'Comedy Person' Wyatt Cenac Does News For Laughs

Originally published on August 29, 2011 9:54 am

Are dogs racist? Why is TV the best roommate you'll ever have? Those are some of the questions Wyatt Cenac addresses in his new DVD and CD of stand-up comedy, Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person.

Cenac is best known for his work on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, where he goes out into the field to interview real people — and then makes them look ridiculous. In one recent story, he reported on the growing threat of importing oil from dangerous regimes — like Canada.

Cenac tells NPR's David Greene that when people recognize him at restaurants, they all usually ask the same thing: "The first question is, 'Do the people that you talk to in the field pieces ... know what you're doing?' And secondly, 'Ooh, carrot ginger soup!' "

He says that while there was once a time when interview subjects could be fooled by The Daily Show's serious-sounding name, those days are over.

"It's rare to find somebody that we interview that doesn't know what the show is," he says. "The people who I've interviewed, for the most part, they have an opinion. And they want to get their opinion out there."

Wyatt Cenac's 'American Identity'

Cenac first became interested in comedy as a child watching Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show. At the time, he says, he thought his interest meant he wanted to be a doctor, like Cosby's character. But it wasn't long before he found that he was really interested in Cosby's ability to make people laugh, a fascination that has had a lasting effect.

"Every impression that I do is just a terrible variation on an awful Bill Cosby impression," he says. "You're doing an Australian accent, but it's just Australian Bill Cosby; or that's just British Bill Cosby; that's Pirate Bill Cosby."

Still, Cenac hasn't completely taken after Cosby. While the legendary comic was known for leaving race out of his routines, Cenac tackles it head-on. The Daily Show sometimes introduces him as its "black correspondent," but Cenac says talking about race for him is really just a consequence of talking about life.

"A lot of the things I do deal with my race, but my race is who I am," he says. "I'm an American kid who grew up listening to predominantly hip-hop. I will talk about hip-hop as the music I grew up listening to, and I think sometimes people like to put it as, 'Oh, well, he's talking about black things.' And, yeah, they are, but that's my American identity."

Finding The Funny Amid Frustration

Much like his work on The Daily Show, Cenac's album asks the questions many would never think to ask — like, can you really rock out to public radio?

"There are certain things that you can blast through a stereo. You can blast hip-hop. You can blast heavy metal," Cenac says in his album. "You can't blast All Things Considered. Just think, I'm going to be like, 'Oh, s---! Are they talking about that new Michael Chabon book? That's my jam! Turn it up! I want to hear what they have to say about his perceptive use of metaphors!"

But the album also deals with serious issues, like the 2005 ad campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that compared the animal rights movement to the civil rights movement.

Cenac says that in order to joke about the PETA campaign, he had to find a way to reconcile his anger about such comparisons with the fact that he wants to make people laugh. The resulting joke is both poignant and funny:

There's a picture of a slave. And he's in shackles and he's got whip marks all up and down, and it's really brutal. And then next to it is a picture of an elephant at the circus. He's got a little shackle around his foot, presumably so he doesn't get into the peanuts, but not because freedom's gonna turn him into some sort of George Washington Ba-Barver.

"As frustrated or as annoyed as I was seeing it, there was something that I also found inherently funny about it, about the ridiculousness of it," Cenac tells Greene. "To me, I think it becomes a thing of, 'Oh, let me share the ridiculousness of it.' "

"I make jokes," he says. "That's what I do."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Are dogs racist and why is TV the best roommate you will ever have? Those are some of the questions pondered by comedian Wyatt Cenac, whose stand-up act has just been released in a new DVD and CD. Cenac is best known for his work on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."

As a correspondent, he travels in the field to interview real people and then he goes and makes them look ridiculous. In a recent story, Cenac reported on the growing threat of importing oil from dangerous regimes - the most dangerous, Canada.

Mr. WYATT CENAC (Correspondent, "The Daily Show"): I flew to the oil fields of Alberta to confront our Canadian oil overlords.

Would you prefer that I call you Sheikh, or oil lord, or Your Lordship?

DREW: Im senior vice president. But I mean you could just call me Drew.

Mr. CENAC: Would you agree that Canada is a blood and oil soaked rapetocracy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DREW: Oh, no. Canada is a very welcoming, warm country. There's no reason we can't continue to be great neighbors.

Mr. CENAC: Such arrogance.

GREENE: And Wyatt Cenac joins us from our New York studio. Welcome to the program, Wyatt.

Mr. CENAC: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Pull the curtain back a little bit, if you can. Did you let this guy know that this was an absolute comic routine that he was becoming a part of?

Mr. CENAC: I think that's the question a lot of people often ask when they stop me at a restaurant as I'm about to eat my soup. They say, you know...

GREENE: Can I have some of that soup.

Mr. CENAC: Yeah, that's usually the second question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: The first question is: Do the people that you talk to in the field pieces, do they know what you're doing? And secondly, Ooh, carrot ginger soup.

GREENE: So what's the answer to that question?

