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Wyatt Cenac is a nihilist, but his ‘Night Train’ is full of joy

His merry tribe of stand-up weirdos are ambassadors for comedy

The internet has become a great tool for threading together individuals who are connected by their shared statuses as obsessive weirdos about something – hello, Tumblr! – but it’s got its weaknesses when it comes to art forms whose communities are built around live performance and actually being in the room where it happens.

Theater people and comedy people are actually quite similar in this respect. One of the best parts of stand-up comedy, the part that turns people from casual fans to devoted ones, is the part that’s so difficult to export or to translate on-screen. The little asides that can’t be replicated, the intimacy of a comedy club, the ritual of waiting after a show to have a real connection with an artist.

Night Train With Wyatt Cenac, a new series from Seeso, NBC’s streaming service for comedy heads, out Thursday, tries mightily — and successfully — to bring all that makes New York stand-up so special to the biggest audience possible. Hosted by Cenac and DJ’ed by Donwill, Night Train is both a love letter to the Brooklyn comedy scene and an invitation for those unfamiliar to fall in love with it too.

I had the pleasure of talking to Cenac about his new series, which features sets from an eclectic collection of comics including SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, Michelle Buteau, Hari Kondabolu, Seaton Smith, current Daily Show correspondents Michelle Wolf and Roy Wood Jr., and Bob’s Burgers actors H. Jon Benjamin and Eugene Mirman. There’s a cameo from Jean Grae dressed as Ulysses S. Grant and another from Questlove talking about his shoe collection. The series consists of six episodes, each running about an hour and 20 minutes.

Cenac is a former Daily Show correspondent who found himself at the center of an internet fracas last summer when he revealed that not only did he not have a great experience working on the show, but that host Jon Stewart got defensive when Cenac voiced concerns about Stewart’s impression of former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, which Cenac found potentially racially offensive.

We discussed diversity in comedy, Cenac’s unabating nihilism, and of course, mayonnaise. In a 2014 stand-up special for Netflix called Brooklyn, Cenac, in his trademark deadpan, hilariously addressed the peak symbol of gentrification in the borough, a notorious Prospect Heights shop called Empire Mayonnaise that opened in 2012. It closed earlier this month, citing rising rents in the neighborhood.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Question: When thinking of comedians who are doing things differently to monetize their own work, everybody thinks of Louis C.K. What you were thinking about what you wanted to do with Night Train and how you wanted it to stand out from other online comedy ventures?

Answer: I think a lot of times when you see stand-up specials or anything like that when you watch them on television, you’re removed from the whole process. You’re not in the audience; you’re not on stage. If I could find a way to engage with that viewer who’s watching on a television and do it in an artful way that keeps their attention, that would be a great thing. So many times, if you watch a stand-up special on TV, if the sound were down you probably wouldn’t watch it. It wouldn’t be visually stimulating to the eye. If you just listen to it, you’d still get the whole … all jokes and all that stuff. I felt like, I wonder if I could challenge myself to try to make something visually that if the sound were down you might not know the jokes but there is still a rhythm. There’s still something that’s happening that makes it interesting to watch. Then when the sound is up as well. It’s like, ‘Oh, OK, this works both on mute and with my eyes closed.’

Comedy nerds will definitely appreciate this because it will be recognizable to them. Do you feel like this opens things up for someone who can’t necessarily go to New York or L.A. or one of the big cities that has a decent comedy scene? Give them a sense of OK, this is what this really feels like as opposed to going to a show when someone’s on tour?

That’s definitely the hope, was to try to get some sense of what our show is like and what the New York and specifically Brooklyn comedy world, a section of it, what it feels like to capture that. Because not everybody wants to come to Brooklyn, and I know I don’t necessarily want to go to every city around the world. It’s mutual. This I feel like is a nice way to just to get to show what we’ve been able to do for the last four years. Showcase some of the talented people that I personally feel honored that they want to do our show. I think that’s a nice little thing that we’ve been able to build over the years. To be able to share that with other people, I think I’m very lucky. It’s a very cool thing.

