Is Wyatt Cenac's New 'Night Train' Series TV Or Stand Up Comedy? Yes It Is.
If you live in TV-land, Wyatt Cenac is that dude who made The Daily Show dryly hilarious with his incredible run as writer and correspondent before ultimately parting ways (and then briefly, awkwardly, touchingly reuniting with) host Jon Stewart. (Hell, if you live on Okayplayer TV-land, he's that guy playing with kittens and interviewing Joey Bada$$, but I humble-brag.) If you live in Brooklyn, however, he is the guy you go watch as he induces a club full of people to hurt themselves laughing. There's nothing dry about his long-running, open format stand up residency at Littlefield, or his talent for unearthing the most amazingly bad b-movies of all time for his Shouting At The Screen movie night series with Donwill.
Cenac returns to terrestrial TV this fall in the TBS series Earth People, described as an "alien abduction comedy" produced by Conan O'Brien's Conaco in conjunction with Warner Horizon and directed by Greg Daniels (of The Office and Parks & Recreation fame). But in between he is taking us on The Night Train--a new series which debuts on NBC Universal's SeeSo platform tomorrow June 30th--and which is something not quite TV and not quite stand up comedy. Wyatt was gracious enough to take Okayplayer's call and break it all down for us, as well as providing a glimpse into the behind the scenes preparations for Earth People. Read on--and if you don't live in Brooklyn, hit play on clips from the series to learn just how lit dry can be.
OKP: So what is this new series about?
Wyatt Cenac: Well, I've been doing this residency at Littlefield for about four years now, so we basically put cameras on what I've been doing there, which is a good chunk of stand up from me but also a lot of guests coming through. We have some people probably know like Roy Wood, Jr., Michael Che, Janeane Garofalo, Eugene Mirman,Hannibal [Buress] and some great people who are less known like Sasheer Zamata.
OKP: Now as I remember, this is the same venue where in the middle of one stand up session, you screened Kanye's unreleased HBO pilot [which you were cast in] correct?
WC: Yep, that's correct.
OKP: Does the taped series include some surprises like that, or things where you just kinda scrapped a regular stand up routine and brought in other things to bounce of of?
WC: Yeah, there's both. There's a lot of just stand up, both from me and people I invited but also we had Ahmir [Questlove] come through and we challenged him with like a gameshow thing about sneakers? 'Cause he's known to have about 2000 pairs of sneakers, so we played a game with him to see if he could identify shoes he owns, as opposed to shoes he doesn't own...
OKP: How'd he do?
WC: Pretty good. He was pretty good with picking out his own shoes. We also did a thing where basically just decided to cash in on the whole Hamilton phenomenon and so I wrote a hip-hop musical about Grover Cleveland that involves rap battles between Jean Grae and Shamir, of course Donwill from Tanya Morgan DJing and getting on the mic.
OKP: That's one of the things that I've always loved about the times I've seen you do stand up live, is the willingness to just go off-format, it's kind of the best parts of a TV show and live comedy...which would you say is your focus? I know you're always working on ideas for TV or script treatments on the side, do you hold some of those back, are you trying them out in stand up first?
WC: Well, I've kind of always done stand up for the last 10 years now, with a job [in TV] or without a job. I like TV as a medium, so as a creator for this I wanted to play with the way we shot it and the set design, to come up with some things to make people say, That's cool. Glad you showed that to us. As opposed to, Why the hell'd you show that to us? To make it more of a variety show. The squad for this job was very flexible but there was not a huge budget, we weren't gonna buld a set for it or anything, we shot at Littlefield pretty much the way the way it's set-up but that does present some challenges to people filming live shows in there. So I brought things, I'd sketch things out email them to people. I have a great resource in Julie Miller--she does RIOT for Refinery29--so for the Cleveland musical or the Wyatt variety show elements, Julie try to track down things we needed, to visualize weird things in my brain or to help showcase other comedians
OKP: So how does that play out in the writing process--are you actually writing a treatment for a legit Grover Cleveland musical or an animated series, and then just monologuing off of that live? Or are you writing those ideas down as bits in a more conventional hour of stand up material?
