The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac on Avoiding Miami Zombies and "King of Flops" LeBron James
Wyatt Cenac: has one more Emmy than LeBron has championship rings
When former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac headlines the Friends of Nature music and comedy festival on November 9 and 10, it will be because of a called-in favor for an old pal.
"I would say that Nature and I have been friends probably ever since we both fell out of favor with Nurture," he reveals exclusively to Cultist. "That's what bonded us: we were both like, what's up with Nurture? Nurture's way too sensitive."
The Friends of Nature Festival is billing itself as the first-ever entirely carbon-neutral event held in Miami, with all power being renewably sourced and using offsets to cancel out the impact of bringing acts like Cenac and Escort, a 17-piece disco band, down from New York.
"I personally don't know how to gauge the size of my carbon footprint," Cenac admits. "If I'm in my apartment and I can leave the lamps off, I do. I don't keep the fridge door open for hours at a time. I don't want to say that I'm doing great because somebody could say that I watch too much television and that it's wasting energy. And I do have a giant steel drum where I burn things. That's just for me, not for heat. It keeps me grounded."
For nearly four years, Cenac brought a giddy faux naiveté to his correspondent pieces for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, delicately picking apart hypocrisy in the outrage against a mosque opening near the World Trade Center site and in the racial complexities of the Treyvon Martin shooting. He also won three Emmy awards as part of the show's writing team, but standup was where he began and what he chose to leave The Daily Show to return to. Increasingly, this means performances at combination music and comedy festivals like Friends of Nature.
"On some level, they pair well," Cenac says. "If you're at a music festival like Bonnaroo, the comedy stage is in an air conditioned tent. Ultimately, a lot of the people who are coming to see us are so grateful to not have sunstroke, plus they're all so dehydrated from drinking and dancing that they'll laugh at anything, and wind up being a great crowd."
Cenac stresses that for legal reasons he cannot recommend "gathering dehydrated high people in a tent" as "the ideal situation," but, well, it does sound pretty good.
Lawsuits are not all that are keeping Cenac on tenterhooks.
"I'm caught up in a wave of fear," he admits. "I'm terrified to go down there but I'm hopeful that there is enough security to keep the weird zombie people on bath salts away from me."
A valid concern but one easily assuaged by remaining vigilant.
"I don't know," Cenac says. "I think you can't be certain and you need to approach each person as though they might try to eat your face."
First line of defense: not using sriracha as a facial moisturizer. Second: doing some reconnaissance, something Cenac did on his last visit to town to play the Miami Improv during one of the many recent Heat championship series.
"They'd been showing the game in the club and it went into overtime, going past when it was time to start the show," Cenac remembers. "Somebody starts pulling the screen up and all of the sudden the whole crowd goes, 'ROAAAAR!'
"So, somebody comes back stage, and says, 'Hey, we know you're supposed to start but the crowd's been watching this game. Do you mind waiting until it's over?'
"Thankfully, the Heat won that game. The amount of anger that crowd had at not getting to finish watching the game -- if the Heat lost, those people were going to be furious and so it was the only time I've ever rooted for the Heat to win."
Cenac, you see, is no great fan of LeBron James, a man who has done more for Florida than Ponce de Leon, Henry Flagler, Walt Disney and all our facial tattoo artists combined.
"He takes a lot of flops," Cenac explains, as though there were video evidence to back up his theory or something. "He's quite the flopper, but he pretends as though he isn't. Very early in his career, he was crowned the king of something, but I'm not sure what that was. He's not the king of scoring, and he has only two championships whereas Kobe Bryant has six or seven, so he's not the king of championships. So flops, that may be what he is the king of. On some level, Dwayne Wade is the duke of flops."
But his Miami Improv incident was hardly Cenac's most fraught standup performance. There was that time where he and fellow Friends of Nature performer Matt Braunger did a show in a Home Depot parking lot.
