Wyatt Cenac on The Daily Show, Michael Steele, and Rally to Restore Sanity
Named one of Variety's 2009 comics to watch, Wyatt Cenac has crept into the national consciousness thanks to his gig as a correspondent on The Daily Show, earning an Emmy for his contributions on the writing staff. Not content with resting on his Emmy winning laurels, Wyatt is in town this weekend preparing for the filming of his first comedy special. We talked to Wyatt about writing for The Daily Show, Muppet Michael Steele, hip hop, and how the Rally for Sanity left him feeling like a Hooters waitress. Wyatt is performing at the Miami Improv tonight through this Saturday.
New Times: I understand that you are working on a comedy special that's taping at the end of this month. This is your first big special, what has your process been to prepare yourself for such a big endeavor?
Wyatt Cenac: Wow, I've never thought of it like that. That puts a lot of pressure on me, thanks.
Is it tough developing stand-up material simultaneously with working full time on The Daily Show?
I don't get out as often as I like. Usually when we have weeks off I try to go out and do shows, whether it's colleges or festivals. I did the Pitchfork festival this summer, which was lots of fun. I've done Bonaroo and Bumbershoot. This weekend is one of the rare times when I've had to take time off from The Daily Show to do shows. I guess if I wanted to be an asshole about it I could be like "Miami, you should be very thankful that I took off work for this." But that would be me being an asshole about it. Instead I'd rather guilt you all and say "I called in sick for this. I'm not getting paid by (my) job."
What goes into the process of writing for The Daily Show?
We come in at nine where the writing staff, the segment producers, and Jon get in a room and look at highlights of the previous night's news broadcast and pundit shows and seeing if there was anything interesting or any particular narrative that we want to deal with on the show. Around 10:30 a.m. we break from that meeting and assign people to write particular portions of that day's show. And you have about an hour to turn in your draft of whatever it is you're working on. Jon will look at it, he'll make his changes, there will be a rewrite. At about 3 p.m. we rehearse it. At 5:30 p.m. we bring in an audience, tape it. Post will clean it up and then it's fresh baked onto your TV by 11 p.m.
When writing, do certain subjects or bits stand out as things you want to tackle as a correspondent on the show versus something written for Jon?
If something speaks to me personally, then maybe I'll throw something out as an idea, but for the most part with the correspondents it's who's available. It's not a very competitive environment where everybody is trying to get in the ear of the writers. For the most part, everybody is pretty laid back.
One of your first big bits was a field piece where you interviewed older Jews about their thoughts on Barack Obama during the lead up to the 2008 election. Daily Show correspondents often say the field pieces are one of the more difficult aspects of the job. Do you enjoy them or do you find them taxing?
It's a mix. They're fun to do. Especially when it's a fun story. It is a challenge. You're talking to someone and you're hoping they'll say something that will make the piece funny. Because you may go out, and shoot stuff, and if there isn't something good, they don't air it. We've killed quite a few field pieces. There is the challenge of talking to a person and having to play verbal judo with them a little bit where you have to keep going back and forth. And a lot of the time you get to do very silly things. It's a shame because all of us have great stuff in field pieces that never aired that are just sitting on tapes somewhere.
The Jon Stewart iteration of The Daily Show has been on air for around 12 years now, and it seemed as though common wisdom in the wake of the 2008 election was 'Oh, with a liberal president and congress the show won't have the bite it once did.' And yet, 2010 was a banner year for the show that proved itself as relevant as ever with things like the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Going into it, we had no idea how it was going to be received. Our goal was hopefully everybody leaves it having enjoyed themselves. And hopefully more than a thousand people show up. When you're working it, to me, it kind of feels like being a server at Hooters or Dave & Busters where everybody else there is having a great time. And they get to enjoy the music and the whole atmosphere, but for me a lot of it was work, where it was 'Oh it seems like a lot of people are having fun, that's good. Ok, I'm going to go bus some tables now.' Once it was over I could watch it on television and see the show and see how much people dug it.
One of The Daily Show bits from this year that has received a lot of positive feedback online is 'Muppet Michael Steele,' where you voice the beleaguered RNC chairman in Muppet form with a ridiculous speech pattern. What was the genesis of that particular bit?
It was sort of an interesting thing how that whole thing came about. Jon kept making the joke that Michael Steele looks like the Muppet that always orders soup at Grover's restaurant, I think his name is Mr. Brown or something like that. One day we decided we should actually go and get the Muppet, because another writer, Elliott Kalan, and I were at F.A.O. Schwarz where they have something called a Make Your Own Muppet Workshop. So we made a Muppet for fun, and just had them do a Michael Steele Muppet.
When it came time to do the voice of it, it was one of those things where I was just thinking about how I didn't want to do an impression of Michael Steele because I'm not great at impressions. But he thinks he's kind of this hip, street guy, while using this slang from late 1980s hip hop. He's trying to come off as cool and winds up sounding like Bootsy Collins. And that's why the Muppet is always saying 'bibble' a lot. It's all an homage to Bootsy Collins, who I think Michael Steele is like 'that's the coolest guy around, I should be just like him!'
It's a great way to lampoon Michael Steele, because he's such a ridiculous personality to begin with.
So many politicians are, though, ridiculous characters. And I think some of that is on their part knowing they have to do something to stand out. If they can be slightly weird, they can get enough attention for themselves. But also there is an argument to be made whenever someone makes the analogy 'D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people'. It kind of is.
Most politicians, if someone were to offer then a million dollars to do a reality show on TLC, they would do it. We make fun of Sarah Palin for being a person who really didn't want to be a politician, she wants to be a TV star but to a certain degree they all sort of want to. They're happy to show up on all the Sunday talk shows and argue and it's kind of sad. In some ways the media culture has only just gone to their heads in a way where Michael Steele, who's job is effectively to raise money for the Republican party, seems more interested in raising his personal profile. And it's bipartisan, that kind of jackassery.
Hip hop seems to be a reoccurring theme in your comedy, where you've done bits with Slim Thug on The Daily Show and have worked with Common and Kanye West in FunnyOrDie videos and other projects.
I like doing that stuff. It's fun. I grew up listening to hip hop, being around the same age as some of those guys like Kanye. I'm sure at some point in my life I probably had some thought of 'I could be a rapper! So I get to play in that world. It only helps to inform what I do on stage and gives it an honesty I might not be able to have if I were talking about music I'm not quite as familiar with. I enjoy poking fun at it, being a fan, and able to criticize it.
A couple of years ago you made your film debut with a starring turn in Barry Jenkin's indie drama Medicine for Melancholy. It's a beautiful film with a particularly strong performance from you. Is dramatic acting something you want to pursue further?
I would love to do more of it. It's a matter of offers being made and those projects being out there and me having time to do them. But it was a really great experience. Actually, everybody who worked on it besides me and the other lead, Tracey Heggins, were all Florida kids from the Florida State film program. They just sort of came together with this project they all believed in. Barry, the director, may be in Miami this weekend and I think we're supposed to meet and catch up.
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