The new CD from Wyatt Cenac, Comedy Person, begins with what may very well be the best introduction I've ever heard: An apologetic John Hodgman takes the stage explaining that Cenac is not able to appear due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict. Although he's not even on for three minutes, Hodgman perfectly sets the tone for the comedy that is to come. It's an evening of humor grounded solidly on an off-kilter foundation.
Cenac is relaxed and confident and tells stories with an apparent love for the craft. His friendly demeanor reminds me of Will Smith. Not over-the-top "Aw, man, I gotta teach you white boys how to dance" Will Smith, but Will Smith at 10:30 on a Tuesday night, who's settled down and is much easier to take in large doses. Cenac is relatable and down-to-earth, and when he tells his stories he does so with an infectious enthusiasm; he's just as excited to share them as we are to hear how they unfold.
Another thing I love about Cenac's humor is his subtle sarcasm. There's no malice; he's just throwing out off-handed remarks and seeing if anyone picks up on them. Cenac likes to slip in his witticisms on the sly, almost as if he's trying to entertain himself more than he is anyone else (and who knows, that may very well be the case). He doesn't hit us over the head with humor and he doesn't have to. His comedy is constructed well enough to not need any unnecessary razzle dazzle.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Cenac, widely known for his work as a writer and correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, approaches humor with intelligence. It's not a snooty "La Di Dah I Know So Much More Than You Fools" kind of intelligence that makes one feel condescended to. Nor does Cenac's humor come solely from a politically-based mindset that polarizes the audience. The only agenda to be found here is to make us laugh. Cenac uses his craft to come at everyday topics from a new outlook that, afterwards, will make you wonder why you never thought of it that way before. His observations are funny not only because they're true, but because they're so obviously true we've all managed to overlook them.
Cenac brings about the perfect response to the hipster snobs who look down on you for watching (or owning) a TV and calls them out for being fans of Top Chef. He dares to pull back the curtain and expose the Medieval Times restaurants for the perplexing entities they are and deconstructs the use of the N-word as an adjective for a cat in a YouTube video (he's also got a great bit deconstructing the phrase "the N-word" that he is able to interweave nicely).
Like any great thinker, Cenac doesn't just analyze and comment, but he also asks questions. He explains the food-themed nicknames different ethnicities have for members of their race who are accused of having lost their identity and then wonders what other nicknames might be used for people of other races who find themselves in the same situation. He wonders if highly-esteemed holidays will devolve the way St. Patrick's Day has and he really really really wants to know what's written on the propaganda material the guys in white sheets are passing out to passersby outside the Westminster Dog Show.
As I mentioned earlier, Cenac is a true storyteller. He doesn't simply make a point or ask a question, get a laugh, and then move on. Not when there's so much more to it that needs to be explored. Instead, he sits down and really takes the time to dig in and get to know each subject. He doesn't always agree with what he's dissecting, but the point isn't to agree or disagree. It's to enjoy the time spent delving in.
I especially enjoyed Cenac's encounter with his stuck-up hipster neighbor who not only proudly doesn't own a television and blasts NPR on her home stereo, but also happens to be really hot. I couldn't stop smirking as I watched Cenac battle the conflicting feelings that infiltrate his mind (She's such a snobby hipster but at the same time...have I mentioned she's really hot?). At the end of the story we find that the only solution is an impossible Möbius strip that turns back on itself and almost guarantees Cenac and this woman will never get together as the sitcom-crossed lovers she will never learn they are supposed to be.
By the end of the album, I walked away feeling satisfied. Not only because this is over an hour of smart and well thought-out laughs. Not only because I finally learned how the Tea Party demographic came to be and not because I can't get the whole Rosa-Parks-sitting-in-the-wrong-seat-on-an-airplane quandary out of my head. I felt satisfied simply because I went in looking forward to laugh and Cenac did not disappoint.
But honestly, what else did I expect? This isn't just anyone we're dealing with. This, ladies and gentleman, is Wyatt Cenac. And Wyatt Cenac is a Comedy Person.