There’s a good chance you first came across Brooklyn-based writer, stand-up comedian, and actor Wyatt Cenac during his tenure as a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. What you may not know is that he spent time in the trenches writing for the Mike Judge’s King of the Hill television series, has produced a film, and has a starring role in David Cross’s first film, Hits, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. We caught up with him in advance of his upcoming show at Johnny D’s to talk snowy Boston, Black History Month, Tom Brady, and the potential fisticuffs toughness of John Oliver.
I was actually at Johnny D’s a few years back, had a fun time.
Somerville’s been called the hipster central “Brooklyn” of Boston …
Really? Wow, I had no idea. The last time I stayed there I was at the business hotel by the water, and there was nothing about [it] that felt like Brooklyn to me.
Are you ready for the snowy nightmare that is Boston right now?
I’ll be honest, I was listening to the radio today and they were talking to people in the Boston area about all the snow, and I remember saying maybe we should cancel these shows, as well as everything that’s going on in New England. Until maybe May.
They have resorted to using prison labor to try to get the public transit functional again.
Somebody mentioned that to me. I was pretty surprised that is not something that has been happening before, like all the time. They were saying how inmates make like 20 cents an hour and just given how much politicians talk about needing to cut budgets and save money, I’m kinda surprised that there hasn’t been some argument to just give all public jobs to inmates. [For comedic value] I long for the day when I hear someone on talk radio say, “Look at how much money we’re saving.”
What was it like working with fellow stand-up David Cross as a film director for Hits?
It was a lot of fun. I’m a fan of David’s so for him to ask me to be in the film, I was really honored. I’ve always been an admirer of him as a comedian, and so for him to ask me to do this, I was very honored.
I remember a great routine in one of your specials about how you don’t use the “n-word” in which you note how it wouldn’t exactly fit into the daily conversation at a regular day job. How do you go about doing those kinds of jokes without accidentally pandering to the 40-plus white male crowd that might laugh for the wrong reason, as if you’re joining them in mocking young black males?
Well I think on some level, for me, I try and go at it from a place of empathy and with that joke I, I never saw it as a harsh critique of people who say “nigger,” and I also am the first to admit that I said it a lot. I used it in daily conversation and when I was younger and I don’t do it any more. Every now and again I might say it but it’s not a thing I really use, or I don’t yell, “What are you doing nigger?” There’s always a risk telling any joke. Are people laughing for the same reasons that I think it’s funny? People are always going to get offended or people are always going to misinterpret, unless you can go in and actually rewire everyone’s brains, you’re never going to know how each person takes something. But the hope is that, with a joke like that, I try and talk about it from my experience so it’s less about, “Oh let’s make fun of that person over there who says something that is weird,” as much as it’s like, “This is a thing that I used to do a lot of and I had to stop doing it because it’s hard to work a job that way.”
Your Twitter feed had a rash of slams and jokes about the Nike Black History Month (BHM) Collection of sneakers.
They’ve been doing it for awhile, and it’s definitely strange that they claim that the money goes to charity, but it goes into a thing called a “donor [advised] fund,” and it’s just a portion of the proceeds. With a donor [advised] fund, that money hasn’t actually gone to a charity, it just sits, and there’s no timetable in which it has to be used, so there’s something very odd about selling this notion of “We’re trying to honor Civil Rights leaders and the heart of history with these sneakers and we’re going to donate money to organizations” when they’re not donating the money. It also just feels like it’s just a weird way to profit off some of the more sensitive issues in this country’s history, because, just the fact that it’s black history, even though [it’s] American history, for whatever reason we separate it from the [overall] narrative of American history. While I’m glad on some level there is a Black History Month, nobody in this country takes it seriously. The nightly news doesn’t dedicate a segment of their programming to talk about a moment in black history. No one is on the radio or television on a daily basis educating people on things in American history that they did not learn the other 11 months of the year. To make a profit off of it and then do nothing of note with that profit, just like claiming that they are going to, to me that seems subpar, but also par for the course.
Boston vs. NYC crowds. Go.
I’ve nothing but nice things to say about Boston crowds. I have nothing but terrible things to say about your sports teams.
So you had a problem with #deflategate and all that?
That whole team, I have a problem with. I think what truly bothered me about the Patriots on the whole Deflategate and everything is that as a team they seem like [they’re] the embodiment of white privilege team-ing. “Tom Brady is the greatest human being and the greatest quarterback ever.” Forget about the part that he might be a deadbeat dad, and any other player who has a kid out of wedlock, oh we talk shit about them, but Tom Brady does it and it’s, “No, he’s right to leave his girlfriend and [first-born] kid for a supermodel; there’s nothing wrong with that.” He’s the golden boy, even though he kinda seems like [at] the birth of his career he may have been a beneficiary of a great [team] system. That [system] might also be cheating, but arguments can be made that he might just be a really good system quarterback. Aren’t there two other quarterbacks that came out of that system that had amazing games with the Patriots? And one of them just didn’t do as well anywhere else. I feel like there’s some data there that would suggest, “Oh yeah maybe he’s not as golden of a golden boy.” Then there’s Gronk, who goes on national television and jokes about getting into a fight, and people are just like, “Oh that’s just Gronk being Gronk,” but Richard Sherman was just passionately talking about a game and not even—not even injuring anyone—and people are like, “He’s a thug.”
If Jon Stewart were a piece of furniture what would he be?
I don’t know, and that’s a strange question. Partially from the aspect of talking about a Jewish person as furniture … there’s not a good history with that. What I can say is that for the past 17 years he’s been a reliable voice and source for entertainment to help people see the weirdness of the world around them, and I’m sure that he will be missed. I’m very grateful to have been a part of his journey.
Who would you rather have your back in a fight? John Oliver or Larry Wilmore?
I’m gonna say Oliver because I’ve known him longer than I’ve known Larry. He is someone I talk to on a regular basis and we spend a lot of time with each other. If we were in a fight like the old ’60s Batman TV show, we might be able to do some of those choreographed moves. You know, where one person kinda bends over and the other person rolls over their back to kick somebody. Also Oliver broke his nose [working] on his first [Daily Show] field piece, and had to [finish]. I feel like there’s a toughness there. That’s the toughness in a nasty business that I respect.