canada and was excited about doing the showcase. But that’s all I know at this point. [Since this interview the full lineups have been announced on the JFL website.]

So JFL hits you up and says, “We want you to host a night of shows at Club Soda.” Where does it go from there? Are you involved in curating or do you just go out and host?

With this one, they asked if I would want to do it and I said yes. They do such a massive job in curating this festival. Even if they had asked us…like, with Night Train…we’ve taken Night Train to music festivals and in those situations we curate the lineup. If JFL said, “Hey, do Night Train up here,” there’s a part of me that would be like, “Cool,” and another part that would feel odd because the whole thing about the Montreal Comedy Festival is being selected by the bookers of the festival. If I were a comedian and I had been booked for Montreal for the first time, but it was through Night Train, I think the insecure part of my brain would go to this place of, “Wait a minute. Was I invited by Night Train or was I invited by JFL? Do the JFL bookers even know me or like me?” I’m only thinking about it through the lens of my neuroses, but I feel like you want to be chosen by JFL people because otherwise, if you’re somewhat neurotic you might feel that there is an asterisk there.

You’ve been doing a lot more acting. People of Earth is coming back on the 24th and you’ve been popping up in more movies recently, like Jacqueline Argentine and the new Lake Bell movie I Do…Until I Don’t that you’ll be in at the end of the summer. Do you think of yourself as a standup who happens to also act or an actor/comedian?

I feel like I’ve always thought of myself as a comedian. The role of a comedian is to go in and make something funny. That might be a situation where I’m writing, a situation where I’m in control, like standup or something of my own that I’m making, or it might be something like being an actor in someone else’s project. But it always feels like my role is that of a comedian in the way that if you hire a plumber to come work in your house they’ll do the plumbing. You can ask them to try to hang a light, but they might not do it well. But any plumbing job you need done they’ll be able to knock out. I see it in a similar way. If you need a person to come in and attempt to find humor in it, then that’s what I’ll try to do. Standup is my way to do it for myself. With other things it’s working for someone else by someone else’s rules, but I’ve been hired because they want me to do something funny.

So for you, “comedian” is an umbrella that you put everything you do under.

I think so. I look at somebody like Steve Martin. Steve Martin was a very talented standup comedian who then switched into movies and also was working as a comedy writer. He’s done a myriad of different things, but if you were to ask me what Steve Martin is I wouldn’t go, “Well, he’s a former comedy writer, turned standup comedian, turned actor, turned novelist, turned playwright, plus banjo player.” I would just say, “Steve Martin is a comedian.” That’s what I’ve always sort of seen as the path. I enjoy doing standup, but when I’m 50 I don’t know if I’ll still enjoy doing standup. It might be one of those things where I find other palettes that I want to paint on and make comedic. Eddie Murphy is an amazing standup comedian, but he’s also an amazing performer. He’s another person who I think to call him just a standup would not do justice to the body of work that he has put out. Look at Lucille Ball. Even though she wasn’t a standup I wouldn’t say she’s just an actress. I think she’s a comedian. She was also a producer who made television shows and had a voice in the writing process of those shows. Just because she didn’t stand on a stage with a microphone shouldn’t diminish the roles she played. “Comedian” encompasses and allows for more creativity to be accepted into what comedy is. “Comedian” is the catchall.

Catching Up with Wyatt Cenac