A lot of people might know Wyatt Cenac best as a former correspondent on The Daily Show, or perhaps from his Netflix stand-up special Brooklyn. But those who keep up with the alternative comedy scene — particularly the alternative comedy scene in the New York — Cenac is a bit of a mainstay/spiritual animal/ringleader/man-about-town.
Now he’s bringing some of that mojo to television. His new series Night Train With Wyatt Cenac is streaming now on Seeso. The show takes his weekly comedy showcase at Littlefield, a small venue in Brooklyn, and turns it into six episodes of television-comedy gold.
We spoke to Cenac about his new series, his devotion to stand-up, and his favorite places in New York to perform.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Littlefield is a notably small venue. How do you translate that intimate, small-venue comedy vibe into a bigger, TV-friendly production?
WYATT CENAC: It is a challenge. The strange thing about stand-up when you see it on television is that it’s been kind elevated for a TV-watching audience. It’s usually in a huge venue, there are sweeping shots, there is this sort of heavily produced quality.
To me, it feels like when you do that a lot of times, you’re changing everything about the stand-up experience to make it a TV experience. Even as a performer, you would change the way you perform because you’re in front of a bigger audience than you’re used to, you’re in front of more people, you’ve got more lights.
So for all those reasons, it felt like, if we’re shooting this at Littlefield, we’re not going to be able to capture that televised idea of stand-up. So rather than push stand-up more toward television, why don’t we push television more toward stand-up? Let’s try to have the cameras in place that aren’t intrusive and don’t make audiences and comedians uncomfortable, but let’s not pretend they’re not there. Let’s not pretend we’re not shooting for television. You’re a part of this now, audience — we’re all in this together. So let’s really try to capture something.
I’ve always felt like you’re something of a stand-up evangelist, a true believer in the craft — maybe because you’re so closely associated with the New York small-club stand-up scene. Is there a reason you’re drawn to stand-up more than other forms of comedy.
I like stand-up because it’s just stripped bare, and it’s kind of raw. It’s honest, and from that honesty you get magic. You get these weird little magical things.
I think that’s true if you’re the most confessional comedian in the mold of someone like Richard Pryor, but I think that honesty is also true if you’re a comedian who only does one-liners. It’s just you, and it’s what you produce. Even if you’re someone like Demetri Martin, who’d bring drawings on stage. That’s still stuff he was going — it was just him and an art pad, drawing something.
Even when you look at physical comedians, to me, that’s almost some of the best magic you get to see. If they’re doing it well, you can picture what’s going on around them. They can transport you into a world.
You’re so embedded in the local scene. What are your favorite boroughs to perform in?
Brooklyn’s No. 1 mainly because it’s the shortest walk home. So good or bad, I can get home really fast. I think Manhattan is No. 2, but I’d have to call it 1A, because it’s where so many shows are. And you can get a lot of work done at night. When I’ve got an album coming out and I wanna prep for the road, those are the moments I’ll want to do multiple sets in a night and bounce around from show to show. And in Queens, or at least in Long Island City, I’ve never really gone and headlined there in the way that I’ve done an hour in Brooklyn or done hours in the city.
So no Staten Island or the Bronx?
No. But you never know, though — I bet there’s a pretty hungry audience in the Bronx for comedy! I bet there’s a show in the Bronx that does pretty well.
Maybe if you ever do a second season of Night Train, you could shoot it in the Bronx.
Yeah, maybe — we could hit all the boroughs, that might be a good idea. Just hit all the boroughs… and all the major public parks.