Speaking of Brooklyn – I saw recently that the mayonnaise shop has now been gentrified out of Brooklyn. What the hell?

We had too many brown people talking about it. I talked about it, Kevin Hart talked about it in his Saturday Night Live sketch and now all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh we’ve got too many brown people talking about it. We’ve got to change and we’ve got to find something new.’ It’s very weird that that mayonnaise shop was in business in the first place, but even weirder that it’s now going. That it couldn’t maintain the rent in what is an area that is rapidly changing. I would have assumed a mayonnaise store is a certain … there’s a certain prize or wealth. That if you are able to own and operate a mayonnaise store and that one is in your neighborhood. I’m honestly surprised and curious to see what comes in its place. Because I assume it has to top mayonnaise store.

I know, I can’t even …

Yeah, my guess is a shop that just sells uni.

Wait, just sells what?

Uni.

What is that?

Uni is sea urchin, and it looks disgusting, but I feel like every fancy restaurant or episode of Top Chef I’ve seen lately, people love to talk about uni.

I’m showing my ignorance.

No.

I’m not fancy enough for Brooklyn.

Just look up, uni – it’s U-N-I, and there’s nothing about it that seems appetizing, but I feel like a lot of sushi places they …

[does a quick Google image search] Oh God.

Yeah, it looks like Play-Doh. Though, like the Play-Doh went bad. My guess is an uni shop replaces the mayonnaise store.

You’ve got a really interesting interaction that gets captured because you have two black women (Joyelle Johnson and Michelle Buteau) backstage who get excited when they see each other. They both know the other exists (they’re friends!) but they never see each other at shows because no one ever books them for the same thing, and when they do, Joyelle says they wonder if it’s a mistake. It reminded me of Master of None where Aziz Ansari is talking about There Can Only Be One. Was this purposeful on your part?

I think that was something from Marianne Ways, who produces the show and she books all the comedians. When we started talking about doing this and doing this event as live show before we shot the episodes for Seeso, the thought process going in was, ‘Let’s try to make a diverse show.’ Showcase the diversity of the comedians, not just ethnically, not just gender but also the unique different points of view that they all have. To me on some level, that is why I would rather have a lineup where we have two or three black women on a show, because they’re not talking about the same things. Even in their similarity as black women, there’s a diversity in what they’re talking about and how they’re approaching the world.

Janelle James has a kid and talks about having a kid. Talking about her life as somebody who grew up in the islands and now lives in New York. That experience and the way she does it, she is a much more easygoing pace than somebody like Michelle Buteau, who’s someone who I’ve seen go into comedy clubs in Manhattan and just attack the audience, can give as good as she gets where she can have those back and forths and do all that type of stuff and is a lot more boisterous in her energy. Their experiences are so different, and I think unfortunately so often because of that idea of There Can Only Be One, what is a black female comedian then gets just isolated as it has to be this and it’s all it can be.

Because Jessica Williams and Sommore are completely different.

They are, yeah. I think that’s what’s … To me that’s what’s great about doing the show. I don’t just want it to seem like the diversity is, ‘Oh, we’ve got a lot of minorities on the show., Or you have a lot of women on the show or gay people or trans comedians,’ or any of that stuff. That stuff is all great, but also to me what is equally as important with the diversity of the show is that you can have somebody like Jon Benjamin come out in a cat costume. We can have a weird silly bit that we’re doing together. Then you can have someone like Hari Kondabolu come out and do something that’s a bit more cerebral and a bit more topical and politically aware. Then you can have someone like Jo Firestone come out and do something that’s just silly. That all these people can exist in the same space and it’s getting the audience to see that funny is funny and there is a wide breadth to that humor.

It’s accessible to you as an audience member but it’s also accessible through so many different comedians. I think because of the narrow focus that sometimes gets created that a black comedian can only be this, it limits access for those comedians that aren’t whatever that narrow thing is. In that way it’s like, ‘No, both as a comedian and as an audience member everybody has access to this.’

