Brooklyn Museum bulwarks the northeast corner of Prospect Park, a quick walk from Cenac’s Fort Greene brownstone. “I usually try to get here now and again,” he says, bending to the placard below a wooden coffin shaped and painted like a Nike shoe. “I tried to come when they had the exhibit on the history and culture of sneakers, but it was always too crowded. I missed the whole thing.”
The coffin, by Ghanaian artist Paa Joe, represents familiarity in the face of the unknown. “When I’m on the road, museums end up being a place I go to in different cities that is always interesting,” Cenac continues. “Museums and independent record stores.”
On the fifth floor, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861-2008 tracks an era of humming optimism’s decline into ruin and derision. Cenac’s grandmother took him to Coney as a kid. These days he’s more interested in Floor Four’s The Dinner Party, a table installation lined with thirty-nine place settings. The vaginal imagery painted on each plate honors a different historically important woman.
In the museum’s central Avalon Ballroom, Cenac gazes to the chandelier overhead. In 2011 he and Donwill started a new show at Dumbo’s now-shuttered reRun Theater. Part drinking game, part Mystery Science Theater 3000-style screening of less-known Blaxploitation films, Shouting at the Screen sought to recontextualize the films’ unintentional humor in an inclusive—as opposed to denigrating—environment.
Shouting made the rounds at Williamsburg’s IndieScreen and Gowanus’s Bell House, and even sold to IFC, the reemerging cable home of Maron and Portlandia. After two failed development attempts, Cenac gathered that IFC wanted a wider, more demographically-appealing range of movies. “They said it a lot nicer than that,” Cenac insists, “but that was the subtext.”
One idea for the series had been incorporating film-centric field elements. 1972 jewel-heist flick The Hot Rock, for example, featured this very ballroom. “So maybe get Robert Redford and George Segal back to the Brooklyn Museum to talk about the film,” Cenac mock-pitches. “And maybe film us all stealing something! Because who’s gonna arrest Robert Redford?”
A half-dozen blocks from the museum hunkers Littlefield, the former textile warehouse where Cenac and producer Marianne Ways introduced Night Train in November 2012. The Monday-night slot, then-vacated by the long-running Hot Tub with Kurt [Braunohler] and Kristen [Schaal], fit 100 chairs. The format was loose and celebratory.
Donwill attended as a fan from the onset. “It’s the most welcoming space,” he enthuses. “You might see a surprise guest come two or three weeks in a row to work on a joke. And it’s okay, because the audience respects the fact that they’re watching an artist hone their craft. You’re witnessing something crystallize as opposed to getting the end result.”
Echoes Zamata, “I feel like this audience in particular is very educated in the making and execution of comedy. They get it. If a comic’s looking in their notebook or riffing for a little bit, it’s not confusing to the audience. They don’t think the comic is unprofessional or lazy. They get that this is what we have to do in order to make your jokes better. It’s a rare form of art that is continuously changing.”
Throughout Brooklyn, small indie venues—not traditional comedy clubs—were emerging as the reigning generation of stand-up hotspots. Littlefield, Union Hall, the Bell House, the Knitting Factory and select bar shows became the de facto tastemakers presaging the comedy industry’s continuing boom. Night Train was a borough lynchpin.
“In Manhattan, people are always at the Comedy Cellar, the Village Underground and the Stand. In Long Island City there’s the Creek and the Cave,” Cenac offers. “But bar shows here are packed. To me that’s what’s nice: There is a scene, and the scene is supported. A lot of people seem to be interested in going to a comedy show, whether it’s a Monday or a Friday. There are a lot of shows in Brooklyn, there are a lot of opportunities to get onstage, and the audiences are coming out for it.”
On 2011 special Comedy Person, Cenac sported a neat blazer, dark tie and cropped hair at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. By 2014 follow-up Brooklyn, he had uncovered new details about his father’s death, returned nose to comedy grindstone with Night Train and departed The Daily Show.
Cenac self-directed Brooklyn in the 100-capacity basement of Park Slope’s Union Hall. Patron heads bob into view, glasses clink, cameras refocus, a flubbed line airs unaltered. Intimacy is his top priority.
