The existence of Kanye West’s semi-mythical pilot for HBO was established beyond a reasonable doubt last night when Wyatt Cenac screened the full 1/2 hour pilot at his Monday night stand up gig at Brooklyn’s Littlefield last night. If you’re on your glitterati grind you may already be aware that Gawker posted a clip of Yeezy’s ‘lost tapes’ TV moment a week or two back–which was subsequently taken down almost as quick as the rough-cut of Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” video–prompting much speculation about the quality and/or existence of the full pilot. Okayplayer homie and kitten-wrangler Cenac stepped into the breach, being one of the few humans to have a copy of the pilot as submitted to HBO–for the simple reason that he was one of the show’s main characters, a member of Kanye’s entourage named K.C. who gets odd jobs because he’s Kanye’s cousin (yes, K.C. stands for Kanye’s Cousin). So thanks to him, we can now confirm that this thing is real. All too real.
First, the basics: you already knew the show was a partially-scripted, improv heavy, mock-umentary style comedy molded consciously after Curb Your Enthusiasm, because in addition to being “Steve [Jobs] of downtown culture” Yeezy is also “the Black Larry David” (that is a quote. He actually described himself that way.)–although to be fair this was more like a hybrid of Enthusiasm and Entourage. Besides West and Cenac, the cast includes Kym Whitley (Moesha), J.B. Smoove (Real Husbands of Hollywood) and GLC (Silence of The Lames) as Kanye’s bodyguard. Also important info: With his usual ambition, Kanye responded to the call for a 30-minute pilot with a 1-hour pilot, which according to Wyatt included non-ironic interview segments with the likes of Nelson George and Boyce Watkins talking about the impact of Kanye and his music (wow). That 60 minutes of TV was chopped down to the official 30-minute version which was then officially rejected by HBO.
Second, to answer to the only question you really care about: it was not as bad as you hoped. Though there are definitely some rough spots and super-obvious jokes the whole thing drew laughs from the straining-room-only crowd with about the same regularity as the comics who held the stage down the rest of the evening (and they were damn funny, to be clear). In fact it was almost as perfect a blend of good-funny and bad-funny as you could hope for–meaning when the jokes bombed you are still watching Kanye West bomb in an improv comedy setting. Which, I, for one, would pay good money for.
Almost everything else about the show had a similar glass half full/empty quality to it. Many of the jokes were too easy (“I’m not talking about Kanye East!”) or felt rehashed from the habitual racial line-stepping of Chappelle’s Show (in one early sequence, Ye’s white limo driver gets confused when the same street is referred to as MLK Blvd, King Blvd, Martin Luther Something Blvd, etc. Kanye points out that “mispronouncing Martin Luther, The King Jr’s name is almost as bad saying n**ger.” The driver proceeds to ask someone on the phone for directions from N**ger Blvd. Pandemonium ensues). The clunkiest part may have been the constant use of fish-eye lens to squeeze all 9 members of Kanye’s entourage into the frame at once, with Yeezy always in the middle, a look Questlove–who joined Cenac onstage for the pilot’s intro–described as “the ultimate Beastie Boys video.” On the other hand even that helped set up the claustrophobic fame experienced by Kanye’s comic persona, who spent most of his time staring at the camera with a deer-in-headlights look that is both hilarious and yet fails to give the story a real center. In fact, the pilot’s true Achilles heel is that too much of the story was apparently off-loaded onto the characters around Kanye who, according to Cenac, lacked confidence in his improv skills. When HBO saw it, the consensus was ‘Not Enough Kanye’ and they proceeded to pare it down. The resulting 30 minutes has Kanye on camera for most of it–and yet still delivers not enough Kanye, since he left himself with not much to do.
Easily the funniest part of the entire affair, though, was the backstory and running commentary from Cenac and Questlove who provided the very-unauthorized DVD Xtraz to the pilot, including the time Kanye stopped filming to take a call from Tom Cruise while everyone listened (a Tom Cruise character was eventually played by a lookalike) and Questo’s anecdote about an ex-girlfriend who worked on the show and taunted him that she was going to sleep with Kanye–and then ended up with his barber. Not surprisingly, GLC was the star of some of the best extras in Wyatt’s recollections, including the fact that he refused to wear the make-up that the crew insisted on applying to reduce the sheen from his baldie. He eventually relented on the condition that it was never called make-up, insisting instead on ‘Player Powder’–resulting in frequent shouts of ‘I need to get my Player Powder looked at!” on set, delivered in all seriousness. These (and other) xtraz added a whole another layer of comedy to an evening that already had 2 flaky layers of goodness and badness respectively–and the final sprinkle of sea salt on top was provided by the knowledge that Cenac really had no business having or screening the show at all, but did so on kind of a whim and with a minimum of publicity. “I figured if I did it as a surprise, there’s nothing HBO could really do about it. Except keep me out of HBO shows–which they’re already doing.” Which underscores another one of the show’s main problems–Not Enough Cenac.