Wyatt Cenac Brings Comedy & Commentary to the Superhero Genre with His New Webseries, ‘aka Wyatt Cenac’

Wyatt Cenac was my favorite correspondent on The Daily Show. Now I can get my Wyatt Cenac fix again from his new webseries, aka Wyatt Cenac. All six episodes are out now on Topic.com, and they tell the story of Wyatt, aka The Vicecroy, aka Brooklyn’s neighborhood vigilante. I got to sit down and ask Wyatt a few questions about his new show, which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

You’re mostly known for The Daily Show. What made you want to start running your own show? 

You know, I thought about it for a while. I worked on The Daily Show, but I also worked on King Of The Hill for five seasons [as a writer]. So I’ve spent some time in this world. And whenever I would come to Los Angeles to take meetings with people, they would always ask me, “Oh, if you were to make a TV show about yourself, that wasn’t a topical thing, what would it be?”

And there’s so many shows that have come out right now where it’s about a comedian onstage, and their live offstage. I think Seinfeld is probably the gold standard of those shows. You see the comedian onstage. Then you see them in their real life, and how that influences the comedy that they are doing. And then it’s usually bookended with them back onstage. 

And so, whenever I would take these meetings, there was a part of me that didn’t want to just say, “Well, it’d be about my life as a comedian in Brooklyn.” And so, I was trying to think of another way to try and subvert the genre a little bit. I was thinking, “Is there another job out there that’s like a comedian? You work nights and people don’t really know or understand what it is you do? And who you are in the job might be who you are outside the job?” And the job that I came up with was crime-fighting vigilante.

Yeah, I loved that! Are you a big superhero fan yourself? Did you build a whole superhero backstory? Because you already have a world built into the show, since the show takes place in Brooklyn. I was curious what the process was that went into coming up with your character, The Viceroy. 

There was definitely a lot of thought that went into it. As somebody who grew up reading comic books, I didn’t want to half-ass it. So there was a certain amount of trying to make sure I built the world properly, and that I took the time to do that. Especially as a person who appreciates comic books. The other thing that I also have is sort of a low tolerance when the world is not properly set up and created. So I wanted to make sure that I did that. 

Are there any superhero movies that you drew from, or superheroes that inspired The Viceroy? Anything you’re excited about coming up? 

I’m excited about the Black Panther movie. But as far as things that we looked to for inspiration, I watched a lot of Marvel and DC shows. Anytime, there’s a [superhero] movie I tend to watch it. And so, there’s a fair amount of that that I drew from. 

You mentioned earlier that people were asking you about doing a “topical” show. And we live in a time when pretty much anything and everything is political. You’re already throwing in some “identity politics.” I mean, I’m Asian-American and I loved the opening of that second episode where there’s some hilarious commentary on race. How much of that was because of where your humor lies, or how much of that was a conscious choice on the times we live in now? 

I think a portion of that is because it’s where my humor lay. But also I think that for any performer/writer that is a minority, be they black, a woman, gay, I think your identity gets automatically wrapped up in what you do. And identity becomes a part of what you write, whether you’re actively doing it or not. Especially now in this political climate, you can’t help but be reminded of your identity.

People feel like their identities are being even more marginalized than in previous years. And so it’s easier for minorities to talk about identity, but also it naturally comes out. Even if I’d never talked race, or found some different way to do that second episode, I don’t think you’d be able to separate “identity” from it. And I think there’s still someone who’s gonna see the world as, “It’s a black person looking at the world.” So because of that, it’s easier to just embrace it. 

And with that particular episode, there’s a certain universality of being a minority. If you’re on a date, and you’re in a restaurant, and the demographic winds up being similar to that [situation in the second episode]. There’s something fun about being able to play with that. Jeena Yi, the actress who played Grace, did such a great job. And it was a real fun energy as she went through that scene. It was fun to kind of put that together and let her go and build it and take it to the silly places that she took it. 

Wait, Jeena Yi? Did she just do a play at 2nd Stages called Somebody’s Daughter? I didn’t get to see it, but my friend Dave was it! 

