Wyatt Cenac made us laugh for four seasons as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” His adventures took him as far away as Sweden on a quest to discover if socialism was truly destroying the attractive populace and he manned the puppet version of former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who was forbidden by party muckety mucks from appearing on the show during elections season. Suddenly last December, Cenac traded in his fake press credentials to pursue other interests like stand up comedy, which he will be doing this weekend at the Friends of Nature Music Festival at Virgina Key. We chat with Cenac before his long weekend in Miami.
So what made you leave the “Daily Show”?
It seemed like the right time for me to go. I had and have other aspirations beyond the “Daily Show.” And rather than have my attention split between trying to do the best I can at the “Daily Show” and trying to work on my own goals, it seemed like it was a good time to take a leave and bet on myself. Hopefully I don’t come up snake eyes.
What was your favorite “Daily Show” moment as a correspondent?
I remember doing a piece doing a piece at Sonia Sotomayor’s old high school. That was the first field piece I remember doing where I didn’t have the awful pit of nerves that I initially had when you first start doing those field pieces when you are interviewing people and they are not in on the joke. You always feel like “Oh, I hope I don’t make this person cry.” Any of the ones when I got to do stuff with the other correspondents because I love them. Like when John Oliver and I got to go to Rhinebeck, NY to cover Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. We just got to goof off all day.
You came back to the “Daily Show” to tell John Oliver how bad he was doing as a sub for John Stewart this summer. Was it like a family reunion?
It was fun to get to see everybody. It was really weird because Rob Riggle was there and when I first started we overlapped and it really felt like jumping into a weird time machine. There was a moment when he and I and Samantha Bee were all backstage and kind of looking at each other and laughing about how it had been three years at least since we’d been together in this situation, getting ready to go stand in front of a green screen. It was great to see everybody. They changed the office after I left. They put down a nice wood floor in part of the studio, which I took personally, like they thought I would pee on the new floor. But that happened to me in high school; the year after I graduated the high school changed out the carpet and did a bunch of renovations and when I went back a year later they said they specifically did it because my class was so bad that they waited. Going back to the “Daily Show” was like going back to high school.
You did a great Michael Steele (former Republican National Committee Chairman) impression with a puppet on the “Daily Show.” Did he have any choice words for you off stage when you two finally had an encounter?
He seemed to like it. Before he came out as a guest we went and we talked to him and I went into the Green Room and we talked to see if he was OK with it. I was pitching that as we would introduce him as a guest the puppet would come out and he would be controlling the puppet and he would come out from behind the table. But he’s a six-foot guy so he couldn’t have crammed himself under Jon’s desk.
You co-starred in an HBO comedy pilot with Kanye West, which never got picked up, parts of which you aired at your weekly comedy showcase in New York. Do you think that Kanye West can add comedic genius to his list of titles?
I don’t know if he would actually say that he’s a comedic genius. I got to spend a good amount of time with him when we made the pilot. The interesting thing about working on the pilot was that he was the first to admit that he wasn’t the best actor or improviser, he had an idea about what he thought was funny, but he really deferred to everyone else. He wanted to surround himself with people that he knew were good in the hope that he would rise to meet them. There’s a certain genius in knowing these are my weaknesses and if I surround myself with talented people they will cover for me.
Do you think the show could have worked if give the chance?
It had a great group of people. They had Larry Charles who came from “Seinfeld.” I don’t know why it never went, if it was Kanye’s schedule or the network. I’m not 100 per cent sure. Based on the pilot I have, it’s tough, it has funny moments but I don’t think people would see and be like “I can’t wait for episode two!” But with any pilot, you gotta give it a few more episodes to find its way. Maybe if they had we’d have all been rich.
Is stand up as addictive as many comedians claim it is?
There’s definitely an addictive quality. If you have a bad set you have a hunger to get back on stage and wash the taste of that out of your mouth. If you have a great set you have a hunger to get back on stage to recapture that feeling. It is a unique moment that you get to feel on stage.
For the performer and the audience, it’s a shared moment. It don’t think people recognize that but as an audience you have as much power in this process as the comedian himself. If you are engaged, you are there to have fun and the comedian wants to have even more fun and then you have more fun and they want to keep it going. That’s what makes it addictive, that way you can make a connection with the audience where they bear with you every step of the way even when you go for a long chunk without a big laugh. When the big laugh comes, they feel it and the laughter becomes the release of all this tension. In that way it creates a bit of an endorphin rush. That’s what makes a good show. When you both, as performer and audience, can have that. When you as an audience leave thinking “I want that experience again.”
You are coming to South Florida for the Friends of Nature Festival, a huge event that will feature all kinds of bands and comedians. How hard is it to do comedy at these music festivals where everyone is pretty trashed?
It’s definitely a challenge. I’ve done a lot of music festivals. Some of the audience can be trashed but some of the audience can be fun. The worst for me was when I did a music festival and they come to me and said “You’re doing two nights and we want you to be the headliner on the comedy stage.” So the last show on the first night I was going up against Sir Paul McCartney. I learned a lot about myself in that moment. And I learned that a lot of people like Paul McCartney. Some of them started at my show and then would hear Paul McCartney and would leave. The thing that hurt the most was when they left on Wings songs. I can’t argue with people leaving out on Beatles songs, but don’t leave on a Wings song. That just hurts.