Wyatt Cenac On ‘Night Train,’ Stand-Up Without Commercials, And Getting Abducted By Aliens

Wyatt Cenac’s name went viral when comments he made about a confrontation in 2011 with then-Daily Show host (and former boss) Jon Stewart caught the attention of WTF with Marc Maron listeners. The incident and the flurry it inspired years later didn’t stop Cenac from making an appearance on Stewart’s final Daily Show, though it pretty much settled whether or not the 40-year-old comic would ever return to the Comedy Central tentpole. Which is totally fine, since he’s carved an exciting path into the mainstream much to the delight of his fans. A path that includes, among other things, an upcoming science fiction comedy for TBS and a brand new stand-up comedy series for Seeso.

We chatted with Cenac about People of Earth, the next project by The Office and Parks and Recreation alum Greg Daniels, and Night Train — the latter of which premieres this Thursday, June 30 on NBC’s new comedy streaming service. Among other things, the New York-based Cenac explained the origins of the weekly Night Train show he hosts Monday nights at the Littlefield performance venue in Brooklyn. For the past four years, Cenac’s “staple of the New York alternative stand-up scene” has entertained audiences with musical guests, sketches and a wide variety of comics. It was never meant to be a television show.

What sparked Night Train‘s transition to television?

You know, I think [producer Marianne Ways] and I had talked about maybe trying to do something. Starting a record label to take the weekly show’s showcase element and expand it for an audience that can’t necessarily make their way to Brooklyn every Monday. That was a few years ago. Unrelated, Evan Shapiro from Seeso reached out because he’d been to a show before, and he wanted to know if we’d be interested in turning it into a series for them. The more I talked to him and everyone else at Seeso, the more it felt like we could do more with, and offer more to, the comedians than if we were doing the show somewhere with commercials.

I imagine it was the same as, or similar to, your experience with your previous stand-up special, Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn.

There’s something nice about the format, especially for stand-up since so much of it is about creating a connection with the audience. Using that connection to build momentum for the entire set — whether it’s five minutes, 10 minutes or an hour in length. It’s all about that relationship between the audience and the performer. I’m grateful Comedy Central let me do Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person some years ago, but I remember going through the editing process, and one of the challenges was inserting these specific places for commercial breaks. I wasn’t writing my material with commercial breaks in mind, and we had to do some negotiating with them to alter where they were putting the ads so that they weren’t cutting the middle of a bit. It’s a challenge, especially when you don’t want to lose the momentum.

When you go see a live stand-up show, seven minutes into it another person doesn’t walk out to tell you how great Tide Pods are, and it’s great that they don’t. It’s jarring, and it’d be hard to get back into the swing of things. Seeso didn’t have that restriction, and while they wanted a format similar to television, they seemed pretty supportive and intent on letting us give all the stand-ups longer sets. They weren’t holding us to a limited time length, either.

That’s one of the best things about Night Train, that it seems committed to reproducing the live stand-up experience as much as possible. Like when you and Michelle Wolf banter about her shoes, or when you offered to officiate for the two attendees with identical shirts.

There are other versions of making something like where a director might come in and say, “Okay stop. Start over. We need to get this.” Even for the comedian, they might not feel compelled to follow the thing that makes them giggle and do that. They might be thinking, “This is going on television and I don’t want my calling card to be a set in which a screw-up happened.” That’s what’s fun about doing it this way. I really wanted to try to capture what happens with live shows, in which I can just pop out every now and again and yell stuff at whoever’s performing. Doing the set is great, but having fun is key. If we can do that and properly capture it, that’s more fun than anything. That’s why, when they offered to shoot each episode twice in order to capture the best take, I said no. I just wanted to capture the show as it happened, warts and all. I think people enjoy the warts.

You directed Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn. Did you direct any of Night Train‘s episodes?

I was in the editing room, but I didn’t actually direct the live tapings. Some other people came in and directed the live shows. There’s a part of me that would’ve liked the challenge, but at the same time it would’ve been tough. Being on stage while trying to catch everything that’s going on. That would’ve taken a lot of extra work, as well as writing all the segments and my own material for the show. I entrusted that to other people. So I just sat in on the edit like a megalomaniac.

Most people know you for The Daily Show, but you’ve also acted for years. Television, films like Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy. I’m especially excited for People of Earth. How’d that come about?

The creator of the show is a writer named David Jenkins, and [Greg Daniels] and Conan O’Brien’s company Conaco loved it and got involved. They were moving forward with it, and to hear David tell it, he wrote the character with me in mind. In his early drafts, the character’s name was Wyatt, and when I agreed to do it the first thing I asked for was that they change the name. Only because I spent several years on a show doing this boring ass thing called using my real name. [Laughs] I felt like I needed to separate me from television me.

So yeah, according to David he wrote it with me in mind. I saw the script and, admittedly, I’ve never really been that interested in acting on its own. I like situations where I can do multiple things, and even after I left the show, I’ve kind of avoided offers to audition for similar things. With this, it just seemed interesting and like it’d be a lot of fun. At the time it was scheduled to shoot in New York, which was another key thing for my. I’m kind of a homebody, and if I can stay in the New York area then I’d rather do that than have to travel west.

So was it just because David wrote the part with you in mind?

I knew Greg from King of the Hill, too. He reached out and asked if I’d be interested in doing it. He was directing the pilot. So yeah, for all those reasons — David’s a great guy, as is Greg and everyone else there — I thought it would be an interesting journey to take. I’m not a person who went to various acting schools and did all that, so I often feel if I did something, I got lucky with it. Here’s hoping I can get lucky for 10 episodes.

People of Earth debuts on TBS in October. Night Train premieres Thursday, June 30 on Seeso. Until then, here’s a preview…