Wyatt Cenac: Permanent Trainsition

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Wyatt Cenac: Permanent <i>Train</i>sition

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy downed trees and power lines, flooded streets and subway tunnels, took out an East 14th Con Ed substation, and left Manhattan south of 39th Street without power.

Miles of the borough remained dark two nights later. As The Daily Show with Jon Stewart returned to its 11 p.m. airtime, New Yorkers with electricity collectively tuned in. It felt important to witness the Comedy Central satirist’s response as a united whole.

“Wow,” Stewart began. “You ever have one of those days where everything you loved as a child is underwater?”

Wyatt Cenac, a Daily Show correspondent of nearly five years, lived in Prospect Heights. Some trees fell, but his neighborhood retained power. That morning he’d walked the bridge into the city, continued northwest through the Twenties and Thirties, then finally found a cab to drop him at The Daily Show’s 52nd and Eleventh studio.

“Here in Manhattan the power is still out downtown, or as we refer to it now, Little North Korea…” Stewart groaned on-air.

At day’s end, a coworker with a minivan drove Brooklyn staffers home. Cenac recalls how eerie everything felt, how the eyes of people waiting for buses appeared out of the night like cats. The van’s headlights created the sole illumination for blocks. Cenac could only see within the limited sweep of the bulbs. “Outside of the wilderness,” he says, “I’ve never been anywhere that dark.”

Professionally, Cenac was travelling in equally murky environs. He was the most prolific and popular he’d ever been as a comedian. Yet Daily Show name recognition eclipsed any respect he personally perceived from Stewart.

As Cenac revealed on last summer’s headline-making episode of WTF with Marc Maron, in summer 2011 he was the only black writer on staff. When Fox News questioned the racial insensitivity of Stewart’s Herman Cain impression, Cenac agreed. Stewart refused any wrongdoing; their disagreement culminated in an office shouting match and Stewart shouting, “Fuck off! I’m done with you!” Cenac, unsure if he’d been fired, wandered to the baseball bleachers across the street and began crying.

Stewart apologized for the outburst in front of Daily Show staff. The conflict never resolved privately.

Cenac had idealized Stewart as a professional hero and potential father figure. He finally understood Stewart wasn’t an infallible savior, but a flaws-and-all human being.

After he chose not to renew his contract, Cenac’s final Daily Show segment aired December 13, 2012. In the three and a half years since, he’s appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Conan, Maron, Inside Amy Schumer and created and hosts weekly Gowanus stand-up show Night Train. (He’s also been working on an alien-abduction comedy for TBS.) The vinyl edition of his Netflix special Brooklyn competed for a 2016 Grammy for Best Comedy Album alongside the likes of Louis C.K. and Craig Ferguson. Though he didn’t win at the February 15 awards, he celebrated the nomination with the February 26 release of new album Furry Dumb Fighter. On June 30, six Night Train live tapings become available on NBC-Universal’s Seeso streaming service.

Since its January launch, Seeso’s catalogue has featured NBC winners (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), licensed classics (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Kids in the Hall), comedy specials from performers Rory Scovel and Matt Besser, and original series including Upright Citizens Brigade’s The UCB Show and Community creator Dan Harmon’s animated HarmonQuest. For more than six months the site’s entry collage has included Cenac’s face front and center alongside Amy Poehler and Rainn Wilson.

“He’s so relatable and has a really good perspective on the world,” Saturday Night Live cast member and frequent Night Train performer Sasheer Zamata says of Cenac. “And the way he delivers that is very accessible and non-pretentious. He talks about social issues in a way that makes the audience actually think about them.”

At the intersection of tradition and technology, the personal and the political, global reach and hyperlocal awareness, Cenac, 40, finds himself poised as one of comedy’s top commentators on race, class and culture. But that role, tempting it may be, isn’t one assumed compulsively.

The gray in his beard flourishes. Even onstage, he mostly gazes downward. Interactive bits with comedy friends might make him laugh, but out of the spotlight his distinctly perfect teeth remain hidden.

Cenac’s personality veers toward low-key and guarded. Or, rather, he’s deliberate about the way he comes across. It’s not about avoiding conflict; he just wants to be very clear about how he reaches conclusions.

“That’s the most pronounced thing about Wyatt: He’s very specific in his tastes and his opinions, and in his comedy,” says rapper Donwill, who met Cenac a decade ago at an album-release party. The two bonded over music and funny YouTube videos. “You can tell he’s a person with a point of view. He paints a picture and walks you through a specific scenario. You may have the same opinions, but the way he articulates it is incredibly well thought-out. He pays a lot of attention to detail. That’s what really gives his opinion nuance and drives his comedy.”