Stand-up specials are traditionally filmed for the enjoyment of home viewers. Huge theaters, sweeping crane shots, infallible audio equipment and plenty of post-production editing manufacture a final “in the moment” product. As Cenac points out, “You have your big wide angles to establish, ‘Oh, look how many people this performer is able to get into a room!’ But most of it still ends up being tight shots: mediums and close-ups on the comedian. Even if they go full-body, they’re still shooting the way the show would appear to 200 people in a smaller room. They’re shooting it for that perspective so it still feels close and intimate.”
Live-audience experience typically isn’t taken into account. “It’s supposed to be perfect,” Cenac explains. “Every joke is supposed to get uproarious applause.” If only 25 people laugh in a room of 100, he expounds, it’s probably not a comic’s best joke. “In a room of 10,000 people where 2,500 laugh, suddenly that joke sounds a lot better than it really is.”
Huge specials also skew the true night-to-night reality of working stand-ups. Small comedy venues, bar basements and open-minded rock clubs are the cubicles where comics set goals and track growth like it was a job. Because it is their job.
“When you put comedy in the room it’s supposed to be in, you start learning it’s a process,” Cenac says. “Not everything is a home run. You have singles, and you ground a few out. But ultimately it’s the journey you have with that comedian, whether it’s ten minutes or an hour. So much about getting onstage is creating a connection with an audience that allows you to go different places and try different things.”
Brooklyn delves into stereotypes, gay marriage and veganism. Material on the hardships of dating (“I will commit to a bad TV show before I commit to a decent relationship”) is subtextually about searching for connection. Cenac’s debates on the Barclay Center versus Madison Square Garden and hockey versus basketball address social justice. Gentrification bits evoke memories of his grandmother.
Cenac saw Crown Heights change year to year on his summer visits. Back then rats and roaches roamed her floors, and neighbors tried to rob him. Now, he observes, the area welcomes toy stores, wine bars and a high-end mayonnaise company. “At that point in Brooklyn if you wanted anything that was small-batch and artisanal, it was just drugs: ‘We’ve got some hormone-free crack here. It’s gluten-free, too…
“There was a time you judged the safety of a neighborhood by how close you were to a police station or a fire department,” Cenac reminds the Brooklyn audience. “Now you just figure out, ‘Where’s the closest Lululemon and an ironically named dog-grooming place?’”
The camera zooms close as Cenac transitions from awkward cab moments to his father’s death. He recounts a friendly detective walking him through the case file. Cenac finally understood exactly how his father was murdered. He studied the killer’s mugshot, saw his record of repeat incarcerations, and learned he’d done time in North Carolina while Cenac attended UNC. He was currently living free in Brooklyn. Cenac acknowledges the darkness of his shared revelations. The audience connection resonates higher than taut strings of endlessly perfected jokes ever would.
Cenac self-produced 1,000 limited-edition vinyl records of Brooklyn, pressed at Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Phono and distributed through NoHo-based Other Music. “If I was calling a record ‘Brooklyn,’ I should make the most small-batch thing I can,” he half-kids over the outro. “And I should make it as hard to get as possible.”
His grandmother never saw Cenac perform. The day Brooklyn’s Grammy nomination was announced marked the fifteenth anniversary of her passing. “Now that day holds two different emotions for me,” Cenac says from a museum bench minutes from the ancient apartment buzzer still bearing her name. “And both emotions revolve around things I called ‘Grammy.’”
Donwill mans a DJ booth resembling a subway entrance. A blue TV screen loops animated black trains chugging through tiny tunnels. Onstage, Cenac tells the Night Train crowd about the time he went to the Technical Emmys. “All right everybody, let’s clap!” He mimics an Emmy producer, running invisible cameras up and down invisible aisles, capturing manufactured response. “Now let’s all laugh!” He fakes an uninhibited roar. “At one point the host told a joke that just died in the room,” his story continues. “Absolutely nothing. The next day they broadcast the Technical Emmys, and they got to the point where the host told the joke that fucking dies. But then they cut to me…laughing hysterically. I’m watching, going, ‘No! Noooo! I do not approve of that joke!’”
Tonight’s live Seeso taping is sold out. The crowd settles and Littlefield’s lights dim. Four stationary and two roving cameras begin rolling.
As host, Cenac does time up top. He bemoans Brooklyn Target’s long register lines and critiques, “I usually give money to the subway-dancing kids, but they really haven’t been cutting it this year.”
