Wyatt Cenac has stretched himself about as much as any comedian has over the last decade-plus. Cenac is an accomplished standup, having written, directed, and performed his Netflix special Brooklyn, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2016. As an actor, he has a starring role on TBS’s People of Earth. As a writer, he worked on King of the Hill from 2002 to 2006. He of course wrote and performed countless segments on The Daily Show during his run as a correspondent there from 2008 to 2012. And even offscreen as an improvisor, Cenac was one of the original house team players at the UCB theater when it first opened in Los Angeles in 2005.
He’s done just about everything a person can do in comedy, and with his new web series aka Wyatt Cenac, which premieres all six episodes today on Topic.com for free, Cenac pretty much does it all at the same time. Cenac wrote, directed, and stars in the series, in which he is a small crime vigilante in Brooklyn, his opportunity to finally live out his dream of being Batman…sort of.
There are stories and themes from your Netflix special Brooklyn seen here in aka Wyatt Cenac – like bringing a baby into a bar. What was it like to turn your own stories and bits into material for a series?
I think when you write something as standup material, it forces you to think about how you’re gonna tell that story in one way, and then when you get the opportunity to shoot it you almost have to reframe how you go about it and rethink the entire process. I remember watching standups who had sitcoms and seeing material of theirs get translated into TV, so there was something that was nice about getting to do that. I remember watching Louis C.K.’s HBO show, and I heard him talk on stage about going into a closet to hide from his wife and children, and seeing it on stage and then the televised version of it, it was interesting to compare and contrast those two. It definitely feels different to be doing that on a much lower budget.
Was it tough to choose which material you’d use to turn into stories for the show?
Not really, because at the end of the day, the hope was to just tell a good story – and a good story across the six episodes. So when there were elements of my life or stories from my experiences that I could pull from, that was great. It took me back to my experiences working at King of the Hill as a writer for four or five seasons – they all blend in, I think five – but story is what becomes important. Creating this narrative that plays out both in an episode and across the season, those are those things that you’re thinking about. While this is smaller because it’s six 10-minute episodes, it was a nice reminder and excuse to use those muscles.
You have experience with many sides of comedy: standup, sketch, improv, acting, writing, being a correspondent on The Daily Show. Is there one that you find the most fulfilling and one that is the most challenging?
They all have different challenges. I prefer the situations where I have a fair amount of creative control. With this web series, that was one where I wrote it, directed it, I’m in it, and trying to do all of those things was an exciting challenge. Acting solely, whether in somebody else’s movie or TV series, doesn’t excite me as much, if only because I like trying to take something from an idea and then see it all the way through. Whenever I’ve done jobs, whether it’s an acting job or writing job, there’s an aspect of it that feels like you help build your piece of it and then you watch as someone takes it and they finish building it. And you wanna go in and say, “What if you put a nail there? What if you painted that?” And I think perhaps I’d be a terrible person to be a general contractor or to work with, because I’d be watching the house be built and say, “Hey, put a window over there” or “Put a ceiling fan on the front door.”
Back in 2005, you were placed onto the first Harold team at the UCB theater in Los Angeles, Robot Doctors, then stayed on that for a few years as others came and went. What do you remember about that time, as the UCB was just getting started in LA?
It was a lot of fun. A lot of those people were people that I had performed with like Thomas Fowler (who plays Felix in aka Wyatt Cenac) and Kate Purdy, and I think there was a sort of ease of getting on stage and just playing and having a lot of fun. I remember that, but also the excitement that existed for the theater when it first opened. Students came to shows and they were always sold out, and for a few of us who had also done shows at ImprovOlympic and had gone through that, it was interesting to see just how excited the students were and how hungry they were to get on stage. At the time that I was doing stuff at iO – and in no way to the theater’s fault or am I trying to place blame on the theater – it was always a little more challenging to get people and students to come see shows and in the audience. To do shows where they were sold out right out of the gate, it was really nice. There were many days at iO where you’d look through the curtain and ask, “Do we outnumber the audience?” There were shows that were full but also nights where it was like “Okay, there’s six of us and five in the audience – do we cancel this?” To see that excitement at UCB was a lot of fun.
Since the story last year came out regarding you tweeting at TBS to have more diversity hires, are you now more insistent on doing projects with a great amount of diversity? Did you have that at aka Wyatt Cenac?
For me personally, yes. I can’t speak for anybody else. As I go through this, what has been nice in getting to make things of my own is also having that ability to kind of remind people, as we’re staffing up and crewing up, that we should look outside the typical pools that people look into and see if there are other people that are out there who could be good candidates for jobs. That’s something that I know I can do on my end. Again, it’s not, unfortunately, very easy to sort of ask someone in power, “Hey, can you be more thoughtful in your hiring practices?” Getting them to actually do something is the challenge. I definitely feel a sense that I need to carry that, at least on my end, and if whatever I do is successful, then success breeds imitation. If part of that success is going outside the normal pools and looking at creating environments that spotlight that diverse group of people and different voices, then hopefully others will try that too.
I imagine you still get a lot of questions about the WTF episode in which you spoke about leaving The Daily Show and had a spat with Jon Stewart. Is speaking honestly about that on Marc Maron’s podcast something you regret? Are you the type of person to have regrets at all?
People always have regrets. That’s one of those things that…the moment that kind of became the story of that interview, it was weird. It was weird to have people not really listen to the interview, or just kind of cherry-pick things for their own to sort of confirm a belief or create a belief for themselves. At the end of the day, I was talking about my own personal experience in a work environment. It’s strange that you talk about these things and in any situation where you have a public persona, your life is up for grabs for people to sort of dissect or assume things, and that’s the weird part of it. I think there’s a lesson in everything. Even in things that, yeah, you wish that didn’t happen this way or that thing didn’t happen that way, but wish all you want – the bigger thing is: What can you take from it? There are definitely a lot of things in my life where I can say, “Okay, this didn’t feel good in this moment, but I learned something from it.” Now I have a little reminder, or a little scab to remind me of that, and that scab isn’t anything that I should be ashamed of. It’s something that makes me an even more complete person.
And what would you say is maybe the happiest moment of your career?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. There are definitely a few different things. Getting a Grammy nomination for Brooklyn meant a lot, especially because as an album, it was one that was very personal to me, but also one that I self-produced and had gone outside the label. So I think there was a real sense of accomplishment as far as I had this idea, I wanted to do something, and at the time my label wasn’t that interested in it so I did it on my own. To have the content of it be judged as good enough to get me a free ticket to the Grammys, I think that felt like a validation of all the work I had done.
Your Netflix special is called Brooklyn and aka Wyatt Cenac is set in Brooklyn. What is special about Brooklyn to you, and is that something that is objective or subjective?
For me, I think it’s probably subjective. I think a huge part of it is that Brooklyn is a place I spent a lot of my childhood in with my grandmother here. She lived in Crown Heights and there’s a connection of being in Brooklyn, walking past places, seeing things that, even as they change, are a part of those memories for me. In the same way that anyone who goes to their hometown or where their family lives, there is that sort of special connection. Getting to live in Brooklyn as an adult, it means a lot to me because of the fact that it’s where my grandma lived, where my mother grew up – it feels very much a part of who I am.
Photo courtesy of First Look Media/Topic.
Watch the first episode of aka Wyatt Cenac here.