Wyatt Cenac: Standup, Writer, Puppet Aficionado
Wyatt Cenac is best known as being a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as writing for King of The Hill. He’s also been in films such as Sleepwalk With Me and Darren Grodsky’s independent film Growing Up (and Other Lies). Working more on his own projects these days, the New York comic wrote and directed his new one-hour standup special on Netflix, Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn. He’s currently traveling for his tour “Wyatt Cenac Live in Brooklyn in ___(insert city name here)___”, and I caught up with him to talk to him about his plans for doing more of his own projects. Hint: they involve puppets.
I know the AV Club’s review of your special talked about your “thoughtful mind.” Would you agree with that? Are you an introspective person?
Umm… I guess so. I feel like anyone who does standup is. It causes you to be a little introspective. You’re putting your perspective out there and as a result you kind of need to both see the world and also look at yourself as you’re seeing the world. So I’d say on some level, I’m a bit introspective. I don’t know if I would’ve been a philosopher centuries ago, but yeah, I’ll say I’m introspective, sure. This has turned into me filling out an OK Cupid profile.
Yep, and do you like dogs or cats? That’s the next questions.
Much easier part of the profile. Dogs. Birds…
Birds? Who likes birds?
I feel like on any dating website whenever they give you those options, there’s — Dogs, Cats, Birds, Others. And I don’t know who leads with birds, but I feel like birds is a thing that everyone just says, so as not to seem racist in the animal kingdom or the pet world.
You don’t want to be the jerk who hates animals.
Yeah, it’s like “No, no… dogs are my thing, but you know, birds are cool. I’ve got no beef with birds.”
Do you do a lot of online dating yourself?
I do not. (laughing) That may also explain why my understanding of it is based solely on my ideas of “Are you introspective?” and “Do you like dogs, cats, or birds?”
They talk about how it takes a long time for comics to really find their voice. Do you remember how that happened for you?
I don’t know. I don’t know if you, as the person, ever finds your voice. I feel like that’s a construct that other people place on you. Maybe it depends on the type of comedy, but I feel like if it is personal stuff, it’s kind of evolving all the time.
I would hope so, yeah.
The most ideal situation, it’s always changing as you see the world and as you grow, but I think if you’re spending so much time in the moment thinking, “What’s my voice,” I feel like you’re never going to actually develop a voice.
You’re probably best known for your work on The Daily Show. Do you feel like that pigeonholed you, it’s a fit right for you, or does it make you want to branch out and do something completely different now?
You know, it was definitely a benefit for me, career wise. It helped me so that I could go on the road and do standup and people would come out to see me. I’m not The Daily Show, so I think, especially when I first started the show, there were definitely people who were coming to shows just assuming that they were going to see me do things that were like The Daily Show. I don’t know if they were disappointed. I hope not. I’m grateful to the show, but I was a comedian before the show and I’m a comedian since I’ve left the show. The show was a nice time in my life where I got to sort of see things and work in a different way. Some of that has informed the way that I write jokes and the things that I talk about on stage now, but ultimately I still wind up not going through what’s on FOX News and CNN and MSNBC and breaking it down for people.
Were you political before The Daily Show?
You know, I never saw myself as a person who was very much into political commentary. I was probably before the show, and still am, more into social commentary. The pieces that I wrote or the field pieces I pitched where always a bit more from a social commentary perspective than political. The minutia of bureaucracy, I don’t get too involved in what this Congressperson is saying or what that Congressperson is doing. I tend to want to step out and want to look at, “Okay, what is the larger picture of this?”
I know you directed your special. Do you prefer directing and producing over acting, writing or standup?
I don’t know if I have a preference. With the special, directing and sort of putting it all together was a really great experience and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I walked away thinking, “Oh, that was fun. I would love to try to do more stuff like that.”
Was it hard being outside of yourself and staying unbiased when directing yourself?
I think I have enough… I don’t want to say self-hate, because it sounds bad, but I think I have enough of whatever that thing is, that makes you see yourself as, “You’re not as good as you think.”
Yeah, maybe. I don’t know if it’s self-doubt. I think there are people who look in the mirror and are like, “I look good today” and there are other people who look in the mirror and they’re like, “Yeah, you look okay, but what the fuck is up with that thing right next to your nose? What is that? Seriously, you should stay inside.” I think I went in trying to be as objective as possible. On some level I enjoyed that, because I think it forced me to look at everything and not fall in love with myself and be like, “Hold on that shot of me forever.” But to your question of the thing I prefer, I think overall I enjoy situations where I get to do a little of everything. That’s the part of what I enjoyed when I was at The Daily Show. I was there as a correspondent, but also a writer, and so even if I wasn’t on the show I was still in the writer’s room and being able to build something from the ground up.
I’ve gotten to do some acting, I’ve done a few movies, and I don’t know if I have the fortitude to be simply an actor. That’s not to disparage actors, but I think I want to have a little more control. I wrote for television, I enjoyed it, but there was this part of it that was like, “I want to do more.” I think just doing the singular thing has always sort of left me with that desire. I kind of want to build the whole thing, be as involved as I can.
I loved the puppet part of your special. By the way, who’s the bald baby head?