My hope with the show is people see it. That’s it’s just on some level it’s a bit of a celebration of that idea that, ‘Oh, wow! OK. I just watched a show that has all these different types of people and Aparna Nancherla is not like Hari Kondabolu despite the fact that they’re both brown people. They’re both Indian, but they’re both different and they’re both allowed to be different and they’re different from Aziz. It’s OK that all these people are equally talented and unique and creative.’ Hopefully the show highlights that.

This reminds me of an interview Larry Wilmore did with Terry Gross where he was basically saying that the reason he started writing was because he wasn’t considered the “right type” of black comedian when he first started. Do you still find that people are getting pigeonholed that way? Did you experience that at all?

Yeah. That still happens. It’s funny because Sasheer Zamata did a show last night and she was talking about that on stage. It still exists because it’s still a world where everything is dictated by this nebulous thing that is ad revenue. That we make a TV show and we need to sell ad revenue and we want whatever – Ford commercials on the network. We need to make a show that drives the most eyeballs, not to the show, but to the Ford commercial. In doing that, the show is actually the advertisement for the advertisement. As people start looking at the numbers and the optics of that, they look at it in this way, of well, white men of this particular age demographic. If we can get a percentage of those people who might be swayed by this Ford commercial and buy Fords. Now all of a sudden that becomes important when you’re looking at casting a show. A show that has a lead becomes, ‘Well, maybe let’s make it a white guy because at the end of the day we’re making television to sell products to white guys.’ I think that still winds up being a focus. Then for anybody else, I think especially for those particular types of things, minority characters get sidelined.

Wyatt Cenac and Jon Stewart accept an award onstage at The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom on April 28, 2012 in New York City.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

I’m wondering if you experienced any blowback after the whole Daily Show controversy with Jon Stewart blew up after you did [Marc Maron’s] podcast? Do you feel like that has had any sort of repercussions in terms of limiting opportunities?

I don’t know if anybody who was really checking for me before then. Nobody was really going after me in that kind of way prior to that. I remember at one point talking to some other correspondents. They were talking about how they’d gotten these overall deals at CBS and NBC and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’ None of those networks were ever interested in me to do that and I was also a writer on the show. I was one of three on the show that was a writer and a correspondent. No network was like, ‘Wait this guy is writer and an on-air personality. He also worked on King of the Hill and he was in this movie that was critically well received and nominated for awards.’ Nobody was checking for me after all that it felt like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ I don’t think there’s any – I don’t think me talking honestly about an experience – and I feel like Hollywood has already made their decision about me. If there was any blowback, I didn’t see it and I wasn’t aware of it. It didn’t feel any more like the sort of perceived nonchalance that already … nonchalance or ignoring that had already existed.

I don’t want to single out Comedy Central but when I think of what Key & Peele were able to do and the places that they were able to go with their show were just very different. Then also seeing Hannibal [Buress], at least it felt like you had these nerdy odd ball black male comedians who were able to do their thing. I get that sense from Donald Glover and some other guys too. It sounds like what you’re saying is those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

To a certain degree, those types of comedians have always existed. I think if you were to look at just even Larry in talking about the time that he came up and other people who were doing stand-up at that time. John Ridley is one of those people that he was doing weird stuff or what was considered, not the same standard stuff that people associated with black comedy and black comedians. He was existing in that space. Lance Crouther, I can’t remember the name of his sketch group, but Lance Crouther was in that three-person sketch group. Their sketch group had a weird name [Mary Wong] but they would go to stand-up clubs and they would do stuff that we now consider alternative comedy where they would do the things that a comedy nerd audience goes crazy for. That’s the kind of stuff they were doing on stage. The problem that winds up happening is the market for that … I don’t know if it’s that it doesn’t exist or that it just doesn’t get the same chance that a lot of other things do. There’s a reason John Ridley moved away from stand-up and now he’s a great filmmaker and screenwriter and doing all those things, but he existed in that time.

