Wyatt Cenac: Funny, or just true?

At the Hawthorne Theater, the 'Daily Show' alum demonstrated that what we call "humor" is often just human interest.

Shows what I know. I thought my friend, who’s from New York and black, might be way into Wyatt Cenac. “Who-what? ‘Why eat a snack?’” joked my friend, who’d never even heard of the Daily Show “black correspondent.” I don’t have anything to add to that; it just shows what I know.

So I just told you a true, short story that doesn’t apply to all people but may resonate with some, and doesn’t directly confront, but teases at the edges of, a sociopolitical conversation we could go ahead and have on our own time if we want. Wyatt Cenac’s standup set Friday night at the Hawthorne Theater was a lot like that.


Wyatt Cenac performs standup in Brooklyn.

From his description of a mother abandoning her son to have a 20-minute tantrum on Cenac’s brownstone stoop (“not the way to get a nanny,” he joked), to the general observation that empty subway cars are suspicious, and usually full of “dookie,” Cenac’s stories earned laughs that were less like spontaneous bursts than conscious affirmations that, “Ha! That’s interesting,” or “Ha! I can imagine that,” or “Ha! WTF,” and “Ha! So true.”

If Wyatt Cenac were to read this review, would he think I’m bagging on him? I’m definitely not. I’m only saying that what we call “great comedy” is less about laughs than thoughts, and it’s been that way since before I can remember. George Carlin spouted sedition and precise poetry about the ways we misuse language; Joan Rivers (RIP) unleashed honest vitriol at her own and others’ pride and vanity; Richard Pryor told a “funny” story about SETTING HIMSELF ON FIRE. Laugh? Riot. Currently, Louis C.K. laments aging and the world’s general wickednesss, while Maria Bamford bemoans being mentally ill and painfully, permanently alone—and locals Shane Torres and Barbara Holm, who opened Cenac’s show, seem to take their cue from these two, telling personal stories that wrench outbursts of laughter from pangs of empathy.

But because going to a “philosopher’s lecture” or a “storyteller’s pathos party” hasn’t been cool since ancient Greece, we keep calling our most provocative talkers “comedians.” It just feels better to tell your friends that you enjoy a few laughs at a comedy club, than to admit that you enjoy being forced to question everything…and it goes over way better in the breakroom.

Now, since there are a lot of smart people in the world, I’m sure many of them have already noticed this and voiced it on some-or-other podcast, and you may even think I’m stealing their material. I’m not. I haven’t heard that podcast, but we agree, which brings me to another point:

Since the millennium, philosophy-as-comedy seems to be getting louder, as more people vent their ideas directly into the incessant international symposium via home videos and podcasts. It’s also infused other forums for sociopolitical discourse, like the news, and sometimes even supplanted them. Of course I mean The Daily Show, which carved, filled, and widened the niche for funny “fake news” (SNL’s “Weekend Update” being too short and too embedded in pure comedy to qualify), eventually wedging in a fraternal twin show, The Colbert Report. With these shows’ growing influence, mainstream news outlets started copying “fake news’s” formats and tones in their own segments—to the delighted dismay of the “fake” anchors. Just this year, another Daily Show alum, John Oliver, got his own weekly HBO vehicle, Last Week Tonight, proving the “fake news” entertainment market still has room for more smartasses. The problem with calling The Daily Show—as Jon Stewart does—”fake news,” is that it’s not. It’s real news, caged as comedy because a spoonful of humor helps the medicine go down. What’s fake then? Maybe the laughter, which is less about finding world issues funny, than finding Stewart and Colbert and Oliver’s observations true.

But Wyatt Cenac, having disembarked from the fake news revolution, is just reaching out to share observations about his Brooklyn residency, his single-man status, his beard-growing proclivity, and whatever else springs to mind. Yet his background leaves him fully conscious that each “joke” is only made possible by a sociopolitical subtext. Like when he fears that rude teens will Instagram him asleep on the subway and then mis-tag his image “#CornellWest.” Or how he notes the “cloud of Axe Body Spray and homophobia” that suspends animation in a night club when all the women mysteriously disappear. Or the fact that he’s annoyed that Obama’s presidency has made strangers comfortable asking him if he’s biracial. (He’s not.) Isn’t that funny?

Say “yes,” and you bolster this thing known as a comedy career. Admit, “No, it’s just really interesting, and most comedians are just interesting people” and you ruin the ruse. “Funny” became a synonym for “meaningful” and “true” way back in the ’70s, and it’s too late to change it now. The millennial LOL, is the beatnik snap, is the occupy “twinkle,” is the gospel “amen.” And it all just means, “Yes. I got you.”


A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

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