Cenac understands the fundamental choices creative types face in the pursuit of success. Like innumerable others, he struggled for years to surmount horrible odds, transform hard-won experience into growth and establish his voice. His output can appeal to industry parameters defining and influencing his own popularity…or it can challenge him to continue evolving beyond his prior limits. He can either be an entertainer, or he can be an artist.

Personal tragedies and professional setbacks have left conspicuous damage. They also imbued strength. Cenac knows how it feels to compromise. He knows how walking away feels, too. The latter may disappoint others, but doing so comes from a place of honesty. It’s being dishonest, and having to live with disappointing himself, that feels far worse.

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Wyatt John Foster Cenac, Jr. was born in Manhattan’s Saint Vincent’s hospital and spent his first years in the Bronx. His parents soon split, his mother remarrying and moving the new family to Dallas.

When Cenac was four, his father, a Grenada immigrant, was robbed and fatally shot in his taxi cab by a teenager he dropped in Harlem.

Cenac’s mother never discussed his father. His maternal grandmother was the opposite, lovingly mythologizing him on Cenac’s summer visits to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. She packed lunches for Prospect Park and bought Cenac basketball jerseys at the Fulton Street Mall. She also shared her love of comedy, introducing Cenac to The Cosby Show and old I Love Lucy reruns. “I’d see the way she enjoyed comedians,” he remembers. “That seemed like a cool thing to do: try and make an old lady laugh.”

The all-boys’ Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas was founded in 1942 and, to the delight of young Wyatt—who retained a lasting love of comic books, drawing and art—doubled as a museum. Surrounded by sculpture and paintings, he considered pursuing architecture. The field fed his creative appetite while appealing to his insurance-underwriter mother and accountant stepfather’s wishes he pursue medicine or finance.

Jesuit Dallas was the type of private school where freshmen built Homecoming chariots to pull seniors in competitive races. Underclassmen were warned of the rule-breaker who snuck into the Senior Courtyard: “The next day he was found Saran-wrapped naked to a tree at the all-girls school. So don’t go in there!” Fridays, when seniors and freshmen lunched together, seniors barred the doors and made freshmen sing school songs. Those who tried to escape performed solo.

Social groups split along race and (parents’) income. There were the wealthy kids, the middle-class and lower-income kids, and the smallest group, the black and Latino kids. Though Cenac never felt physically threatened, “There were definitely moments where I overheard racist jokes or people said racist things to me.”

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Cenac was asked to address the student body. It might have been his interest in theater, or an unspecified compulsion teachers saw in him. However he was singled out, Cenac reasons, “To some degree I probably wanted to do it. It’s hard to hold in frustration, disappointment or any of those emotions for long without finding an outlet. Maybe talking about it will resonate with people, or at least they’ll better understand where I’m coming from.” The following class period forewent scheduled lessons to discuss what he’d said.

Cenac was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Texas. He preferred leaving the area altogether, pursuing communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A Saturday Night Live fan since catching Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” segments on Nick at Nite, one evening he watched cast member Rob Schneider on Later with Bob Costas. Schneider joked that he’d gotten his SNL gig by sending in a letter. Cenac mailed amateur sketches and entreaties to be a writer and/or performer to Lorne Michaels’ office for six months. An assistant finally took pity and encouraged him to apply for an internship.

Getting the gig would be huge for any comedy fan. For 19-year-old Cenac, it was a far-off dream taking root in reality.

He postponed his sophomore year, lived with his grandmother and spent six hectic days a week at 30 Rockefeller Center. “It was like I reached into the TV set,” he marvels. “I could see the entire stage, how everything worked, and how all the different people fit together.”

Though Cenac often felt like some wide-eyed kid just hanging around, cast members responded to his earnestness and determination. Tracy Morgan offered rides home and took Cenac to his first comedy club. Colin Quinn made him feel included in meetings and—even off the clock—critiqued his nascent sketches and encouraged him to write and perform.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is kind of distinctive,’” Quinn notes of Cenac’s early work. “He wasn’t trying to write what he thought was popular. It was who he was, rather than trying to fit into a style. It was very Wyatt.”

Back at UNC, Cenac did his first open mic at Raleigh’s Charlie Goodnights (now Goodnights Comedy Club). He was supposed to perform three minutes. In his “excitement-slash-terror,” he ran out of material in one and got the hell offstage. The host had to be rushed back inside from his cigarette break.

