Comedian Wyatt Cenac knows better than many performers how exhausting it can be to fight racism on and offstage—especially when you’re the only Black person around. There was that time he confronted his "Daily Show" boss, Jon Stewart, about the buffoonish Herman Cain impression he’d been doing and a defensive Stewart shouted him down. (The two resolved the issue in a cryptic bit on the show’s last episode.) And then the time when he was filming his upcoming TBS comedy series, "People of Earth," with non-Black coworkers and a random passerby shouted the N-word at him. And how, right after the N-word incident, Cenac tweeted at TBS about the show’s overwhelmingly White staff. In all three situations, Cenac’s isolation compelled him to speak truth to power even when there wasn’t an obvious audience to support him.
Which isn’t to say that Cenac doesn’t speak truth in his stand-up, even if it’s disguised by his laconic delivery and winding, absurdist punch lines. For instance, in a joke (which you can hear above) from his excellent new standup album, "Furry Dumb Fighter," the New York-born, Dallas-raised comic expertly skewers Bill Cosby‘s downfall to make a bigger point about the intersection of American sexism and racism. Other bits from the album cover the Confederate flag and police brutality with the same irreverence. For "Night Train with Wyatt Cenac," an adaptation of his famous New York City standup showcases that will air on SeeSo later this year, he’ll feature a diverse array of comedians who might otherwise escape national recognition.
In this phone interview, condensed and edited for space and clarity, the former "Daily Show" writer and correspondent talks about the power of social media and what "inclusion" should actually look like.
Why did you decide to do a standup album now?
I’d been working on and performing this particular material over the past year. Some of it was topical, and there’s a little bit of an emotional toll when you get on stage and say the same things over and over again. When you talk about things like police brutality, you don’t want to feel like whatever passion you had is gone. I needed to [make the album] because it’s exhausting to keep talking about it [over and over] onstage.
You spoke on Buzzfeed’s "Another Round" podcast about a passerby who screamed the N-word at you while you were filming "People of Earth." After that incident, you tweeted to TBS about increasing diversity in the show’s staff. We don’t often see performers of color confront networks so publicly, especially for shows they didn’t write or create. Do you have power to confront networks that entertainers in your position didn’t have, even a year ago?
I’m not sure. It’s not my show; I don’t have any power. If it was my show, I’d hope that I’d work damn hard to create an inclusive and balanced environment—a show that I’d be proud to work on. With social media, you can command people’s attention in a different way. While I don’t engage with social media a lot, the benefit is that people who are on the inside can bring attention to the outside. And it feels like if there’s any power I have, it’s that I’m on the inside and I can bring the issue to the outside. Hopefully, that will start a conversation and keep it going so that the networks have to respond.
Were you concerned about how they would react?
I thought, "What are they going to do?" Worst case scenario is what, they’d fire me? That [would] only make it worse for them.
So what did they do?
I don’t know. But you and other people asking me about this is keeping the conversation going. I hope that someone calls up Kevin Reilly, Thom Hinkle and all the other execs at TBS and asks them what they’re doing. They’re the ones in a power position to make these decisions and change the way they’re doing things. I can say "inclusion" until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, call [these execs] and put the pressure on them to think about this, not just with my show, but with all their programming. If you’re just making it for White dudes ages 18 to 49, then fine. Say that and make that the motto of your network. But if you’re trying to be inclusive, then really try. It goes beyond saying, "We hired a Black person to play [the lead’s] friend." That’s not inclusion. Inclusion is making sure that you’re starting at the very bottom and reaching into areas that you haven’t reached into before to find people who are talented and not getting an opportunity.
So "Night Train" isn’t the same kind of show—it’s a stand-up showcase—but are you addressing those concerns in the way you produce that show?
