Talking to Wyatt Cenac About ‘The Daily Show’, Writing for ‘King of the Hill’, and What’s Next for Him
Since leaving The Daily Show at the end of last year, comedian Wyatt Cenac has been keeping busy with a variety of new projects. He’s been hosting the popular New York standup show Night Train, filmed a role in the upcoming David Cross-directed movie Hits, and has been developing TV projects of his own. I recently had the chance to chat with Wyatt Cenac about Kanye West’s Curb Your Enthusiasm pilot that he starred in and recently screened at Night Train, writing for King of the Hill, and why he decided to leave The Daily Show.
I want to talk about the Kanye West HBO pilot a little bit. How did screening it at your show come about?
It came about because I think both Splitsider and Gawker had done stories about this clip finding its way online and the whole thing had never been online. So it was like, ‘Oh wow, people are interested in this thing.’ Nobody really knew anything about it other than the people who did it, so it was like, if there’s interest in this, then it might be fun just to show it one night. I didn’t want to put it online just because I figured it would be yanked down, and anything like that is much more fun when you can do it in a room with people and share it.
What was filming the pilot like?
It was really cool because, for me, it was one of the first things I did that seemed like a real job as a performer. I’d never really been hired as an actor outside of maybe like a commercial or being a background extra in something, so that was really exciting and everybody at HBO was reallly excited about it. [Director] Larry Charles was excited about it and Kanye was excited about it, so I think in the process, it felt like, ‘Oh okay, this is a real thing and this a show that’s gonna be on the air.’ I guess you have to have a certain amount of positivity when you go into those things, but by all indications it felt like ‘Okay, yeah. I’m on a TV show now.’
And it just didn’t end up happening.
No. But there was never an official word, at least that got to my door, saying HBO decided not to do this. It was always, “They’re still figuring it out.” I think I might have mentioned this when I screened it. There was always a part of me going into a year and a half, two years later, that was like ‘Okay, one of these days this pilot is gonna go, and my rent’s gonna get paid.’ That didn’t happen and instead, I got my car repossessed.
Was that a tough time, waiting around while you gradually realized the show wasn’t happening?
I mean in the in-between time, I was doing other stuff. I would imagine it’s something that I think [happens to] anyone who moves to Los Angeles and gets a break. They feel like, “Aww, this is it it. It’s all about to turn around now.” For every one person that has that moment, there’s a hundred that think that have that moment, and it all falls to shit. I was one of the ones where it fell to shit.
Is LA is where you started doing comedy?
I started when I was in college, so I started in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I probably didn’t really become serious serious until I got to Los Angeles.
And you were doing standup and improv there?
Yeah, I went out to LA and then got involved with improv stuff with ImprovOlympic and then Upright Citizens Brigade when they came to town. I was doing standup at The Improv. There was an open mic, and I would hang out there and do sets.
What was the comedy scene like in LA at the time?
It was cool. It’s weird because I think comedy scenes, regardless of city, it almost feels like there’s a little bit of a high school-like system in that there are the people who all hit the town when you hit the town and you all kinda come up together. And then at some point, people move, they get jobs, they stop doing comedy, things change for them, whatever. For me, that time there, it was a really cool time. There were all these people; we were all coming up together. There was a show at a place called El Cid on Monday nights called Garage Comedy, which was a mix of standup and a variety show. Even if you weren’t performing, you went and you hung out there and it was this very cool thing like, here’s this community, we all hang out, and after the show, we hang out some more. We go to 4100 Bar and we drink there, and on Tuesday, we all go to [Comedy] Death-Ray. In that way, it was all really nice and communal to the idea it was really like high school or college.
At some point, everybody I know… I moved to New York, Morgan Murphy and Anthony Jeselnik all moved to New York and then, Charlyne Yi was starting to do some movies. There were people like Chip Pope who started getting jobs writing, and other people went to Bob’s Burgers. It’s this very cool thing where my friends are all graduating and moving on to other things, but now when you come back, those places where we all hung out don’t exist anymore; those shows don’t exist. And now, there’s a new crop of comedians, so it feels, in this weird way, like my time there has passed, and I’m now the old guy hanging around the shows that are the hot shows in LA now.
Would you ever move back to LA, or are you pretty tied to New York?
I don’t really think there’s a reason for me to be in LA. And I’m not saying that like, “I’m so famous. I don’t have to be in LA.” To me, I feel like the mistake I see a lot of people make — and it’s not a mistake if you get something out of it, I guess — but I’ll talk to a comedian who’s in New York and they’re like “I’m gonna move to LA” and it’s like “Why?” Not in a derisive way, but in the way of, if LA was a factory, the thing they make are network sitcoms and big-budget movies. That’s what they make the most of, and if you wanna be a writer on a sitcom, then go to LA. Pack your bags and get out there because that’s your best shot. If you wanna be the comic relief in a big-budget movie, go to LA because there are five auditions in a week that you could hit up and that increases your chances of getting those jobs.
