When the stand-up comic left "The Daily Show," he left the need to scrutinize the media behind.
During the cavalcade of correspondents that opened Jon Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show, one of the most anticipated appearances was that of Wyatt Cenac. Less than a month before Stewart’s final episode, Cenac revealed on WTF with Marc Maron that a major factor in his decision to leave The Daily Show was Stewart blowing up at him and telling him to fuck off when he found a voice Stewart did problematically close to buffoonish black stereotypes circa Amos & Andy. That part of the interview went viral, more than Cenac’s talk about a recent email exchange between he and Stewart about whether he would appear on the final show. Cenac laid out where he came from and how miserable the last year was, and even though Stewart didn’t see the year or the blow-up in the same way, “he kind of apologized, as much as he could, if I felt hurt, and he said I’d love for you to be at the last show because you helped to build this thing,” Cenac told Maron.
When Cenac stepped in front of a green screen onstage that showed a street scene on the broadcast, the studio audience at The Daily Show erupted.
“I know that voice,” Stewart said. “Wyatt, where are you? Hey, I can’t hear you from the crazy applause. Are you across the street?”
“Maybe,” Cenac said.
“Are you coming over?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
After a pause, Stewart asked Cenac, “You good?”
“Yeah, I’m good. You good?”
“Yeah, I’m good. I’d love to see you,”.
“I’ll think about it. My social media is blowing up.”
When Cenac left The Daily Show, he returned to his long-time love—stand-up comedy. He’ll perform tonight at The Public House, and those who know him from The Daily Show and expect a night of Afrocentric political comedy will be in for a surprise. He pays attention to the news these days, but “I’m not as invested as I was when I worked at The Daily Show,” he says. For writers on the show, the cable news networks are the background noise of the office, and on a daily basis they would watch the process of Fox, CNN and MSNBC turning news into entertainment, and how it happened like clockwork.
“It’s frustrating to watch something that at the beginning of the day gets mentioned in the most casual way, and by lunch time [the network] has spun the story into something bigger through their own speculation,” Cenac says. “By 3 o’clock, they’re demanding answers for a thing that wasn’t a story at the beginning of the day—they just ginned it up into one—and by 8 o’clock it’s now turned into a full, foaming at the mouth, We demand answers!”
Cenac and I spoke the day after the cable news networks had a collective hand-wringing over President Obama using the N-Word when he appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF--a perfect example of the phenomenon. Cenac was frustrated that they focused on Obama's words and not “the substance of what he was talking about as far as race relations in this country,” he says. He was similarly bothered by the coverage immediately after the Charleston shooting, when the networks quickly went intangible debates over whether the shooting was or wasn’t race-related instead of providing actual, meaningful contexts—the history of the church, the pastor, or “the fact that this shooting happened a day before Juneteenth, which is a holiday for many black people in the South, one that really should be one that people should talk about more around the country as the day that black people in the South and specifically in Texas learned the Civil War was over,” he says. “To them, that’s not entertaining.
Let’s make this more about taking down the Confederate flag as opposed to what are the systemic injustices that have taken place not just in Charleston, South Carolina but in many places throughout this country that have not only created racial divisions among people but held some people back and created a sense of disenfranchisement and resentment toward others. That’s the conversation that should be had instead of Oh, it’s an attack on religion.”
The situation is made more disheartening for political comedians because it has so little effect.
“As much fun as it is to have all the tools The Daily Show had at their disposal to poke fun at the news of the day, it’s also very frustrating to do that day after day and realize as much as you are shining a light on the ridiculousness of what’s going on, your words have no impact as far as changing it. In my time on the show, we shit on Fox News regularly for the way they turned reporting into partisan entertainment, and it’s not as though calling them out on it made them change what they were doing or rethink it. While I enjoyed my time at The Daily Show as a job, I am happy to not be as invested because when you’re that invested, it frustrates you. We’re not moving the needle.”
Before and since The Daily Show, Cenac’s comedy was political only in the ways reflect who is is. He regularly hosts a Monday night comedy show in Brooklyn, and he test-drove some material prompted by the Charleston shooting, but it’s not specifically media criticism, and didn’t feel an obligation to hustle out a take. “I don’t have to respond to everything in a day’s notice,” he says. “I can think about these things and see how they fit me.”
In his show, those jokes sit next to jokes about television, relationships, Brooklyn, and the details of his life. His own comedy comes from a more personal place, so his jokes are extensions of him and his interests. Politics are simply one of them.”
His show tonight is a new one that Cenac has been working on since Brooklyn, his 2014 comedy special on Netflix. While the show was in post-production, he started writing ideas for new jokes, and by the time it was available for streaming, he had a solid start on the show that he’ll perform tonight. While the idea of working on a set to eventually dump it entirely and move on might sound crazy from a rock ’n’ roll perspective, he thinks of it more like writing a book. You write one, then move on to the next one.
Cenac also gets a sense of relief from getting his ideas from conception to a final, recorded product, whether it’s a comedy album or a television special. “We live in a world where people take ideas, and there’s also parallel thought,” he says. Many joke thieves are brazen about it, so getting a set to a final, recorded place is a way of planting his flag on a set of jokes.
“The public record cements it as yours.”
Cenac nodded to his home by releasing Brooklyn in the two most hipster-friendly formats possible—Netflix and vinyl. The latter comes from a personal place as well, though. He has always loved comedy albums, not only for the jokes but the event they suggest, down to the sound of the room and the audience.
“I have a bunch of comedy records,” he says. “To me, there’s something very cool about a record. When I looked at old comedy records, I would think that they were the coolest things around.”