Thank you! That was a guy named Scott Sousa who was one of the guys working on the crew. For a while, I think I had asked Chris Gethard to do it and Chris couldn’t. He had to go out of town or something like that. As we were getting closer and closer to day, I kind of my eye on the back of Scott’s head like, “Oh that’s kind of baby like.” Because even the way we had structured the shot, if I’d gotten Gethard, we had a different idea of how we were going to do that shot. It was actually going to be sort of hoisting Gethard in the air, having other people hoist him in the air as he pretends to crawl on the bar. We were going to put him in a diaper. It was going to be a much bigger thing. I like what we did instead, but the whole time when I knew that the shot was changing, there was this thing where I’d see Scott running around and as we were getting the set in place, I would lean over to Rob and Paloma, who were two of my producers. It was like, “If we don’t get anyone for this baby, Scott’s got a good baby head.”
I really hope “baby head” is on his resume now.
I was prepared to give him a whole pitch and then he was like, “Yeah, okay cool. I’ll do it.” But you just never know when you’re gonna ask someone, “Hey, will you be a baby in this thing.”
Was that part shot during the show or later?
The puppet elements were all shot afterwards. We shot the Union Hall show in January. Then when Netflix agreed to acquire it, part of the deal, I’d said, “Oh and I want to add these other elements.” They were like, “Okay, cool.” Then it wasn’t until the summer when we got to actually sit down and shoot all that stuff. I sat with an editor and we cut the special. Then, when we went to shoot the puppet element, we went into a sound stage and we had everything on a projection screen, so that way we could dissolve and come off of the projection screen into the puppet set-ups.
Have you always been into puppets or is just because you have a puppet of yourself from The Daily Show?
I’ve always loved puppets. I’ve always been fascinated by them. I think it’s such a fun world and, truly one of the best days at my time with The Daily Show was the day that I found out that we were doing this thing and they were going to make a puppet of me, John Oliver and Jon Stewart. One of the producers, Jen Flanz, whenever we needed a correspondent for something, she’d suggest people or say, “This person’s not available. They’re on a field shoot…” and she would help in a lot of the coordination of that. I’d have to credit and thank her, because I think she knew I’d be crushed if I didn’t become a puppet. Because if I had been there I would’ve been like, “Me! Me! Make me puppet!”
Then the company, Puppet Heap that made the puppet, did it in a rush job. They did it over the weekend and were finishing the puppets at the show. They were finishing everything there and while they were doing that, I was just standing around watching them. Not even doing my job, just kind of lurking. One of the people, this woman Jean Marie (Keevins) who worked with me on this, she was like, “You can come with me and ask us questions.” So, I went with them and asked a bunch of questions. I had some free time one day and I went to Hoboken where their shop was and it was everything I’d hoped and more. I was like, “Oh, this is great. I would love to do more stuff with this. This is amazing.” So it’s something I’ve always been into and I was really glad that Netflix allowed me to add that element.
You also wrote for King of The Hill. Do you prefer puppets or animation?
I like them both, but if I had to choose, I would say puppets. I think I like the tactile quality. You know, you build the set, you build a puppet, you have those things. I like that, but also, animation, and I love animation, and I watch Venture Brothers. I watch Archer. I watch old cartoons. I love animation, but at King of the Hill from script to screen, it took about nine months to make one episode. That’s a long time. That’s like having a baby. Slightly less painful. Slightly.
And you still have no idea what its going to turn out to be like in the end, if it’s going to be good or not.
Exactly. You gotta hope for the best. And I think in both cases, you hope you get residual payments. But nine months was always such a long time. I went from a show like that where it took nine months to do something, to The Daily Show where it took maybe nine hours to do something. So I’ve come from these two worlds where things are really slow, then things are really fast and I enjoy both of them. The thing I enjoy about puppets is you have imaginative qualities of animation where you can make and do all these crazy things, but it doesn’t have to take as long. You can turn it around a lot faster.
Especially if it’s built in the likeness of you.
So, what’s next for you? I know you’ve got your tour. Got any big plans coming up next or anything you want to do?
You know, I’ve been trying to pitch around a puppet show. I’m hoping that maybe from the special, maybe there’s some proof of, “Okay, dumb-dumb kind of knows what he’s doing. We’ll take a flyer on it.” The challenge has been I think getting people to see that you can do stuff with puppets that aren’t necessarily Sesame Street or Lamb Chops. Twenty years ago, I think people kind of scoffed at the idea of animation in prime time or even in late night. Now, it’s everywhere. You’ve got Adult Swim, you’ve got FOX, FX, so many places that they’re making all these shows with animation. Like I said, I like puppets and I’d love to try to find a way to do some stuff with puppets. Greg the Bunny tried to do that and they tried again with Warren the Ape. I think there is an audience out there for it. It’s just finding that network and that executive that will be like, “Okay, yeah we trust you.” And then, we’ll rake in the dough.
Puppets make so much money!
I would totally watch that, a combination of you and puppets? Are you kidding me?
Thank you very much.
Well, good luck with it and on the rest of your tour as well.
Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn, Wyatt Cenac’s second comedy special is available on Netlix. You can see him live on his tour “Wyatt Cenac Live in Brooklyn in ___(insert city name here)___.” For more information, visit wyattcenac.com.
10/24 – MADISON, WI – Majestic Theatre
10/25 – CHICAGO, IL – Laugh Factory
11/13 – RALEIGH, NC – Lincoln Theatre
11/14 – ASHEVILLE, NC – The Mill Room
11/15 – CHARLESTON, SC – Theatre 99
11/16 – ATLANTA, GA – Laughing Skull Lounge
11/21 – PITTSBURGH, PA – Club Café
11/22 – PHILADELPHIA, PA – The Trocadero
11/23 – WASHINGTON, DC – Black Cat