When we last saw comedian Wyatt Cenac, he was a puppet. It was December 13, his final appearance as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Cenac wanted to go out with a nuanced and over-the-top production that viewers would remember. He chose to tell America about a hugely popular Puerto Rican news show, SuperXClusivo, that’s hosted by a life-sized puppet in a muumuu named La Comay, who had higher ratings in Puerto Rico than CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. “There she was,” Cenac deadpanned onscreen, “grilling the Puerto Rican governor for stalling a murder investigation … busting a newspaper for bribing a senator … I watched this puppet for hours doing things no flesh reporter could do.” The segment went on to transform Cenac into a Muppet-like puppet himself, so that he might “learn to be a good journalist” like La Comay.
Three weeks later, Cenac explains to PW why SuperXClusivo—which, ironically, has now been canceled amid a local controversy unrelated to The Daily Show’s coverage—had captured his interest. “While it’s popular, it has a lot of detractors,” he says, “people who find the show offensive. But the one thing that’s interesting about it is that it’s not a news show. People are placing that label on it … The host is very clearly a puppet. They’re not trying to fool anybody. Whereas I feel like sometimes you watch stuff [on American news channels], and they are trying to fool people.”
He points to birther-conspiracist-turned-media-personality Orly Taitz as an example: “The fact that she could get on television on multiple networks is sort of ridiculous. That’s a lady that’s sort of drumming up a conspiracy, and then a network is running with it under the umbrella of themselves as a news organization—and it legitimizes her.” A self-declared spokesperson for a baseless fringe conspiracy, in other words, is no more legitimate a news analyst than a puppet is—and yet Taitz and others like her have increasingly been granted the legitimacy of coverage by the 24-hour cable news media.
If Wyatt Cenac has taken anything from his four years as a Daily Show correspondent and writer, it may be this: A topical joke can die or be rewritten, but watching real people do real things, whether in the media or otherwise, is always funny. Even—or maybe especially—if the real people in question are trying to pull someone else’s strings.
Cenac performed his first standup set 16 years ago. A student at University of North Carolina, he’d just re-enrolled after taking a year off to intern at Saturday Night Live, where Colin Quinn took the New York-born, Dallas-raised 19-year-old under his wing. Given three minutes at Charlie Goodnight’s, a comedy club in Raleigh, Cenac only had enough material to use half that time, an experience he remembers being “awesome, but scary as hell.”
Things broke in his favor during a visit to campus from King of the Hill writers (and UNC alumni) John Altshuler and Dave Krinsky, when a friend who had interned with the show set up a meeting between Cenac and the pair. “I was definitely trying to figure out what my voice was as a comedian,” he notes. “But the goal was, I wanted to make TV. So it was really about trying to figure out how to do that … at a place that I would enjoy and feel proud of working at.”
He was already a fan of King of the Hill creator Mike Judge’s work on Beavis and Butthead; he liked the way the MTV show was able to elicit outrage from parents who didn’t understand it was clowning on, not lionizing, its dumb protagonists. King of the Hill, like Cenac’s own sense of humor, took a more subtly skewed comedic viewpoint. Cenac was brought on in Season 7 to work as a story editor when his fellow UNC alum took over creative control from Judge; he stayed through Season 10.
Looking back, he reflects on the different sorts of humor that he worked into King of the Hill and The Daily Show. “If The Daily Show were doing something about the fiscal cliff, you could get into the [details] of it. You could talk about how John Boehner told Harry Reid to go fuck himself,” he says. “With King of the Hill, you wouldn’t get that specific. Maybe you would look at it as a greater thematic thing—like, what does it say about us as a society that the people who we vote into office and entrust with the financial and well-being of our country, that they’re all acting very petulantly and telling each other to go fuck themselves?”
Cenac decided to make a bet on himself in 2004. He left King of the Hill without a job lined up, to focus on his performing. “I didn’t have a consistent gig for four years,” he says. “I had some money saved up, but I burned through that. I started living off credit cards. I’d get little jobs here and there, enough money to pay rent and buy food.” He’d eventually have his car repossessed and lose his apartment while auditioning for a wealth of shows—including a series of unsuccessful Daily Show try-outs.
