As Jon Stewart winds down his run as host of "The Daily Show" (his final episode airs August 6, his legacy will largely be one of poignant and enlightened satire on the state of politics and media in America. New remarks from Wyatt Cenac, however, threaten that image of Stewart and make him out to be both overly-sensitive to criticism and unwilling to see the racist implications of some bits.
In an episode of the "WTF with Marc Maron" podcast that aired yesterday, the comedian and former "Daily Show" writer/correspondent described a tense and unsettling interaction with Stewart. The conflict happened over a bit during the 2012 presidential race, in which Stewart was parodying various candidates and made fun of Herman Cain by using what was seen by many as a racist and caricatured voice. Cenac described watching the bit from home and thinking that Stewart made an unknowingly ignorant mistake:
"I don’t think this is from a malicious place, but I think this is from a naïve, ignorant place. Oh no, you just did this and you didn’t think about it. It was just the voice that came into your head. And so it bugged me."
Stewart was attacked by frequent enemy Fox News over the voice, and intended to respond with another bit of his own (which he eventually did). He originally envisioned an "Avenue Q"-style "all my impressions are racist" rebuttal, and said as much in an e-mail listserv with his writers. Cenac, who was the only black "Daily Show" writer at the time, e-mailed back over his concerns, and brought them up again later on in a meeting with other writers. In the meeting, Cenac brought up that the bit made him cringe, and that he thought it sounded like the "Amos ‘n’ Andy" character Kingfish (one of numerous characters derided for minstrel show-like stereotyping). That was when Stewart lambasted him:
[Stewart] got incredibly defensive. I remember he was like, What are you trying to say? There’s a tone in your voice. I was like, "There’s no tone. It bothered me. It sounded like Kingfish." And then he got upset. And he stood up and he was just like, "Fuck off. I’m done with you." And he just started screaming that to me. And he screamed it a few times. "Fuck off! I’m done with you." And he stormed out. And I didn’t know if I had been fired."
The dispute eventually ended, but Cenac was shaken up and went outside to sob. He also addressed feeling isolated and like had to represent a minority viewpoint while writing on the show:
"Something like this, I represent my community, I represent my people, and I try to represent them the best that I can. I gotta be honest if something seems questionable, because if not, then I don’t want to be in a position where I am being untrue not just to myself but to my culture, because that’s exploitative. I’m just allowing something to continue if I’m just going to go along with it. And sadly, I think that’s the burden a lot of people have to have when you are “the one.” You represent something bigger than yourself whether you want to or not."
Click here to listen to Cenac’s full conversation with Maron, in which he also addresses his relationship with his parents and pursuit of SNL stardom.