But for me, I kinda feel like there aren’t a lot of roles for me on sitcoms or in big-budget movies. Unless they need a part like “Stoner Bus Driver,” that’s really about it. There aren’t a lot of roles for sleepy-eyed black dudes. I kinda feel like if I can do what I like in New York — and I like New York, I was born in New York, I have a lot more of a connection to New York — the hope is to stay in New York.
So when you were in LA, you were writing for King of the Hill?
I did. I wrote for King of the Hill for three seasons.
What were your experiences like on that show? How’d you come into that job?
They were great. I had a really great great time. I learned a lot. It all kinda started because when I was in college, two of the writers from King of the Hill had come out to University of North Carolina to give a lecture and they had gone to North Carolina. It was these two great guys, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky. A friend of mine had met them at an alumni function and gave me their email. I emailed them before they came out, and I said, “Hey, I’d love to sit down and talk to you guys. Also, would you read something if I wrote it?” I wrote what I thought was a spec script for Just Shoot Me, and I gave them a short film that I made that I was in. I sent them both those things. After the lecture, they had coffee with me, and they were like, “You wrote half a spec script for a Just Shoot Me episode…”
How was it half? Was it only half-finished?
It was like 20 pages. They were like, “You’re onto something. And your short film was funny and you should think perhaps about being a hyphen type of a person.” And I was like, “What the fuck does that mean?” And they were like, “You know, a person who’s a writer and a performer.” That sounded cool because people I look up to are people like Mike Judge, Ben Stiller, and Woody Allen. They said, “When you come out to LA, look us up, and I did and I stayed in touch with them. They’re honestly the ones who taught me how to write. I then would try to write spec scripts, and they would give me notes.
You were just continuously sending them stuff the whole time?
Yeah. It was more than that. They really gave me a connectedness to Los Angeles, and on some level, helped create a community for me ’cause when I moved to LA, I knew my best friend Derek and I knew John and Dave. John would have pick-up basketball games on Sundays in his backyard. He’d invite me and Derek, and we’d go and play basketball. They’d ask me to housesit for them. But at some point after a few years of being in LA, King of the Hill was looking to hire people and they’d read one of my scripts and [asked me to] submit. They went to bat for me. I would not have gotten that job without them.
So yeah, I got the job that way. For me, it was great because I grew up in Texas so there was a lot about the show that I felt like I could relate to. Even my first day at the show, they were working on a rewrite for this episode called “New Cowboy on the Block” and it was about a Dallas Cowboys player who movies in on Rainey Street. He’s not a good player. He’s just a guy who played one season. And that happened to me when I was growing up. There was this guy who played one season of special teams for the Dallas Cowboys and got cut and then worked at a nearby health club as the gym guy. That was what he did, but because he played for the Dallas Cowboys and because of what that meant in the city of Dallas, the guy was a God.
So when they were doing this rewrite, I was sitting in and it was cool because I was like, “This is weird. This happened to me.” And they were like, “Oh, tell us more. We can incorporate this.” So it was a great experience. Even the way that I write today is all based on lessons that I learned from John and Dave. And Mike [Judge] too. I don’t want to leave Mike out of that. That was also one of the coolest things. Mike was a guy that I looked up to. It was like if I had a career, I’d like to have a career like Mike Judge, and now, I’m getting to learn from him.
So how did you start working at The Daily Show? What was the audition process like for that?
The Daily Show audition was a weird one because I’d actually auditioned for the show like three or four times. In LA, Comedy Central would hold auditions every six months or so. They’d put together like “Here’s some funny people,” and they’s send a tape to New York, and the show would never look at it, which is what I learned later. It was probably the fourth or fifth time I got asked to come in and I said no.
My manager at the time was this great guy named Dave Rath. To Dave’s credit, he brought me into the office and convinced me to audition. ‘Cause I figured I’d already done it four times, but I didn’t know they never watched the tapes. So I was like, “I don’t wanna fucking do this. They’ve seen me four times. They clearly don’t want me.” Dave said, “Well, this one’s a little different. They want you to write your audition piece.” Then I went home and I wrote my audition and I went in and did it. At the time, I didn’t have a car. My car got repossessed and I was living with friends ’cause I’d lost my apartment. I was living with my friend Laura Swisher. I took the bus to the audition, and then she picked me up.
I did the audition and it seemed like people dug it. A few days later, I got a call that was like, “Hey, can you fly out to New York? They want to audition you there.” I was like okay, this may be something. And also, again I was broke. So it was like if it’s not something, it needs to be something because I didn’t have many other options on the table. I’d gotten a job doing some voiceover work for a Nickelodeon cartoon, but that wasn’t paying the bills. That was just enough so that I can eat. It was bad. I started dating this woman who had to pay for all my meals. And I didn’t date her because she paid for all my meals, but the fact that she paid for all my meals helped.