There are so many of those comedians that sort of went away from what we consider the norm. Oftentimes, trying to keep making a living if nobody is giving you the chance, you wind up in a different path. You wind up maybe as a television writer in the case of John Ridley or even Ali LeRoi and Lance Crouther wound up writing on television. The opportunities are so few and far between still that every now and again you have those moments where you see something like Key & Peele. It exists and it’s a hit in the same way that when Mary Wong was around and In Living Color existed and was a hit.

There are also so many other comedians of color that are looking for that same opportunity to do something, but the opportunities just aren’t presented to them in a way that they maybe are to a lot of white comedians.

There is outside the television model that we’ve had for so long. I mean that’s basically being completely upended by the internet …

It is and it’s not. I would say it is, but at the same time now on the internet, if you want to do something, you still need money, you can go make something on YouTube and hope somebody watches it. If you want to do something there’s … Money has now found its way into the internet. Whether it’s if you want to do something for Vimeo or you want to do something, Conde Nast is now financing web series and can give promotional dollars and stuff to web series. Your web series might … If you’re just doing it on YouTube, you might not get the same attention or traffic drive that something else does that’s on a sponsored platform and with all that.

I think it offended television for a little while, but television is a great counterpuncher. I think the establishment they counterpunch well, they always figure out a way to then look at, OK, this online thing, how can we monetize that for ourselves? Monetizing it for ourselves also makes it unacceptable to those who don’t have the resources to do this right way or the best-looking way.

You mean in terms of creators?

Yeah, because it’s still if you want to make a web series or do anything like that, it’s still going to cost you money. If you want to do it right, you’re still going to have put money into it. You’re still going to have to get … You maybe edit it and do all those things, but because for every person that’s like living in Oklahoma that decided to make a web series, there’s also somebody who’s got a web series. Jerry Seinfeld has Comedians in Cars, but now you’re competing against Jerry Seinfeld. Whether you think you are or not, you kind of are.

I think that for all of the ways that the internet has upended things, it’s also being co-opted by the establishment. That winds up to me, at least, it seems like it doesn’t become a great equalizer at the end of the day when now … OK, there’s money involved. There are also huge players that … Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most successful guys on television, now has one of the most successful web series on the internet.

That’s not a coincidence.

No, and if I was making a public access show on the local cable channel in the late ’90s, whether I’m thinking about it or not, I’m still kind of competing with Jerry Seinfeld and all the resources that NBC has to make a sitcom and all the ad revenue that they have. How am I and my little public access thing going to get noticed when they have a whole slogan called Must See TV? He can go on late-night shows and promote and go and do these things that I maybe not able to do. To me that feels watching the stuff with the internet, it feels pretty similar.

Oh, man, that sounds bleak.

Yeah, look I might be a bit of a nihilist.

Ya think?

Yes, a little bit, yeah.

I am curious with that outlook, why do you do what you do?

Because I don’t know anything else. I still get joy from making things. I have a drawer full of unmade scripts that are like scabs that I can think about, ‘Oh, it would have been so amazing to make this thing or to do that thing.’ It is very frustrating the amount of time and energy and creative capital that you put into coming up with an idea and feeling like, Oh, this makes so much sense. It makes so much sense and it brings me so much joy. It would be so amazing to get to work on this every day, only to then not get to make it because some network didn’t want to put the money in or they didn’t feel as strongly about it as you did.

We have drawers of those, of scripts like that, and it hurts but at the same time putting it together and thinking about it brought me joy. To be able to make it would have brought me more joy, it probably would have brought me frustrations. Making Night Train was really cool and I really enjoyed getting to do it; it was also really frustrating. It was a balance of those things where creatively I was having fun getting to come up with all these bits and working in the Attic and doing all that stuff. Also, it had its moments where it was maddening and frustrating. I just wanted it to be done, but it’s that balance and I think the good … To me at the end of the day the good outweighs the frustrating and maddening.

Watch the first episode of Night Train below.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is a senior writer covering arts, entertainment and culture for The Undefeated. Christopher Eccleston is her favorite Doctor Who.