Wyatt Cenac Speaks OutFormer Daily Show Correspondent Wyatt Cenac talks racism in media, Jon Stewart, and his next steps.
For about three days last year, the spotlight shifted to Wyatt Cenac, the former Daily Show correspondent who was told by Jon Stewart—after a heated disagreement over a racially insensitive joke—to “F*ck off.” Unfortunately, the ephemerality of the Internet nestled in, and we promptly moved on to the next outrage. But Cenac isn’t some one-hit wonder who candidly discussed his relationship with Stewart to drum up attention. He’s here to stay.
Coming off the heels of his successful comedy special released by Netflix (Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn), Cenac stars in Jacqueline, a thriller-comedy that premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival. Cenac on the racism embedded in established institutions, the purpose of his stand-up routines, and, of course, Mr. Stewart.
THE RED BULLETIN: In the last month it seems every artist of colour is being asked to go on record about the lily-white Oscars. Why do you think this still happens?
WYATT CENAC: I do find it troublesome, and I feel like it’s the easy narrative to want to run with. The same things don’t get asked to white actors. It feels like the questions need to be asked, but you’re asking the questions to the people who aren’t actually in the position to change it. Or in the position to bring something to the conversation that is different. Like, in sports, all the athletes who wound up wearing —after the Eric Garner decision—I Can’t Breathe t-shirts, Tom Brady never put on one of those t-shirts, and nobody ever asked that dude, Hey, how do you feel about it?
He was too busy (*possibly) cheating?
[Laughs] He never put on one of those t-shirts, nobody asked him about it, and he’s the first person to be, like, ‘Well, I’m an athlete.’ But he also had a Donald Trump, Make America Great hat sitting in his locker for weeks.
And he could’ve offered a lot of visibility to Garner.
If anything, he makes people think about having that conversation in a different way. Because it all gets focused on, What do black people think? Then the narrative gets pushed, Black People Are Mad. And then, it’s not just a black and white issue…
Especially in the Oscars, where there hasn’t been strong representation of Latinos or Asians.
If you look up a photo of Tony Mendez, I can understand him saying, Oh, I don’t mind Ben Affleck playing me, because Ben Affleck is a tall handsome dude, and Mendez, if you look at him, is a little short guy with a weird little bushy moustache. And as much as we’re talking about Oscars are so white, they’re also so white because a movie like Argo can get made and no one is talking about how that movie got white-washed. Or The Revenant, that whole thing about Leonardo DiCaprio and his Native American kid, I don’t even think that’s real. I think that’s just bullshit they made up to make his character seem down to Earth or some shit.
Do you miss The Daily Show?
There is something that is very nice and almost addictive about a show like The Daily Show where almost every night you can respond to something. Stand up is maybe the closest parallel, but your audience is smaller and the resources you have are just a microphone and your mouth.
In your stand up, does eliciting laughter trump everything else?
You want them to laugh for the right reasons. A joke is like an experiment, and you have your hypothesis that you think this idea is funny for this reason, and then telling it on stage is the experimentation phase, and afterwards you conclude the results. And they may have laughed, but maybe they didn’t laugh for the reason you thought they were going to laugh. But ultimately, you’re trying to elicit some kind of reaction and response.
When you and Stewart had that argument, was it reminiscent of that moment when you realized your parents aren’t perfect? Like the foundation was not as sturdy as you thought.
We all put people on pedestals, especially when it’s somebody that you admire. And sometimes, in doing that, it allows us to ignore their humanity. So when somebody you’ve put on a pedestal disappoints you, it feels weird because they’ve just been humanized.
How much did that one argument color your perception of him?
You know, my expectations of any person are mine and mine alone, and if a person disappoints me, then I have a decision I have to make. I have to do what’s best for me.