"It went horribly," he says. "It went more horribly than you can imagine."
Cenac, Braunger and two other comics were shooting a television pilot in Los Angeles. Herewith, Cenac relives his trauma, a version of which he told in Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me film:
"We were put in a van and would essentially show up to places where people did not want a show and then do a show. They'd set up a stage and have cocktail waitresses. This was the heyday of the prank show. And one of the places we went was a Home Depot parking lot early in the morning, to perform for the migrant workers hanging around in the parking lot, looking for work.
"I don't know if people know this but often with these workers, English is not their first language and, in some cases, may not be their second language. And so they did not understand a single thing.
"So the workers were just staring at the comics. I was the last one to go up on this leg of the pain tour and was watching the others just eat it. And I was like, this is awful.
"I go into the crowd and ask, 'Does anyone speak English?' and there's one guy who says he can. This is America, the land of opportunity, where if you work hard, the streets are paved with gold. So I offered him 20 bucks to translate my jokes but he said no, he didn't want to do that.
"I went up and did my set. It was going as expected. Since I knew it was for TV, I knew they were going to need some cutaway shots and I didn't want them to be of people just ignoring me. I figured I would get them all cheering and end on a high note.
"I'm still telling my jokes and at the same time, trying to remember what junior high Spanish I can. And I think that I'll end by saying, "Long live the immigrant!' My father was an immigrant, my stepfather was an immigrant. I have a lot of respect for immigrants.
"As I'm wrapping up, I say, 'Before I go, I have one more thing to say to you guys. Viva la migra!
"Now, if you don't know Spanish, then you don't know that 'la migra' apparently does not mean 'the immigrant' but means 'the immigration police.'
"They all start screaming Spanish words that I knew, because they were curse words, and rushing toward me. And the crew yells, 'Throw him in the van!' and they do, but then the crowd rushes the van, the guy I'd asked to translate leading the charge."
Cenac still partially blames Matt Braunger for the disaster so things may be a bit icy backstage at Friends of Nature. That's okay with Cenac.
"It's so different from being in a band," he says of being behind the scenes at a comedy show. "You're just going to see a bunch of neurotic people pacing back and forth, not an orgy like being backstage with one of the bands. But it means you kind of get to disappear in the crowd and check out the bands."
In addition to comedy, of course, there is plenty of music at Friends of Nature, like Miami favorites Deaf Poets and Afrobeta and headliners We Are Scientists and Matisyahu, the latter having recently shaved off his trademark beard. Does Cenac think that Matisyahu was intimidated by Cenac's formidable whiskers?
"That just might be the heat," Cenac says with what sounds like false modesty. A strange sound rustles through the telephone receiver, suspiciously like a stick of warm butter being rubbed against a beard to condition it and add gloss. "I might get down there and shave my beard because it's warm down there. It's humid."
The humidity and heat are only going to get worse if we don't start doing more to protect our planet. One way that Cenac believes people can lessen their environmental impact is by taking public transportation.
"Aside from less pollution, if you bike or walk more, you might find yourself one or two percent healthier," he says. "And it gets us in each other's faces a little more which I think makes us all a little more empathetic. There's something kind of nice about watching a teenager give up his seat to an elderly person on a bus, something that shows maybe we're not as jaded as we thought."
And though public transportation is certainly not one of South Florida's strong suits, one of our primary natural resources is elderly people.
"Maybe we can release the old people from their old folks' homes and use them from fuel," Cenac theorizes. "Isn't that what we send them down to Florida for in the first place?"
Wyatt Cenac headlines the 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. comedy blocks on Saturday, November 9 and Sunday, November 10. The Friends of Nature Festival takes place in Historic Viriginia Key Beach Park. Tickets cost $65 for a general admission two-day pass or $45 for one day, $170 for a two-day VIP pass or $100 for one day. Tickets, along with the full lineup and schedule, at FONFest.com.
Send your story tips to Cultist at email@example.com.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.