An Iranian comic named Hood Qa’Im-maqami was in from NYC to headline. As Hood strapped fake dynamite to his chest backstage, he told Cenac his material was good. The small compliment was all Cenac needed to keep writing. “If he wouldn’t have said anything,” Cenac shrugs, “today I might still be in Charlotte, working at a Bank of America.”

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SNL dangled a receptionist job upon graduation, but Cenac had his heart set on a creative position. He declined and moved cross-country to Los Angeles, figuring establishing himself as a working performer would improve his odds.

He scored a King of the Hill writing gig in 2002. Former University of Texas grad student Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, Office Space, Silicon Valley) based Hank Hill’s fictional Arlen on Dallas suburb Garland. As a child, Cenac’s friends rode bikes and played Army Men across the UT campus. “It’s tempting to think that while he was wandering around working on his academics, we might have been some stupid camouflaged kids he saw acting like jerks in the sewers,” Cenac chuckles.

Still in his twenties, Cenac was the youngest writer among comedy pros with families and mortgages. The financial comfort was addictive. He got out of debt and began saving for the first time in his life.

As Cenac’s tenure stretched to four seasons, the pull to perform grew stronger. “I learned a lot, but the idea was never to solely be a writer,” he says. “I needed to try to find some way to do both.” Cenac quit to focus on honing his live chops.

Stand-up’s scrutiny of eyeballs and demanding din of silence initially overwhelmed him. Cenac joined UCB and ImprovOlympic troupes, his desire to be onstage in any form trumping his fear of performing alone. “There’s a sense of security when you’re with a group, because sketch and improv are all built on trust,” he says. “But I knew I needed to trust myself enough to remain up there solo.”

In a few years he was broke, without an apartment or car, borrowing money and couch-surfing. Even his first big acting gig, playing Kanye West’s cousin in an HBO pilot, went nowhere.

By summer 2008 he’d tried three times for The Daily Show. When approached for yet another L.A audition, his then-manager Dave Rath had to talk Cenac into going. He took the city bus to the show. Unlike the three previous attempts, this time The Daily Show flew him to a NYC callback. Cenac was still standing outside the studio—in full view of quizzical lines awaiting The Colbert Report’s Friday taping—when Rath called with the good news.

On Saturday he learned that after living in L.A. a decade, he had to be in NYC on Monday.

Cenac’s first piece, on presidential nominee Barack Obama, aired July 28. He went on to win three Emmys and a Writers Guild of America Award as part of The Daily Show team, filing more than two hundred reports wearing Banana Republic suits and virtuous confidence in the fake news’ altruistic core.

After his Stewart blow-up, he stayed another season but shifted from writer-correspondent to correspondent only. His office remained in the writers’ area; he didn’t get many requests to perform. He only heard secondhand if Stewart questioned his attitude. As Cenac told Maron on WTF, “I felt like I was a ghost walking the halls.”

He considered not renewing his contract a second time. One rainy day after taking his usual train to Hell’s Kitchen, he ran into Quinn on Fifty-Sixth Street. The two took shelter under a Hooters awning, weighing Cenac’s situation for forty-five minutes.

“I always tell people to leave,” Quinn admits. “But it was the right move for him. He’s an instinctive guy. That’s a great gig—and a prestigious one—so to walk away, it takes big balls and a real sense of wanting to do your own thing. Even Jon Stewart I’m sure would agree, it shows a certain spirit and a certain confidence. Wyatt’s got a vision for his own life. That’s a sign of an artist. They’re gonna do their thing.”

Having worked on a show that spent significant time criticizing and satirizing media hunger for entertainment over information, Cenac says he shouldn’t have been surprised by the way his WTF statements were contorted into clickbait.

“To me, what the conversation spoke to was the need for diversity,” he maintains. “It’s not enough to just have other voices in a room. It’s also listening to and respecting those voices. It doesn’t matter if it’s a TV show, an office board room or a teachers’ lounge.”

Stewart and Cenac exchanged cordial e-mails as Stewart neared his August 2015 departure. At the farewell taping Cenac was projected via greenscreen as if standing outside the building.

“Are you coming over?” asked Stewart.

“I’m thinking about it.”

Both openly acknowledging Cenac’s WTF conversation and definitively putting it behind them, Stewart entreated, “You good?”

“Yeah, I’m good. You good?”

“Yeah. I’m good.”

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