Mr. CENAC: People know. It's weird. I think there was a time when people didn't know what "The Daily Show" was and so they were kind of like, oh, OK. Yeah, "The Daily Show." That sounds like a news show. People now - it's rare to find somebody that we interview that doesn't know what the show is. The people who I've interviewed, for the most part, they have an opinion. And they want to get their opinion out there.

GREENE: How and when did you get interested in comedy?

Mr. CENAC: When I was little, I remember, I remember seeing like Bill Cosby on "The Cosby Show" and thinking I want to do that. And initially, I think in my kid brain, I thought that meant I wanted to be a doctor.

GREENE: Dr. Huxtable.

Mr. CENAC: Yeah. Then I realized like I think I was around may be 11 or 12, when I remember I was at my friend Brian's house. And there was one day when a friend of his was over and I can't even remember what it specifically was. But we were just having a conversation and I said something and I remember she laughed. And all of a sudden I was like, Oh wow, that feels good. I was like...

GREENE: I just did that. I just did that.

Mr. CENAC: Yeah, and I was like say something else - brain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: And then I remember going on like a little run. And I just remember thinking like this is such a rush. And it always then became about recapturing that feeling - just making somebody laugh that hard.

GREENE: Well, a lot of the humor on your new stand-up album and also on "The Daily Show" is about you being African-American. I guess I'm wondering, is the only full-time black correspondent on "The Daily Show," do you see it as sort of your role to address race?

Mr. CENAC: No. For me it's weird. I see it as a lot of things I do deal with my race, but my race is who I am. And so I am an American kid who grew up listening to predominantly hip-hop. I will talk about hip-hop as the music I grew up listening to, and I think sometimes people like to put it as like, Oh, well, he's talking about black things. And, yeah, they are, but that's my American identity. And so I think I see it like that.

GREENE: You tried to tackle a serious topic in a humorous way in your stand-up, the idea that some used civil rights movement to justify fighting for animal rights.

Mr. CENAC: Yeah, there was a PETA campaign where they compared the animal rights movement to the right the civil rights Movement.

(Soundbite of Cenac stand-up act)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: There's a picture of like a slave, and he's in shackles. And he's got like whip marks all up and down and it's really brutal. And then next to it is a picture of an elephant at the circus. He's got a little shackle around his foot, presumably so he doesn't get into the peanuts...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: ...but not because freedom's going to turn him into some sort of George Washington Ba-Barver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: How do you deal with your being offended and your anger at things like that while you have people just laughing in hysterics?

Mr. CENAC: Well, to me, I think that's the thing is like as frustrated or as annoyed as I was seeing it, there was something that I also found inherently funny about it, about the ridiculousness of it. And so, to me, I think it becomes a thing of, Oh, let me share the ridiculousness of it and that's what I do. I make jokes. I am paid to make jokes.

GREENE: I read that you were considered for a cast position on "Saturday Night Live," where you might have played President Obama.

Mr. CENAC: I had heard that too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: I would hope that you heard about it, if it were true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Maybe somebody had talked to my agent at the time. And I think there was a time when they were looking.

GREENE: Can you give us your best Obama?

Mr. CENAC: Well, that's the thing. My Obama impression is terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Like I...

GREENE: So who do you do with that's just perfect for you?

Mr. CENAC: Every impression I do is just a terrible variation on an awful Bill Cosby impression I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Everything is you're doing an Australian accent but it just Australian Bill Cosby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Or thats just British Bill Cosby, that's pirated Bill Cosby...

GREENE: What does Australian Bill Cosby sound like?

Mr. CENAC: Okay, here's - I just grabbed a piece of paper that was sitting here. And...

GREENE: I wonder what sitting around our New York bureau. You should tell me.

Mr. CENAC: It's the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED script.

GREENE: Okay.

Mr. CENAC: Like this is my Cosby we all impression.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. The News Corps. board of directors met yesterday for the first time since the phone hacking and corruption scandal ended last month. The main thing comes amid growing scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch's leadership as chairman and CEO. TEXT: GREENE: Wow.

Mr. CENAC: Yeah, that's pretty much it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Like that. I can do that but I can do Elmo. And those are the only...

GREENE: That's your repertoire. Well, this has been really fun. Before I let you go, I do have to - I want to thank you a lot for the props you gave NPR in your stand-up video. Let's hear that.

(Soundbite of Cenac's stand-up routine)

Mr. CENAC: Now, there are certain things that you can blast through a stereo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: You can blast hip-hop. You can blast heavy metal. You can't blast ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: And so I think I'm going to be like, oh, (beep), are they talking about that new Michael Chabon book?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: Thats my jam.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. CENAC: Turn it up. I want to hear what they have to say about his productive use of metaphor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Thanks, we really appreciate that.

Mr. CENAC: No problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CENAC: And next time you thought about Michael Chabon...

GREENE: We'll have you on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: That was from a "Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person," which is Wyatt Cenac's new DVD and CD of his stand-up comedy.

Wyatt, thanks so much for joining us. It's been fun.

Mr. CENAC: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.