So then I went in and the audition was actually cool. I remember walking in and getting onto the stage and thinking, ‘Oh, okay this doesn’t seem intimidating. This feels like home to me. I feel like I could perform here.’ I ran [my audition] once or twice for practice and then Jon Stewart came in and I did it with him. It was the same audition piece I had. He laughed and kinda said like, “When can you start?” I laughed and I was like, “That’s not funny.”
They sent me to another room and all the producers and Jon talked for a while. Then one of the producers came and got me and was like, “Great job. You want to take a tour of the place?” and I was like, “No, you haven’t given me a job.” I didn’t know what else to do so I was like, “I guess so,” so I follow him around and take this tour. The whole time, people in the building — other producers and writers and PAS — are saying as I’m walking by, “Great job.” They had seen the whole audition on a live feed, and I was like “Wait, people fucking saw this thing?!” So everybody was really nice, but they wouldn’t let me leave. I was nervous because I was like, ‘This is weird. I don’t have a job. You guys are letting me hang around.’
I felt uncomfortable, so eventually, I left. I had a friend Laura Krafft, who was a writer on Colbert, so I went to go see her really quick. I was talking to her, and we were talking right outside the building for Colbert, two blocks away from where the Daily Show offices are. I get a phone call and it’s my manager. He’s the one who then tells me like an hour after other people knew but just weren’t telling me. He was like, “Oh yeah, they gave you a job.” Laura Krafft starts screaming, saying, “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” I remember as I’m walking past this line of people, they’re like “Congratulations?! For what?!” I was freaked out and was like, “You’ll find out in a week!”
I flew back to LA, went to a bar where a bunch of my friends were, proceeded to get shitfaced where I fell asleep at the bar sitting on a barstool. My friends DeMorge took me to get breakfast at around six in the morning. I got back to where I was staying, turned off my phone, went to sleep, and then woke up at four in the afternoon with like 20 messages from my manager and my agent, and they’re all like, “Call us! What’s wrong?! You need to call us! You need to call us!” The show had said initially I had a week to pack up my life and move to New York. Apparently, while I was sleeping it off, they had said “Actually, can he start Monday?” So I had a weekend to basically pack up my life. I moved to New York. The first thing I ever did on the show was my audition piece, and it was pretty much just exactly like I had written it for the audition.
So that’s how I got the job. That’s sort of the long version. The short version, I guess, is Jon’s my uncle. It was a cool experience. I had a great time being there and I learned a lot. But it’s amazing how quickly it all changes.
Did you enjoy field pieces or studio pieces more?
It depended on the piece. I mean there are some field pieces that I loved that were just like fun experiences or you got to do something fun and silly. I remember for one field piece I got to go to Canada and drive a Zamboni. Just my childhood bucket list. I can’t remember the exact aspects of the story, but I remember that was a fun one because I drove a Zamboni!
I did one about PETA being shitty. That one was cool because they decided to sit down with us and we knew we had to be on our A game. PETA had basically compared five killer whales at SeaWorld to slavery and said that these whales should be free under the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. It was like, “Wait a minute. You’re going to basically say what is a huge and dark part of this country’s history and one that we’re still dealing with and you’re going to trivialize it and apply it to five killer whales in a situation that you don’t even have all the details for?” And that’s not in defense of SeaWorld. You can’t release captive whales into the ocean, but they didn’t have another plan. The woman [from PETA] that we were going to talk to, we found pictures of her on the PETA website with her dog, so it was like, “Wait a minute, so it’s cool for you to keep a dog in captivity but SeaWorld can’t keep whales in captivity?” Just finding that and just that becoming the story became this cool thing.
Working with the field producers, they’re such a talented group of people and really are the unsung talent on that show. It was always fun to get to travel with them. Sometimes, doing stuff in the studio was fun, especially whenever I got to play with the other correspondents like [John] Oliver and Sam [Bee] and [Jason] Jones and then later Al [Madrigal], Jessica [Williams], and Aasif [Mandvi] and [Rob] Riggle, when Riggle was around because we overlapped a little bit. That was always a blast for me. Those people are people who know the exact job, they know all the demands of the job. Nobody else really knows that job and what that skill set is. It’s like, “Oh hey, you did time there.” When other correspondents see each other, there is this element of people who are like “You did two years on the rock. You’re okay in my book.”
You have that even with correspondents who were on before you?