WC: It's a little bit of both. I do develop a lot of ideas that demand a certain format to realize them, so if I dont have the tools to that [in a live setting] then it just lives in that animé world. But at the same timewhen I'm pitching it...there is a performative aspect to that. so it's almost like stand up. You know, if you're trying to sell an idea that's supposed to be funny you're kind of in stand up mode even when you're in a business meeting, so that does give me more material.
You know, I've released three albums now and with each one you're basically crafting an hour that makes the transitions feel seamless but there is modular elements to it. You know before Night Train I did the record Furry Dumb Fighter and when I do stand up now, I still do a modified version of some of it but with updated material. It always goes off in different directions, 'cause I'm not really a one-liner comic.
OKP: That process of keep the material fresh is such an integral part of good stand up--playing off the audience and what happened that day. If you were going to Littlefield tonight, what would you be riffing off of?
WC: Well, I did it Monday--I didn't have much, really, and I was honest about it because I have to leave town for three months so I'm just focused on getting my housing situation together. Which is not funny to me right now. It might be someday, but right now it's more panic-inducing.
But on Monday I went and talked about this little old lady pointing to a baby and saying she looked just like North West...just how crazy it is, that people checking for celebrity babies like that.
OKP: Where are you going?
WC: I'm shooting next month in Toronto for three months on this TBS series Earth People. It's a 30-minute sci fi comedy. The creator has described it as a funny show that will still develop a plot, explore character relationships. The show is about buncha people who claim to be abducted by aliens, and we learn in pilot they might not be as nutty as the world thinks.
OKP: Which sounds--just from knowing your encyclopedic knowledge of movies, especially amazingly bad sci-fi movies--like kind of a dream project.
WC: It should be interesting. It's uncharted territory, really. But there's a lot of talented people involved behind the cameras and funny people in front of the camera, s I'm excited, and hopefully we'll go off in July and make something that people will dig. And TBS will give a Derek Jeter gift basket of shitty gifts.
OKP: That's what they do?
WC: I mean based on TBS's track record with gifts, a Jeter basket would be so much more valuable...last time they gave everybody those hoverboard things? stamped with their logo on it. I took it to "Night Train" and Eugene Mirman performed stand up on it. And then I gave it to Donwill and like, because it's a Turner property they also stamped the TNT logo on it. That's how bad it is--like somebody should have pointed that something with a reputation for blowing up should probably not have "TNT" stamped on it.
OKP: That's such a beautiful note to end on...but of course, I have to squeeze in one more question: You came as part of, I would say, sort of the Okayplayer moment of comedy. I mean there was a whole wave of I guess you could say "indie" comics, including yourself and Hannibal, who came in and changed the game, and supported each other as a sort of collective. Now that a bunch of you have graduated to bigger things so to speak, do you all keep in touch, is everybody to busy killing it?
WC: Well yeah, there's a definite sense of community. And it's a mixture; in my world comedians and musicians overlap, all of us knowing each other those people will hit me up when they're in town, they drop in and do a show. There really has not been a person who's like, See you all later. It's still all love and respect and that's whats nice about it--and you feel proud that you were in this person's life when they made this leap. Like Donald [Glover] and I overlapped in NY and then he went and did Community and was working on his first mixtape, and there's a real sense of camaraderie and just, Look at that. I picked some talented friends.
Our producer Marianne books the guest comedians for Night Train and that's really the heart and soul of the show; they know theres a place they can come and get on stage and hang out and that there's and audience that wants to hear them.
OKP: So what's next for you? Well as I said, I fly out mid-July and Toronto is really fucking up with their Airbnb situation right now, so....you know, if Drake's not using his house, let me know.