Every week, comedian Wyatt Cenac and friends perform stand-up in Brooklyn for a show entitled “Night Train with Wyatt Cenac.” Cenac fans from outside of the New York area were out of luck — until now, thanks to the comedy subscription service Seeso, which is offering online viewers a front row seat.
Seeso, which is owned by NBC Universal, debuts six ninety-minute episodes today. Filmed in front of a live audience at Littlefield in Brooklyn, “Night Train” is hosted by Cenac, while also featuring an eclectic mix of some of the most exciting comedians in New York, from up-and-comers to established names. The show capture’s Cenac’s sensibilities; proudly black, reluctantly hipster, Ellen DeGeneres clean and always funny.
Cenac served as a writer and correspondent for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” from 2008-2012. However, when Cenac called Stewart out for doing a “voice” in a Herman Cain bit, long-simmering tensions boiled over and Cenac left the show. The two comics have since made up, and Cenac appeared on Stewart’s final show to make light of the awkwardness. Separately, he has also forged a career in independent film, starting with Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy,” though he more recently starred in the Sundance premiere “Jacqueline (Argentine).” And Cenac has found plenty of ways to remain on television after “The Daily Show”: He voiced the character Wayne on two episodes of the hit Netflix series “BoJack Horseman,” while also regularly appearing on IFC’s “Maron,” and Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show.” As a stand-up, he has made all the late night rounds.
Cenac is known for his deadpan delivery and a singular ability to tackle topics like racism and sexism with a light touch. In one bit from the first episode, he discusses the irony that the Confederate flag is “cool-looking” — which is why, he suggests, it took so long to get rid of the thing. But his greatest accomplishment in “Night Train with Wyatt Cenac” is his willingness to get off the stage and make space for the fabulous line-up of guest comedians.
Producer Marianne Ways does an excellent job booking the show’s guests, who run the gamut from big names like Janeane Garafolo, Scott Adsit, John Hodgman, and Sasheer Zamata, to newbies like Phoebe Robinson, Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla, and Joyelle Johnson, as well as many others.
For those who might tire of a strictly stand-up show, each episode features a musician or special guest in a semi-written sketch with Cenac. The show premieres with the ubiquitous drummer Questlove, who jovially lets Cenac rib him for owning over a thousand pairs of sneakers. As Cenac cycles through a slideshow of Nikes, Questlove has to remember if he owns them or not.
The backstage scenes add another fun element that breaks up the stand-up acts. The show opens with green room banter from the evening’s guests, offering rare glimpses into a comic’s life. Viewers can witness Cenac teasing Michelle Wolf about her floral Nikes, or eavesdrop as black female comedians revel in the chance to finally catch up. According to Michelle Buteau, a Carribean-American who kills in the second episode, whenever she sees another black female comedian at a show, she thinks, “Did she mess up? She booked two black girls… It’s always one per show. That’s it. So we never see each other.” Buteau hits on what is so special about “Night Train,” adding, “Who would have thought you could have three girls on one show?”
Cenac, for all his practiced dryness, is clearly passionate about supporting comedians who are tokenized by other comedy venues. Without calling itself a “female show” or a “black show,” Cenac’s name is enough to clue audiences that the talent onstage will be representative of different perspectives. That means that “Night Train” attracts a diverse live audience, which in turn ensures that the comedians feel comfortable to let loose in ways they may not at a more traditional venue. And Cenac is the humble wizard hovering backstage who conjures this alchemy, occasionally popping his head out from behind the curtain.
The live element is exciting, especially for those living outside of New York who may not have access to quality live comedy. Cenac is not afraid to break the fourth wall and speak directly into the backstage camera, provoking the screen audience. The occasional split screen, while a bit overused, reminds the viewers that they are watching a live show. Seeso programmers are smart to capitalize on the wealth of interesting live shows in New York City, they gave a similar treatment to Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda’s live hip hop show, “Freestyle Love Supreme.”
“Night Train With Wyatt Cenac” will delight Seeso subscribers, who are no doubt hardcore comedy fans already. It also has the potential to attract those who may have given up on the white male dominated comedy world. It’s the kind of show that might just move someone to shell out the $3.99 a month for the subscription video service, just to see what all the fuss is about. And maybe catch a glimpse of what the future of comedy looks like.