A few weeks ago, Wyatt Cenac released his latest comedy album, Brooklyn, as a limited-edition vinyl. The album, which is a recording of a stand-up show he performed in — where else? — Brooklyn, is a tight, locally-focused set that features more than a healthy dose of digs at the hipster haven. Some are jokingly affectionate, like when he calls out the borough for its new artisanal mayonnaise store ("That's racist to white people," he says). Others, about gentrification of certain neighborhoods are more barbed.
But the most meta dig of all, of course, is the fact that you're listening to Cenac make fun of Brooklyn, in all its preciousness, on a damn record player, which may as well be the neighborhood's national symbol — followed closely by thick black-framed glasses and mustaches. Is Cenac, who himself lives in Brooklyn and is apparently quite happy there, making fun of us, too? Of himself? Or are we all in on the joke together? Whatever the case — and it's probably all three — it didn't keep anyone from buying the album. The 1,000 copies sold out the same day they were released.
Now, if you weren't lucky enough to get your hands on a Brooklyn vinyl, or if, you know, you don't have a record player, you can either see him live at Theatre 99 on Saturday, or you can go the high-tech route and stream Brooklyn on Netflix. If you do, there's one thing you'll invariably notice: puppets. At a few different points during the comedy special, Cenac the human gives way to Cenac the puppet, a Muppet-ish fellow who's joined by paper-doll type figures to act out various scenes.
While the puppet moments are odd in a very interesting way, they're don't feel gimmicky the way the whole vinyl thing does (even though it's admittedly pretty cool). Cenac just likes puppets. "I think any kid who grew up with an appreciation for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show has a nostalgic feeling for puppets," he says. "I've always been a fan of that sort of stuff. As I got older, I remained a fan." He's such a fan, in fact, that that same Wyatt Cenac puppet shows up in his comic promo for the Brooklyn record, wandering around a record factory while a smooth-voiced woman snarkily narrates the record-making process.
Cenac's into animation, too. When and if he gets back into TV — prior to his most well-known role as a Daily Show correspondent, Cenac wrote for the animated show King of the Hill — puppets or animation are what he's going after. "Shows like Archer, or Adult Swim shows, that's what I'd be leaning toward. Something that's a more serial type," he says.
He's as comfortable with, and skilled in, highbrow culture as he is low, though. Cenac's acted in several acclaimed independent films, including Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me, Growing Up (and Other Lies), and Medicine for Melancholy. He also produced the film The Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which premiered at Sundance in 2012, and has read several stories on the literary podcast Selected Shorts, which has actors like Alec Baldwin and John Lithgow perform short stories live. His first story with Selected Shorts was "Unprotected," a New Yorker tale by Simon Rich told from the point of view of a condom.
Yet stand up remains his first love. "Even when I was at The Daily Show I was always performing when I had free time, and writing when I had free time. Stand up is kind of that break for me," he says.
Though Brooklyn, the borough, is a major target in Brooklyn, it's not the biggest one. Cenac spends a lot of time making jokes about racial disparity — jokes that land funny but definitely make you think.
There's his bit about the short time he lived in a building with a doorman, for example. The doorman was a black guy Cenac's same age, he says, and Cenac never wanted the guy to open the door for him because it just felt too weird. The bit culminates in a stand-off that's as silly as it is enlightening.
Then there's the joke about upper-middle-class Brooklynites going door to door to rally their neighbors against a new sports arena that's supposed to be built in their neighborhood. "You know, there was another lady doing this kind of thing a while ago," he says in the show. "Oh yeah — you're living in her apartment!"
But while the young, white, and trendy side of New York's second-largest borough is the one Cenac conjures in his jokes, he's much more sober about the place in real life. "Brooklyn exists in your mind's eye," he says. "If you want it to be a hip, trendy place, then all you do is bounce between the same five hip, trendy places. And while there is that image of Brooklyn, it's also home to a diverse array of families, working-class families. Those people exist as do the über wealthy trust fund kids who live in spacious lofts with not enough furniture. It's what you want to find."
He's an enigmatic guy, Wyatt Cenac. Despite his moments of playfulness on stage and the childlike fun with puppets, he never loses a certain reserve. Talking to him, it's even more noticeable. It makes you feel like maybe he's holding some things back — like he's got a lot more to say about certain subjects, but for the sake of keeping things funny, he'll leave it out for now.
And isn't that what we want from our performers? The feeling that we know them, being let in on intimate details of their lives, but always wanting just a little bit more? Whether or not he does it on purpose, Cenac's certainly got that trick down. With this comedian, we can be fairly sure that the joke's on us.