He regularly appeared at open mics in Los Angeles and in Comedy Central performance bits. One monologue, which has made its rounds on the Web, finds Cenac imagining what the future’s version of a Medieval Times restaurant may look like: “Centuries from now, will they still be doing the same crappy version with the Middle Ages? Or might they move on to ruin another part of history, like the gang wars of the late ‘80s and ‘90s? Like, you walk in, and there’s some dude dressed like a Cholo with Dickies and a wifebeater. You eat your dinner as you watch dudes do drive-bys on each other, and some lady in a housecoat comes out, like ‘My baby! My baby! Look what they did to Jerome!’ The buffet is just Funyuns and 40-ounces. You get to call the waitress ‘bitch.’ And when she gives you the paycheck, she also gives you a ‘Failure to Pay Child Support’ notice.”
In 2008, after Cenac played the role of Micah in Barry Jenkins’ indie Medicine for Melancholy (a role, he says, which paid for one month of rent in Los Angeles), his manager got him an audition at The Daily Show. Cenac was reluctant to even show up for it. “A lot of times, the stress of trying to get the next gig is probably greater than the job itself,” he says. “But this particular time, they said I could write my own audition piece. That helped.”
And he nailed it. For his audition, Cenac performed a sketch that would become his first on-air Daily Show appearance opposite Jon Stewart. As Stewart introduces Cenac as the newest correspondent, he asks what Cenac thinks of the about-to-end primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “They were boring,” Cenac replies. “I watch TV to be entertained. To see who mysteriously died and then un-died on Lost ... This campaign has been a nonstop rerun. I get it: He wins, she loses. She wins, he loses. Nobody gives up. I’ve seen this before. It was on Lifetime. It was about a plucky ethics professor struggling to get tenure, and it starred Joanna Kerns and Meshach Taylor.”
The performance resulted in an upfront promotion: Cenac was brought on as both a correspondent and writer, highlighting what Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post would eventually call a “vaguely-louche-yet-endearing charm.” During one of his initial segments, titled “Rapper or Republican?” Cenac noted profound and hilarious similarities between these two supposedly opposing segments of the population: “They both love money, they love guns ... gay people scare the shit out of them ... ”
“When he first appeared on The Daily Show, I was like, oh, that guy could be my friend,” recalls comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, who’s performed several times recently at Cenac’s Brooklyn comedy show, Night Train. “As a black male in comedy with an afro, I saw him on TV, and I said, ‘That’s my dude.’ Wyatt felt like a dude I would hang out with. They didn’t have a younger black perspective that fit in with the other younger perspectives on the show. [Senior Black Correspondent] Larry Wilmore was great, but I didn’t feel like that guy was my friend ... It was great to finally have a black counterpart to John Oliver.”
Cenac and The Daily Show writing team won three primetime Emmys and Writer’s Guild of America awards for outstanding writing between 2010 and 2012. “His time on The Daily Show probably opened some doors,” notes Bell. “There’s probably a link between Wyatt getting on The Daily Show and me getting my own TV show. If Wyatt had gone on there and failed brutally, I might not have a show right now. There aren’t a lot of black guys in late-night comedy, so every one of us who gets in there has got to make sure we keep the door open for the people behind us.”
Images from Cenac’s final Daily Show segment appeared online before it hit television, causing a stir among those wondering if it would really be his last appearance.
“I kind of felt like I had been able to say and do all the things I wanted to in that medium,” he says. “I felt it was time to move on and try something different—try to do my own things, and that’s basically it.” But Cenac says he doesn’t have that next step lined up yet. Leaving The Daily Show, like King of the Hill before it, is a gamble—one he’s willing to take. “I have ideas of what I want to do next, but ultimately, I need a network to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll pay you to do that thing.’”
Meanwhile, he was featured in Mike Birbiglia’s 2012 film, Sleepwalk with Me, in an unscripted scene, and 2013 will see him co-star in a comedy titled Growing Up and Other Lies with Adam Brody. He’s also writing an episode of Cartoon Network’s Newsreaders. “I feel like as much as I enjoy those things, there’s more that I can do,” Cenac says. “Hopefully, there won’t be four years in between gigs, but, yeah—I made a choice to make a bet on myself. And hopefully, I don’t come up snake eyes.”
Fri., Jan. 18, 8pm. $20. Trocodero Theatre, 1003 Arch St. 215.922.6888. thetroc.com