Cenac thanks the audience for navigating the gas stations, numerous tire shops and “thousand CrossFit locations on this street alone.” The screen shows a real map of locational red dots covering Brooklyn like chicken pox. “I liked my gentrification when it was just ladies with cat glasses, people who make bacon-flavored ice cream,” Cenac says. “I did not in any way expect it to turn into upwardly mobile, really strong people who can push me out of my neighborhood physically.”
Zamata co-hosted last night’s taping coincidentally dressed like Cenac in denim shirt, black bottoms and brown boots. “We didn’t have anything planned, so we talked about how we looked like a couple on their way to Disneyland,” she laughs. “I don’t have too many relationships like that with other comics. We can not see each other for awhile, and just get right onstage and have it still be so easy and fun.”
Other series performers include NYC comedy royalty Jon Benjamin (as a bodega cat), Janeane Garofalo and Eugene Mirman. The Roots frontman and Tonight Show bandleader Questlove finds himself a surprise “contestant” of improvised game “Do You Own These Sneakers?”
Dan Soder, Janelle James, Clark Jones, Damien Lemon and Brooke Van Poppelen, up-and-coming New Yorkers all, round out tonight’s lineup. It’s the NBC debut of transgender San Francisco comic Natasha Muse, and her first time performing in New York, period. The diverse assortment reflects the neighborhood residents currently swelling Littlefield to capacity.
“To be fair, even our up-and-coming comedians are the more seasoned of what most would consider newcomers to the scene,” says producer Ways. “Though it still warms my heart when audience members come up after the show and thank us for introducing them to such a diverse group of funny people that they’ve never seen.”
“This whole neighborhood is changing,” Cenac reiterates onstage. He describes a beleaguered mother leaving her bratty son to shriek alone in front of his stoop. “Alexander was screaming, ‘I wanna go back where we were! I wanna go back where we were!’ I’m like, ‘Wow, this kid feels really strongly about gentrification.’”
The chunk progresses as Cenac and the equally puzzled construction worker next door wonder, “Do we take this kid and now just become the prototypical Brooklyn blended family?”
“His point of view always stood out for me,” says Evan Shapiro, executive vice president of NBC-Universal Digital Enterprises. “Wyatt’s humor lives outside the more traditional, observational style and much more in a storytelling culture. This has become more en vogue in recent years, but Wyatt got there earlier than most.”
Shapiro first met Cenac while president of Pivot, a young network highlighting social advocacy. He watched Night Train thrive and crowd members recognize the artistic processes laid bare before them.
“Everything about Night Train stands out: the venue, the anything-goes atmosphere, the choices of artists themselves,” Shapiro says. “However, as this type of ‘artisanal’ comedy continues to have its moment, venues and shows like this are popping up across the county. As progenitors of this style and culture, Night Train and Wyatt are true reflections of our time.”
Creating digital content is a more streamlined process than television, contends Quinn, whose Cop Show is housed at LStudio.com. “Nobody really gets to stop you from what you’re trying to say and do. You don’t get fifty people giving their opinion at all times. Sometimes that process ruins things.”
As Donwill puts it, “Comedy is about the moment where you’re bombing one second and then killing the next.” Through a platform seamlessly transferring the Night Train experience from stage to screen, Cenac can deliver those moments.
“The hope is that by shooting what the show is, for anybody watching it, they might see the more organic weirdness that can happen in those small spaces, and they might be drawn to come see live comedy in its actual environment,” he presses. “You want people to see what it really is.”
Beyond the live stage, “I do love TV as a medium,” Cenac offers. “There are projects I would like to do and ideas I would like to move forward.” They don’t even have to be cultural benchmarks. Just keeping the old ladies out there laughing can be good enough. As long as he’s honest in the way he does it.
After that, “It’s just about getting those various networks and other people holding the money to say, ‘We trust you to make this.”
And gaining trust through honesty is precisely where Cenac’s true ingenuity lies. Somewhere between exhortation and osmosis, he empowers audiences to recognize art when they see it. The forces driving artistic creation are everywhere, impossible not to see when one really starts to look. It’s Cenac’s hope that people stop, comprehend and react honestly. No matter how tempting the urge is to simply walk away.
Julie Seabaugh grew up on a farm in rural Missouri. She now lives in Los Angeles and covers comedy for Rolling Stone, Variety, GQ, The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Vulture, Huffington Post and more. Follow her at JulieSeabaugh.com and @JulieSeabaugh.