I feel like we’re trying. That was [why my co-producer Marianne Ways and I] started the show: to bring in new as well as established comedians, but also to look at the lineup and do a good job in presenting audiences with a diverse array of voices—whether that’s ethnically, age, gender, sexual orientation, any of those things. We don’t want to do a show that’s five White dudes and a lady. And that’s nothing against White dudes—some of my best friends are White dudes. [Laughs.] But when I was coming up, I’d do shows where I was the anomaly. If a show had one lady and one Black dude, that was diverse. And if there was a lady, she was always introduced like, "Now here’s a lady!" I never felt comfortable with that. With our show, we always try to be more inclusive with the comedians we have. At the end of the day, they’re all funny, and we want to highlight funny people, but it’s better if we can do it in a way like, "Here’s someone you’re a fan of, and here’s someone you don’t know but you’ll walk away a fan."
We spoke a few weeks ago with comedians Matt Braunger and Kevin Avery about whether or not stand-up was getting away from the self-pitying White guy stereotype. Do you have a sense that stand-up is or needs to be changing?
If anything’s happening, more voices are being highlighted, which means more of an audience is being steered towards stand-up as a form of entertainment. It’s funny because every couple of years, you’ll hear somebody talk about how comedy’s becoming too PC. I don’t think that’s what’s happening; it’s just becoming more inclusive. You can go back every decade and find a similar thing. Once Joan Rivers started performing and made a name for herself, that brought more women into comedy clubs. I would imagine that for certain comedians and audience members of that time, it probably felt like it was getting too PC, that they couldn’t make fun of women anymore because they’re in the crowd. So as more people see a wider array of stand-up comedians, more people who look like those comedians go to comedy shows. Now, the world has changed a little bit for people who were used to jokes that they could pull off in what was a safe space of people who look like them.
Do those "comedy’s too PC" voices have relevance to you?
No. They have relevance to their constituency who think the same things. Comedy’s a creative thing, but it’s also still a numbers game at the end of the day. If there’s any relevance, it’s that people complaining about it being too PC [may be] buying tickets to shows. If so, they’re the market that dictates if and when things change as far as what jokes somebody can get away with.
A lot has changed with how media and entertainment publicly engage with race since your first report in 2008 for "The Daily Show." You’ve been able to see that as a writer and correspondent on a confrontational show. Is it easier now to address race in comedy?
Comedians have talked about race for a long time, especially Black comedians. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last. There’s a comedian named Kurt Braunohler, a good dude who spent the past year touring and talking about his own privilege as a White man and making it funny and pointed. To see him do that, to me, was powerful and impressive because it’s someone talking about issues that don’t seem to affect them directly but they have an ability to help make change. I remember reading an article this summer about how TV is tackling police brutality and race. They highlighted "The Carmichael Show," "Empire" and maybe "Scandal." They were shows with Black leads and maybe Black showrunners that you would expect to cover those topics. "Black-ish" did that most recently, and it was a really powerful episode. But a part of me thinks, "When is ‘Modern Family’ going to talk about it?" To me, that’s when I see a sea change. It is sometimes the burden of the minority in any field to weigh in, so to some degree, those shows felt the weight of it more. You don’t see that weight for shows with White leads and predominantly White staff. When are those shows going to feel the responsibility to speak up? It’s the same thing in sports—when a bunch of Black athletes start wearing "I Can’t Breathe" shirts in honor of Eric Garner, I wonder, "When is Tom Brady going to put on that shirt?" If anybody should know that Black lives matter, it should be a guy like Tom Brady who’s been the beneficiary of Black lives protecting him! He has no comment on that, but he will put a "Donald Trump: Make America Great" hat in his locker?
Are you in a position to try and move the needle forward?
No. That’s one of those things where you have to ask those other people. Everybody does it differently. Me saying something is my way of doing it, but you look at someone like ["12 Years a Slave" writer and "American Crime" creator] John Ridley, and the way that he’s really fought to create and build an inclusive staff above and below the line on his show, that’s his way. That’s just as valid as, maybe, a Black actor who can command a higher salary than most Black actors, to get people to see the value of Black skin to open a movie. That did move a needle. Maybe later, someone can take a longer look at history and say that all of those things worked in concert. So let;s come back to this conversation 200 years from now, and we’ll see what it looks like from that distance. You have a time machine, right?
Wyatt Cenac’s new album, "Furry Dumb Fighter," is available now via A Special Thing Records. He will appear on TBS’ "People of Earth" and SeeSo’s "Night Train with Wyatt Cenac" later this year.