Yeah, she was so great. I’ve never had to audition people before. That was really so bizarre to sit in a room and various people would come in and you’d read with them. It feels like a weird speed dating sort of thing. And I felt very awkward because I was like, “I don’t want to make these actors feel uncomfortable.”

Jeena didn’t audition; she submitted a tape. So I saw her tape. The minute she did the scene that was in the audition, there was just so much great energy in it. And it was immediately a very easy decision. And to take nothing away from the other actresses that auditioned, but she just embodied the role in a way that was kind of like, “That’s amazing. You did things I didn’t see in the script. I wrote the scenes and I wrote these characters and I tried to have a certain amount of empathy with all the characters I was writing. And you just took it to another level.” And that’s the thing you hope for in those situations.

Where I felt like I really won was Jeena, and Emily Tarver and Thomas Fowler, that sort of core group of friends. There were moments that they were just being together, just joking and palling around as though they’d been friends for years. It was really great to watch that, where it felt like, “Oh wow, I got these people in a room together and they all get along great.”

And they have different things in common. Thomas and Emily knew some people in common. So that gave them a sense of ease and comfort and they could joke around. Jeena and Emily wound up connecting on a few people in common. Jeena and Thomas wound up trading Korean curse words with one another, because Thomas’ mother is Korean. 

What, wait? Thomas, the guy who played Felix? 

Yeah, he’s half-Korean. He was my old comedy partner for many, many years when I lived in Los Angeles. So for the two of us to get to work together was a really great thing, and very full circle. He’s in LA, and just one of the funniest people that I’ve gotten to be around. 

What was it like directing, since this is your directorial debut?

Yeah, this was the first time I’ve directed something that wasn’t stand-up. Yeah, this was first time I’ve directed a scripted thing. It was definitely a challenge, a fun and exciting challenge. But it was challenging to have to juggle being both behind the camera and in front of the camera. I think what helped was having actors that I trusted, and a crew that I trusted and worked with before. I worked with the director of photography, Paul Yee, before, and a few other people.

I was fortunate that I had a world of friends that I was working with in this situation who helped me relax both in front of and behind the camera. And then as you go through that experience, a big part of it was making sure that I’m getting what I want, and having a script supervisor make sure that I have what I need. My producers are great and have an eye on everything. Definitely a challenge but it was an exciting challenge to take on. 

Is there a reason that you decided to do a webseries, as opposed to a standard TV show? 

That’s one of those things where it’s a little bit more about the idea itself, but also the market. When I initially thought about the idea, it was something I thought could be a 22 minute episodic series. And I think it’s a bit of a harder sell to a network in that way.

But also as I dug more into the idea, I found myself thinking, “This might make more sense as a webseries because I don’t know how if this is particularly sustainable over 22 minutes.” I think I didn’t want it to feel like The Greatest American Hero or one of those shows from the 80’s. So for me, I thought it was a webseries. And there was the opportunity. If somebody said, “Hey, wanna make a 22 minute episode?” I’m sure we could figure that out. 

You know they’re bringing The Greatest American Hero back. Except they’re gonna do it with a young Indian woman. 

Ok, I feel like that’s a good shift. I feel pretty confident that there’s never going to be a comic book character that I could play, because most of them are white guys. And the comic book community gets very angry when you try to change history. Comic books are the Confederate statues for certain subsections of the comic book community. And you don’t mess with Captain America, or turn Thor into a lady. 

Or make Iron Fist Asian. 

So in that way, its always felt like, why don’t I just make my own character? That was sort of the thought going into aka Wyatt Cenac. Here’s also a fun way to play with this thing: I can make my own character. 

Do you have any one comic book hero you love? 

Batman was my favorite as a kid. And Batman is still, like Batman. Outside of that, there were definitely other characters that I like, but that varied from moment to moment. But Batman was definitely my favorite as a kid. I mean, every kid wants to be a billionaire! 

aka Wyatt Cenac is out now on topic.com

This interview has been edited for content and flow.