Comedian Wyatt Cenac has some ideas for America

Former Daily Show correspondent on solving police violence, going beyond civil disobedience and his new show at Just For Laughs
Ethan Cox

Wyatt Cenac was a highlight of The Daily Show for four years. Since then he has gone on to become an accomplished stand-up comedian, with a Netflix release under his belt and a new special at Just For Laughs. Ricochet sat down with Cenac in Montreal this week to ask him to solve police violence, articulate his vision of dissent and define gentrification. We also asked about his new show at Just For Laughs, his plans for a TV show with specialty channel Pivot and his adventures in speaking French. His answers did not disappoint.

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Ricochet: I saw your set at Andy Kindler's Alternative Show last night, where you made some serious points about police and black people in the United States. We also have issues with our police forces in Canada. There have been a series of police shootings of people of colour here in Montreal in recent years, and just last week two men were shot by police in British Columbia.
I want to start by asking you a serious question. How do we tackle police violence? What can we as a society do, and what can we as individuals do, so that we aren’t always just waiting for the next name, the next Eric Garner or Sandra Bland?

That's tough. I don't know if I have an answer. The one thing I've noticed with all of it is that there is no national oversight of what goes on. It's usually up to the department or the city to make the rules of how this police department chooses to operate, and that police department in St. Louis can operate differently than one in Detroit or one in Arizona. There is a lack of a general sense of "this is how you all need to act, this is how you all need to be."

I think it makes it tough not just for citizens to be aware of what's going on, but I think it probably also makes it tough for the police. What you may be doing in your community may be a thing which has been happening for decades and is just what you consider "good policing," when to the rest of the country or the rest of the world it's outrageous. To me it feels like we need some sort of federal oversight to lay out the rules across the board, saying "this is what you do, this is what you don't do, and this is how we treat our citizens.”

If we can say that we're a country that militarily doesn't torture around the world, and that's what we're going to hold ourselves to as our standard with the rest of the world, then it feels like there are internal standards we can hold ourselves to as well, and accountability that can go beyond just the city and state legislature.

This week Canada’s Minister of Public Safety urged “those who want to express their views to use democratic ways,” warning that those who did not would "face the full force of the law.”
What do you think about the role of dissent, even illegal forms of dissent like civil disobedience and DDoS attacks, in society?

If they're focused and purposed, then they do a lot. They can bring attention to ills in society. They can bring attention to things that need a light shone on them. I think it's our responsibility as individuals, if we are going to shine a light we also have to be able to present solutions. Because I think, as far as civil disobedience goes, it can go very far to spotlight a problem, but it doesn't necessarily offer solutions.

We are best served if we can offer up realistic suggestions of what some of those changes could be, because if we just leave it in the hands of other people, we are trusting them to figure it out.

It's as if a baby is crying, and there's an adult there who is like, "oh, this baby's crying." They don't know why the baby is crying. Maybe it's hungry, maybe it's tired; it could be a hundred different things. But we're not babies. We have the ability to not just draw attention to something, but also to say — whether it's police brutality, whether it's tax reform, whether it's health care, whatever the issue — "Alright, the way that this country treats immigrants is wrong. We think this is a good path to citizenship." Then at least you have a dialogue, and people will say, "Well, I don't know about that."

I think sometimes our civil disobedience is just kind of like one person yelling "Fix it!" And then you're just sort of letting the same person who made the problem fix the problem without actually instructing them how to fix it.

Your latest special on Netflix is called Brooklyn, and it’s something of a tribute to your hometown. In the special, you talk about gentrification, citing the example of an artisanal mayonnaise shop that has opened there. You called it something like the most stereotypical example of gentrification imaginable. How has gentrification affected where you live over the past number of years? What are the changes that you notice?

The thing I've started to notice is you see a lot of new restaurants coming in, a lot of new money coming in. There are definitely places [being renovated.] I hear hammers all day. I don't need an alarm clock anymore because there's always hammering and sawing as brownstones get renovated, and that's definitely the thing that affects me most. Then you also see city resources begin to get pumped into a neighbourhood that wasn't getting as many before. All of a sudden it's like "Oh, there's more stuff that's happening in the park nearby," and there's a lot more mini-concerts and events that are happening, and people care about this park all of a sudden.

You definitely get mayonnaise stores. You find a lot of weird stores that just shouldn't exist. You feel like they should just be Etsy stores, but somehow they have kind of sprouted up. Boutique children's clothing shops and children's toy stores, but not ones that sell any kind of toy you've ever seen or heard of before. There's a lot of that stuff that I see, sprouting up more and more.

I first got to know you on The Daily Show, where you were a correspondent from 2008 to 2012. Now I understand you’re returning to television with a new show for a specialty channel in the U.S. From what I’ve read it will be a topical comedy program, where you’ll make jokes about current events. Will it be in the vein of a John Oliver, or a Jon Stewart, or something different entirely?

That got announced, but I don't know what's happening with it. That's the strange thing about this business. Somebody wants to work with you and they're like "Oh, yeah, we'd like to develop an idea," and you're like "Alright, cool.” Then they announce "Hey, we're developing this idea!" and we don't talk about it.

Since I left The Daily Show I've either sold or developed nine different projects, and to my knowledge none of them have been on the air yet. The network is called Pivot, and we were talking about some things, we were talking about a couple different ideas, but I don't know where any of those are at right now, or if they're happening.

So it'll be a surprise?

It'll be as much a surprise to me as to anyone who watches!

You’re here at the Just For Laughs Festival to showcase your new hour-long show called Furry Dumb Fighter, in which the program says you tackle issues ranging from politics to race relations. Can you tell us a little about the show?

Where Brooklyn was a little more focused on using Brooklyn as a jumping off point to talk about things, whether they were in my life or socially or politically, this is just a bit more my observations for the last year since doing that special. It's a weird time to be living in, and it's a weird time to be living in America as a black man. There's some of that stuff that's reflected in the special, and then there's also some stupid jokes about farting. So it's a fair mix.

I know this is your first time in Montreal, and you told one interviewer that you expected it to be a cross between Toronto and Fort McMurray, the two places you had been to in Canada. How have you found the city?

Montreal has been very nice. I feel a little insecure because I don't know any French, and everybody is nice in that everyone speaks both French and English, but admittedly, I feel so insecure about my lack of French.

I walked into a store to browse — I know enough to say "bonjour" and "au revoir" and "merci" — and I said "bonjour" and this salesperson came up to me and he just ran off like three paragraphs of French and I just freaked out. I was like "American English please," and I felt immediately terrible about it. I just sounded like an obnoxious American. It sounded like a demand, when in fact I just freaked out, and I didn't know how to say, in that moment, "I don't know how to speak your beautiful language! I'm sorry!” I've been trying to figure out how to say in French, "I'm sorry, I'm an American. I'm sorry." Sorry is all I can say.

Wyatt Cenac performs Furry Dumb Fighter as part of the OFF-JFL program at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal tonight through Saturday, July 25. All shows start at 7:30 p.m. and take place at Café Cleopatra. Tickets cost $20.87 to $23.48 and are available online via the festival’s website at hahaha.com. "Brooklyn" is available on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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