Yeah, it’s weird. I remember when I met [Ed] Helms. There’s this thing where we can already start communicating about like, “Hey, have you ever had a field piece where the subject tried to walked out on you? “Yes! I know exactly what you’re talking about! And then they come back five minutes later.” That was always fun, being in the studio. Oliver and I were both writers on the show, so if there were chances when Oliver and I could write a chat together, those were super fun. The two of us getting to write together, then getting to go to rehearsal together, then getting to do it on the show together, the whole time trying to bust each other up, that was always a lot of fun. I was really fortunate to get to work with some really talented, really fun people.
What made you decide to leave the show?
The main thing for me, I felt like it was just time. I felt like I kind of did and said everything I wanted to do there. I feel like on some level, it’ll sound trite or whatever, but especially in creative fields, you get to paint on a canvas a little while and at some point, you feel like, “Okay, this painting’s done.” I’ve done everything I want to do with it. Now I want to pick up a different canvas and try something else, try to paint something new and hopefully, it’ll be as well-received and appreciated as the last thing — or more appreciated. I think you always want more.
That’s I think with everything. With King of the Hill, it was kinda the same thing. It was time for me to leave. I had a really great experience. I could have stayed there longer, but I also felt like there was more I wanted to do. I wanted to perform. The longer I stayed as a writer, the easier it was for my agents to see me as a writer. So then there would be opportunities where I was like, “Hey, can we maybe look at me auditioning for this?” They’d be like, “Hey dummy, just keep your head down and write.” At some point, you just kind of feel like it’s time to move on; it’s time to try something new.
So what do you think is next for you?
I have ideas. It’s weird ’cause people always say how it’s hard to come up with a million dollar idea and it is hard. But it’s harder to get somebody to give you a million dollars to make that million dollar idea. So right now for me, I want to move into the place of trying to create my own stuff. Because I started in animation, I love animation. I’d like to go back to animation if I can. I have ideas that I’ve been trying to pitch around out.
I also have some live action stuff because this face can’t stay off the television. Not because it’s so beautiful. It’s just I have a medical condition that needs the radiation that comes off the cameras. Otherwise, it’s like a weird Dorian Gray thing. But yeah, so at this point, it’s been this interesting world of doing standup and now I have more time doing that and then, in the meantime, try to see if I can get someone to give me money to make one of these hairbrained ideas I have. That’s kind of the interesting thing, trying to sell a show and having to go through that thing of sitting down with people. It’s a different performance, but it’s a performance still. It feels like on some level, you’re doing standup for four people with all the lights on and you’re sitting on a couch and they’re not drunk, but if you do well enough, they’ll give you money. I’m hoping that one of these performances, I’ll do well enough that they’ll give me some money and let me make a TV show.
How’s hosting Night Train been going?
That’s been a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed it. It’ll almost be a year. I think November is a year. For me, my hope has been to turn it into a thing where I can try new stuff and that the audience is cool with me trying new stuff. Some of it might be longer, some of it might be in-depth stories, some of it might be more personal. And that’s what’s been kind nice; it’s allowed me to push into that. Also, to have a lot of really great comedians go onstage and get to watch them. I am as much of fan of this stuff as I am a participant in it, so it’s nice to sit and just watch all the comedians and see them and get to be a fan. I’ll always try to sit in the wings and watch through a slit in the curtain and see friends or people I’ve just met. Marianne Ways, who books the show, does a great job of getting a lot of really funny people. All that, I feel like as a comedian, inspires you. When you see a good comic, or a bad one, there’s an element of like, ‘Oh man, what they’re doing with that crowd. I wanna do that!’ It’s nice ’cause it keeps you motivated.
Who are some of your favorite newer comedians right now?
I enjoy watching Seaton Smith. I think he’s really funny, and I’m really jealous of his energy ’cause I think he has a really great energy that’s fun to watch. I like Phoebe Robinson and Brooke Van Poppelen. Like I said, Ron Funches is great and Jerrod Carmichael, both LA people who did my show a little while back and they were really fun to watch. There’s a lot of fun people, a lot of really talented people out there that are always fun to watch. The cool thing about when I moved to New York was seeing a whole crowd of people I didn’t know, like Joe Mande was a guy I always loved watching. It’s a shame what’s happened to him, but I loved him before he sold out. But no, Joe and Noah [Garfinkel], when I’d get to go see them or do their show, they were always a lot of fun to watch together and separately.
When I moved to New York, I got thrust into this world of “Here’s a bunch of comedians who you’ve never seen before.” I was used to being at shows where I would see [Matt] Braunger and Kyle Kinane and Charlyne and Erik Charles Nielsen. And then, when I moved, it was like, “Now, here’s the New York version of all those people.” I’ve enjoyed watching a lot of people. Jena Friedman, whenever she does my show, she always does very well and it’s very funny. But yeah, there’s a lot of really fun people in New York and a lot of fun people to watch. That’s the nice thing about getting to do that show is getting to see all of them.