Culturist: Wyatt Cenac | Actor + Comedian
For AMMO’s Americana issue, I met up with comedian and Daily Show correspondent, Wyatt Cenac, at the show’s headquarters located in the Clinton area of Manhattan. Possessing all the traits of a cool customer and donning a modest pair of hi-top Converse, Cenac and I discussed the 2012 Election, his idea of Americana, and, most of all, what he considers to be his AMMO.
Going on his fourth year with the Daily Show, Cenac quickly has become one of the show’s key players. It seems like just yesterday, Cenac was a fresh face on the scene; a newbie who had no qualms with tearing someone’s genitals off and tossing it into the Hudson River. But all genitalia tossing quips aside, when I asked Wyatt about his experience on the show, he unexpectedly revealed that the show is not all fun and games and, in fact, comes with its responsibilities:
“It’s a good job. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun — I mean, it’s weird… because I think with this show since so much of it is responding to things that are happening in the world everyday… and then there’s so much of it that is both political and media criticism and satire, you really have to stay up on all that stuff… It’s not just telling jokes… It’s also, ‘oh, okay, I have to digest all of this information that’s happening on the news and with these various characters and try to find ways to make it funny… When we have time off, I usually don’t watch any news. I have no idea what’s going on [laughs] and it feels amazing.”
Cenac went on to admit that before he got to the show, he wasn’t much of a news buff. In his words, “I knew what was going on but I wasn’t like, ‘every night I’m going to watch MSNBC or FOX News’ I’d look at the headlines on online and see what are the big stories, make sure that the world hasn’t blown up and go about my day.”
Nonetheless, Cenac adapted and began making his mark as one of comedy’s rising stars. His ability to balance a serious demeanor with superbly colorful commentary makes for a brand of hilarity that is somewhat unmatched by most comedians today. But outside of that duality is a comedian who is socio-politically aware and is not afraid to state his opinions when it comes to the more slightly provocative issues that concern the average American.
“It’s an interesting one… If you wind up watching the 24 hour news networks, there are so many people who are playing Monday morning quarterback on how the president could be campaigning or how Mitt Romney could be campaigning… but the thing that I find really interesting is that everyone kind of keeps saying that is an election that is going to be determined by the undecided voters and Romney, as a governor, was a fairly moderate guy who just swung a little more to the right and you can make the case that Obama is a fairly moderate guy who swings a little more to the left… It seemed like this election could just be about that shift: Are we a little more right or a little more left?
Instead, Romney hasn’t wanted to run on that record of [being] the moderate guy who shifts a little right… he’s just gone far right… it’s so strange considering that [he] was the governor of Massachusetts. [He] wants to play a polar opposite game where [he’s] got nothing to say about healthcare and [he doesn’t] stand by the healthcare program that [he] put in place that is the basic blueprint for the President’s healthcare program… It didn’t go the way I thought it would.”
We subsequently went on to discuss Romney’s now infamous 47% comment and Cenac wrapped up things up quite neatly with a sound analogy:
“The reality is, if half of the country fails, we all fail. We all live here together. If we all shared an apartment and you had two of your roommates who were living in filth and that’s attracting roaches and rats and things like that; you either help clean it up or you’re going to be dealing with the thing that they’re dealing with… At some point, that’s going to get to your door. If you ignore something it’s eventually going to get to your door.”
Using simple but sound logic, Cenac’s straightforwardness was refreshing. Being that Cenac is a comedian of color, I decided to ask Cenac about his take on the role of race in politics. Truth be told, race in politics is a tricky subject. While race does indeed play a factor, more evolved opinions often address the issue of class as the underlying cause behind most of America’s social injustices. Cenac had this to say:
“It’s unfortunate… with this election and with how starkly different Mitt Romney has painted himself to Obama… the amazing thing about that is that it’s still close… There’s something about that… I don’t know how much of it is race… I hope that that is not the case but I can’t be naïve about it. I do think that there are still people who are uncomfortable with this president solely because of the color of his skin… and that’s unfortunate… and that’s very close minded.
The largest issues in our country are issues of class but I think because of the way that the media covers politics and the way the politicians want to create a drama and create sense of voting out of fear. It’s like, ‘you have to vote to change this thing or, God forbid, Mexicans are going to come in and take over the country!’
I think there is that fear that has become a virus in the democratic process. I think what you see politicians do, a lot of the times, is paint these issues of class as issues of race. ‘It’s these minorities who are poor’ – when there are a lot of poor white people too.
If only we could take race out of it… unfortunately you find politicians who will throw race into a conversation to keep the conversation from happening… It’s unfortunate that we can’t look past that and recognize that we all live here, we live here together and we are no stronger than the weakest one of us.”
Cenac had made a very valid point. It is about time that politicians be held accountable for what they say to the American people. Cenac wasn’t ignoring the responsibility of thinking for ourselves but he wasn’t about to let shit-stirring politicians off the hook either. After hearing his views on race in politics, I was curious to know about what Cenac thought about the fabric of America; his idea of Americana; and does it still exist?
“There is that sort of Norman Rockwell idea of America… and you’ll hear people talk about America, like in the 50s, ‘oh, you could leave your doors open and everyone dressed up like they were in Mad Men.’
That idea of Americana [has] a lot of blinders on.
I live in New York but I lived in Texas for while, I lived in California, I lived in North Carolina and it is different everywhere you go… If you asked somebody in Texas what Americana was, one person would say, ‘well, it’s cowboy boots’. Another person would say, ‘chopped and screwed music’ and I think that is what is great about this country… this country is equal parts Hampton and lobsters rolls as much as it is jerk chicken. All of those things exist here… and that’s my idea of Americana.”
The interview was coming to close and with my ribs slightly sore from laughter, I asked Wyatt AMMO’s signature question: What’s your AMMO?
“I like making people laugh. I remember when I was a kid and I would watch, you know, whether it be an old episode of I Love Lucy or the Cosby Show or, I’d watch like stand up, I’d watch old SNL and see Eddie Murphy or like Bill Murray and you know, seeing all those things and the joy I got from that. And wanted to do that. And I remember the first time I made somebody laugh and how cool that felt, that this was like a really great feeling. So I think for me it’s constantly wanting to do things that people will enjoy, but that are also at the same time creatively challenging and fulfilling to me. Like you know there are probably easier ways to make people laugh that I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy doing. And it’s not like that. I don’t just want the laugh for the sake of the laugh. You know…when you earn it and you earn the laugh, that’s a really cool feeling. And you want it again and again. So I would say…I would say THAT. But mostly trying to create a large enough buffer between me and my bastard children [laughs].”
Akeem Duncan is Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Quiet Lunch Magazine; www.quietlunch.com.