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January 31, 2015

What Black History Month Should Be

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Wyatt Cenac on Being Alternatively Black and Funny

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Wyatt Cenac, Comedy Central, Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person, The Daily Show

Comedian Wyatt Cenac is black. People who watch him on 'The Daily Show' know this. Those who have seen him in the movie 'Medicine For Melancholy' know this. And anyone who tunes in to watch his one-hour stand-up special 'Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person' on Comedy Central tonight at 11 p.m. EST will certainly notice as well. But when he presents his work, whether as a stand-up or an on-air correspondent, Cenac tries to be simultaneously conscious and transcendent about race.

We talked with him about his views on the segregated world of stand-up comedy, 'The Daily Show' sketch that almost didn't air, and why he won't watch his stand-up special with friends.<
strong>Jozen Cummings: Do you get a lot of people who come up to you and say, "Hey, you're the black guy on 'The Daily Show'"?
Wyatt Cenac: It's always a little weird for me, because when they hired me they said, "Oh, we're not hiring you to play that role. We just want you to be a correspondent, so you can do stories that don't necessarily have anything to do with race." So when people say I'm the black correspondent, there's a part of me that's like, 'Nah, I'm just a regular correspondent. Open your minds, people! This is Dr. King's dream! He talked about 'The Daily Show' -- how one day there would be black correspondents and Muslim correspondents and white correspondents, all living together.'

JC: Is there any obligation to be that "black voice" -- as with your 2009 'Daily Show' bit about rappers who have been affected by the recession with real-life rapper Slim Thug (see below)? What's the voice you try to have among the other correspondents?
WC: That is part of my voice -- that's the stuff I find interesting. I don't know if I feel any pressure to pitch that [sort of material] as much as it just reflects my sense of humor. The way I see things is through that prism. I think the mistake a lot of people make is that they put it through a race prism, when it's not about that at all. I grew up as a kid in Dallas, Texas, where my friends listened to a lot of hip-hop, and I listened to a lot of hip-hop. That's as much my generation as it is a racial thing.



JC: In your stand-up and in the things you write, are you conscious of when your work is being put through that race prism or do you try to present work that transcends race?
WC: It definitely crosses my mind, because my race is a part of who I am. In one sense, it's very easy to get mired in that. At the same time, the reality is if you look at me, you see a black person, so in that way race will always be there no matter what. It's like, "Oh it's the black correspondent." Well, no, I'm just a correspondent, but regardless of how I present it, people will always attach a racial element to it. But this is my story: A kid who's black, who grew up in Texas, who is of West Indian descent. There are very specific aspects of my experience that are not the "black experience" and to me, that's what transcendent is.

JC: Anything behind the straight-to-the-point title of your stand-up special, "Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person"?
WC: Yeah, I'm not great at titles -- they tend to be the most basic thing I can think of. Also, in stand-up it's really easy to categorize people. I remember going to clubs in L.A. where there might be a woman comedian doing the show, and a lot of times the host would introduce her like this: "Who's ready for a lady?" And, you know, to put that qualifier there, there's something very strange about that. Also, at that time, if you wanted diversity at the club level, it was Monday nights at the Improv -- that was black night. At the Laugh Factory it was 'Chocolate Sunday' and 'Refried Fridays' and 'Stir Fried Thursdays.' So I think [my decision surrounding the title] might have played into that a little bit.

JC: So you understand race is always going to be a part of the way people describe you, but you hate when people use it to describe you?
WC: I'm just somebody doing comedy like the next person. If you think it's funny, great. That was the point. But putting a qualifier on it -- that this is a black person doing comedy or this is a lady doing comedy, that always used to skiv me out. For a while, when I would do a club, a lot of times I would have the host intro me with "Who's ready for a lady?" just to call out how stupid it was.

JC: But in the 1990's black comedians kind of embraced that whole black comedian/comedy thing. There was BET's 'Comic View' and 'Def Comedy Jam.' Do you see having those stages as an advantage?
WC: I think it's great that those platforms were there, but there's an aspect that seems like Hollywood either doesn't look at a show like 'Comic View' or if they just think, "They're over there, they're taken care of." I don't know what that mindset is, but it seems [they think] they don't need to worry about booking black comedians on 'The Tonight Show' or whatever bigger shows there might be, because [we're] taken care of. That's a question worth asking Hollywood at large.

JC: How did you avoid being put in that 'black comedy' category? You're more associated with 'The Daily Show' and your stand-up televised debut is on Comedy Central, not BET.
WC: Well, there's also the alternative [comedy] world, and I very quickly got put into that world. There aren't a lot of minorities who get put in that world. Me, Craig Robinson, W. Kamau Bell -- there are comedians who got placed on that track, and it's a weird thing, because I remember in L.A. there were black shows that were like The Big Black show and it was always a struggle for me to get into that world, because I'd already been put on this other track. And on this other track I'm at X level, but then if I wanted to do the 'Mo Betta' Mondays" at the Improv, it didn't matter what level I was at in the alternative world. I had to start from ground zero and earn their trust and pay dues in that world.

JC: What has being on 'The Daily Show' done for you personally and professionally?
WC: Well, the first thing it did was allow me to pay my rent [laughs]. I wasn't really doing that before I got the gig. Right before I got the job, I had to move out of my apartment because I couldn't pay for it and my car got repossessed. But beyond that, it's definitely helped me with opportunities to do stand-up around the country.

JC: What about opportunities from your role in 'Medicine For Melancholy,' in which you played the male lead in a story about two people who hang out the day after a one night stand?
WC: There are people who know me solely from that movie who have no idea I work for 'The Daily Show,' and there are people who know me from 'The Daily Show' who have no idea about that movie. It's been very interesting trying to bridge those worlds a little bit more.

JC: Is having both projects on your resume an advantage?
WC: Right now, I use it to my advantage to meet ladies [laughs].


JC: That's what most men would do.

WC: No, sadly it doesn't help me. It helps producers and writers on 'The Daily Show' -- they're able to get dates, but being on-air talent on 'The Daily Show' seems to have the opposite effect.

JC: What's your relationship like with Jon Stewart, host of 'The Daily Show'?
WC: Pretty professional. Our job is one where we're constantly on the move, working on the next thing and outside of work he's a father of two and he's hanging out with his kids. I've avoided hanging out with my children [Ed note: Cenac doesn't have children.] I don't acknowledge their existence [laughs]. Outside of work, we don't hang out that often because if we did he'd say, "Shouldn't you be more responsible with your kids?" And I'd be like, 'Shut up, old man! You don't know me!'

JC: Has there ever been a bit you had trouble selling the 'Daily Show' team?
WC: The Slim Thug thing actually, that was something I had to push. It was a world where I felt there were a lot of jokes, but I remember we pitched it a couple of times and there were three different producers that had been on it at some point. I think around the third time, there was more to the story but it was one of those things initially they thought, 'Do people really want to see something about rappers dealing with the recession?' But eventually, it got through.

JC: Tomorrow night, when your special airs and you're on television as a stand-up comedian for the first time ever, where are you watching the show? Party at Wyatt's?
WC: I think I'm going to crawl under my bed. I've watched it so many times because I've been editing of it and honestly, what I think I'm going to wind up doing is going to see Donald Glover, who is a very funny comedian, he's on the show 'Community,' and he's taping his special tomorrow night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I don't know if I could do a party. If I did a party, I'd just be sitting there watching people watching me and saying, "You didn't laugh as loud as I thought you should!"

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