Stand-up comedian Wyatt Cenac spent five years as a correspondent on "The Daily Show," before leaving the job to focus on his stand-up career. Cenac has written for shows including "King of the Hill" and acted in projects such as "Sleepwalk with Me," "BoJack Horseman," and "Hits." Cenac will perform July 11 at the Ottobar, in a show postponed from April 30. We caught up with the comedian to discuss stand-up, his 2014 Netflix special, "Brooklyn," and his pitch for an unproduced Marvel Comics film.
One of the things that jumps out about "Brooklyn" is that oftentimes comedy specials are shot in huge venues, and this took place in an intimate space. Is that small club feel something that's important for you to capture?
I shot my first special in a big center, and it was great and it was a lot of fun, but it was a very weird thing. The laughs are totally different. It almost feels false on some level. In a room like that, if half the room laughs, you're doing great. If a quarter laughs, you're still doing well. If you're in a hundred-seat venue and only 25 people laugh, you know you have work to do.
Does the kind of venue have an effect on the kind of material you feel comfortable with?
The larger a space gets, the tougher it becomes. I've been to shows that I've had friends doing where they've been in huge venues. What's interesting is I'll go and I'll sit in the very back, and when they get more intimate, the people in the back don't get drawn in as well, or not at all. There's people on their phones or having conversations. I think, for me, I don't like that feeling. The reason I do it in front of an audience is to create a unique connection that only we will have during the particular show. When a new audience comes in, it creates a new connection. I don't want people in the back checked out or half-listening.
Unlike your first special, you received the credit for directing "Brooklyn." Is directing something you've always been interested in?
I studied film in college. I directed a music video on "The Daily Show." It's always been something that's interested me. I've always had a desire, and at some point I just said it would be cool to do this. Some of this was circumstantial. I knew I had a very specific idea of how I wanted everything to look. I decided I should direct this because I have a very clear idea of how I wanted it to turn out.
Is there a different pace to working on something like "The Daily Show," with frequent deadlines, as compared to stand-up, which is more self-directed?
I was always doing stand-up. I never really stopped. Leaving the show allows me to approach it in a different way. I didn't always have a time to write every day, or I couldn't do every show that I wanted to book. I had to be a little more selective in what I could do or how I could do it. It's been nice, since I left, I've been able to do shows I haven't been able to in the past. The San Francisco Sketchfest never lined up with "The Daily Show" schedule. I just came back from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for two weeks. It's been nice and different being able to go out and do shows whenever I want.
Is it difficult to write for others, like your experience on "King of the Hill" or "The Daily Show," versus writing for yourself?
It's definitely a different skill set. It's a challenge to think about it in terms of all of these characters or think about it in a perspective that's not your own. For "The Daily Show," I'd write for Jon [Stewart], or I'd write for other correspondents. That skill set maybe lends itself to directing because you have to think about it from someone else's point of view. It's a challenge, but it's worth it.
I understand you were working on a movie pitch for the Marvel superheroes Power Man and Iron Fist with "The Venture Bros." creator Christopher McCulloch. How close did we get to a "Heroes for Hire" movie?
We had an idea, and we were desperately trying to get a meeting with Marvel, and I think Chris was able to sit down and talk about it a little bit, but we didn't get to do a full pitch. They've already got somebody to work on the thing. We couldn't make it happen. The main thing we wanted to do was inspired by "X-Men: First Class." We thought it would be cool to do the movie and place it in the '70s because that's when the comics were made. It was made as a tribute to blaxploitation and kung fu movies and we thought we should do that as a movie version, set it in the '70s and pull out all of the kung fu and blaxploitation references. Our dream cast was Terry Crews and Ryan Gosling.
There's a hypothetical movie in our heads that is delightful. The problem is it's just in our heads. It would have been an action movie with a lot of humor to it, just to have fun with those guys doing things like showing up at Studio 54. I know they're making "Power Man" for Netflix, but there's a bitter part of me that feels like Chris and I would have made a great movie together.
Is there a single idea that you're dying to do, that you're just waiting for someone with a dump truck of cash to pull up to your front door?
I've got a lot. I'm waiting on a lot of dump trucks, and that's the problem. Everyone says its hard to come up with a million-dollar idea. It's harder to come up with a million dollars. That's been the career challenge, whether it was that Power Man, Iron Fist idea or TV ideas I've had. I feel pretty confident in my ideas; it's trying to convince somebody else that it's worth investing in. What's sad is that even ideas that are failures never really fail that hard in TV and film.
Is stand-up something you see yourself constantly returning to while working on other projects?
I hope so. I enjoy it at the moment, but it's a lot of work and it's taxing in its own way. It's a medium to tell a joke in the same way that "The Daily Show" was a medium. They're all canvases with which to express something or some point. With "The Daily Show," I felt I had made all of the statements there were to make there. I felt like I was done with it. I don't have anything else I want to paint with this brush.
With stand-up, I'd like to think I can do this whenever I want. I don't want it to become something I have to do. At some point, there may be a time where I feel like I've said everything I feel like saying in this medium, where I think it's time to walk away or just walk away for a little while. I love stand-up, and I think I appreciate it in a way that would allow me to walk away for an extended period of time should I feel like I didn't have anything else I wanted to say. I'm not compelled to do that right now, though.